merkel wreath yad vashem.
(photo credit: AP)
Shortly before his death nine years ago, the veteran National Religious Party politician Yosef Burg wrote a brief essay recalling the bitter debate in 1952 over whether Israel should negotiate with Germany over reparations for the Holocaust.
Burg had more reason than most of his fellow Knesset members at the time to feel deeply ambivalent about the matter. A native of Dresden, he had experienced first hand the anti-Semitic persecution of the Nazi regime, leaving his homeland only in 1939.
Burg struggled with the decision on reparations: "No one wanted to have anything to do with Germany, an outcast among the family of nations. Was the offer to pay reparations not an attempt on its part to pay for its sins with blood money?... On the other hand there were practical considerations. We had to absorb over one million immigrants, and we could not do this with Jewish donations alone. I stood there wondering what my late father, who had died in 1937, would have done; what would my mother have said? I felt they would want us to stay alive - no soul can live if the body is dead. Therefore, for the sake of consolation and revenge - that we do exist despite the Holocaust - I decided to vote for the negotiations."
As the Knesset debated the issue, then-Herut leader Menachem Begin led his followers in a march on the building that climaxed with demonstrators hurling stones through its windows, some of which injured the MKs inside.
"Most of the Knesset members left the hall," recalled Burg. "[David] Ben-Gurion remained with me sitting beside him. He told me: 'If I leave it will be the end of the Israeli parliament. I must not move.'
"I would be lying if I said I was not afraid, but I did not want to get up while Ben-Gurion remained sitting. Deep in my heart I knew he was right."
It requires recalling that event - as well as the protests that also greeted the renewal of diplomatic ties with Germany in 1965 - to fully appreciate the historical importance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Tuesday address in the Knesset. True, her's will not be the first address in German from the speakers' podium; two former German presidents have preceded her there during the past eight years.
But Merkel, who as chancellor is not the official head of state, will be the first such foreign politician to speak to a full plenary session of the Knesset. That this honor is being given to a direct political successor of Adolf Hitler is a startling turn of events from a time when even a discussion of German reparations could spark an attack on the Knesset (the only protest expected tomorrow is a walkout by one or two MKs).
What is also startling, from that perspective, is the overall deepening of ties between Germany and Israel that Merkel is initiating during her visit here. Yesterday a meeting was held between cabinet members from both governments, intended as the first of such events held annually, and several joint development and aid projects have been announced in the past two days.
Most remarkable, given the history that many of those alive today can still personally recall, has been the increasing cooperation between the Israeli and German security establishments.
Most of the media attention has until now focused on the sharing of material between the nations' intelligence services, German military exports to Israel such as the Dolphin submarine, and the role the German navy is now playing off the coast of Lebanon since the summer of 2006.
Even more impressive - or perhaps disturbing, from a strictly historical perspective - is Germany's expanded role in the upgrading of the Palestinian Authority security forces, including the international conference on the subject that Merkel hopes to convene in Berlin later this year.
When reports circulated in the early 1960s that German rocket scientists were helping to develop Egypt's missile program, they seemed to confirm the very worst fears of an unrepentant Nazi legacy that would stretch well beyond the collapse of the Third Reich.
That today Jerusalem would entrust - even in part - the arming and training of Palestinian forces to German hands is a twist that even thriller writers would have had difficulty conceiving a few decades ago.
But if the shadow of the Holocaust has receded sufficiently in recent years to allow such a flowering of ties between Germany and Israel, there are still murky areas in the relationship that can hardly be overlooked even in this celebratory week.
The most serious is Germany's role in the international effort to economically and diplomatically isolate Iran over its nuclear development program.
While Germany has reduced its trade with Teheran over the past two years in reaction to the call for sanctions from Washington, it still remains its largest trading partner. Some 5,000 German companies are doing business in Iran, and the country's industrial sector remains heavily reliant on German engineering products from such firms as Siemens, which used Jewish slave labor during the Holocaust that the Iranian government is now so fervent about denying.
Merkel, according to some sources, is personally in favor of increasing German economic sanctions against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, yet is reluctant to more directly confront a local business sector that still regards Iran only as an economic opportunity and not as the advocate of the very kind of genocidal policies that Germany has tried so hard to atone for in the past six decades.
On Tuesday, speaking from the parliamentary podium of the nation whose very existence is a repudiation of Hitler's legacy, Merkel has the chance to firmly address the Iran issue in a way that is justified and necessary not only for her immediate Jewish audience, but the ears of her own countrymen.
In a Knesset where Germany was once seen only as an "outcast among the family of nations," its leader has a chance - and bears the responsibility - of making clear that her nation can have no truck with an Iranian regime that openly aspires to continue with the most vicious policies of its darkest past.