Israel and Germany celebrated a half-century of diplomatic comity with a reception in Philadelphia.
Change, stigma and new perspectives were the order of the day during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on June 24 in the Center City offices of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.
In the firm’s 28th-floor conference room overlooking Broad Street, five speakers of American, Jewish and German backgrounds gathered to discuss the importance of the anniversary and what the future holds for the collaborative relationship between the two countries.
“The fact that Germany and Israel have such a vibrant and robust relationship today [shows] hope and positivity so badly needed,” said Morton J. Simon, chairman of Jewish advocacy organization American Jewish Committee, in his opening remarks for the event.
Today, German-Israeli relations “can be used as a model around the world,” Marcia Bronstein, AJC regional director, said, citing the positive efforts and progress made through the collaboration between the countries despite a tense past.
Bronstein noted that 2015 marks many important anniversaries and milestones, including 70 years after the end of World War II. It is also the 35th anniversary of the AJC collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German political foundation, she said. Together, the two organizations started the first program to encourage German-American-Jewish relations through an annual exchange program.
Bronstein was also joined by two members of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace — communications director Katharina von Münster and U.S. program director Mark McGuigan; Deputy Consul General to the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia Elad Strohmayer; and political scientist Hadas Cohen.
The panelists introduced themselves with a story about their own perspective on Israeli-German relations and the progress it has made, and later answered questions from the audience about youth views on politics today and what’s next.
Strohmayer recounted the story of his upbringing and the views about Germany — a topic that was mostly avoided in his house — he was raised on that were challenged when he met two German students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
After he talked to them openly about their views on Israel, which were more positive and curiosity-filled than he expected, he saw Germany in “a new way.”
“We come with stigmas and with perspectives. We should always ask, who is in front of me, and where did they come from,” Strohmayer said.
Von Münster talked about her life growing up in East Berlin, which did not recognize Israel, and how in school they were not taught about the Holocaust and “certainly not about the 6 million Jews.”
Her work with ARSP aims to change that. The Berlin-based nonprofit organization — which has an office in Philadelphia — sends youth volunteers for a year of service in countries particularly affected by the Holocaust. They visit survivors and work in shelters among other projects.
“You need partners on both sides,” she said. “That’s part of the miracle of this relationship.”
Cohen has been living in Berlin for the past six months. The Haifa native has been tracking the recent wave of Israeli immigration to the city. She had visited Berlin a few years ago on a trip from Germany Close Up, which is administered by ARSP to “show the other side” of the country, and won an essay contest in 2009 writing about her experience.
Since then, she has started doing ethnographic and sociological research in Berlin, interviewing Israelis who have moved there to find out why they would choose to move to the German capital.
These roughly 15,000 immigrants have created a “cultural revival” of Berlin, she said, and are making themselves stand out with one particular characteristic.
“They’re creating a Hebrew-speaking diaspora in Berlin. They’re defining themselves by speaking Hebrew,” she said before the panel began, adding that what the city has become as far as a home for Israelis is “mind-blowing.”
The panelists mentioned that the conversation about the Holocaust when it comes to the bridging the two countries cannot and has not been ignored, but the conversation is changing.
“Berlin is a living, breathing museum of the Holocaust,” Cohen said. She described mushrooming popularity and ubiquity of the Stolpersteine — “Stumbling Stones — commemorative brass bricks placed into sidewalks around the city with the names of Holocaust victims who were displaced from their homes. There are five just in front of where she lives.
But there is a shared trauma between Germans and Israelis, she said, which makes a difference. Acknowledging the Holocaust and the discourse around it is part of what has made progress possible.
Strohmayer mentioned the element of guilt and how moving beyond it and not ignoring it can lead to the possibility for a stronger relationship.
“We can’t change the past,” von Münster said, “but today we can try to establish new bridges, work on the present and future and create a new present and future.”