Magazine

Guest Columnist: Dolphin therapy

When incitement precedes balanced information about Israel’s policies, when the receiver of such information has ‘issues’ coping with Germany’s history in a healthy way, propaganda meets fertile ground.

Israeli Navy Dolphin-class submarine [file]
Photo by: REUTERS/Handout
Dolphins are a unique species. Their intelligence, their playfulness, their friendly smiles – the mere sight of them warms our hearts.

So much so, in fact, that they have been used to treat medical conditions such as autism and blindness for many years.

No wonder, then, that Dolphins – albeit a different kind, with a different set of skills – now might play a role in treating a socio-political version of autism and blindness. The kind that has been growing in the heart of German-Israel relations and is now in urgent need of treatment.

Only a nominal relative of the real angels of the sea, the Type 800 Dolphin class refers to a German-made submarine, developed for the Israeli Navy, the sixth of which was sold to Israel last March. A deal signed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his German counterpart, Thomas de Maizière, includes German funding for one-third of the costs of the vessels. With de Maizière’s signature, the German government demonstrated that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic commitment to Israel’s security in her 2008 Knesset speech was more than a symbolic gesture.

Beyond this strategic milestone, there has been a growing trend of political warmth and fruitful exchange between the two countries over the past decade. The term “normalization” appears in most official speeches and the term “friendship” is ingrained in the German-Israeli political vocabulary like “change” in US President Barack Obama’s.

So where is the socio-political autism and blindness? While the political relations between Merkel’s and Netanyahu’s governments are positive and strong – enough so to withstand occasional tensions – the problem lies in the German streets.

Autism and blindness describe how this problem is treated by those who have the means to change it – those with political leadership. Many debates, commissions and slogans but little creativity, strategy or action.

Back to the street: According to a recent Stern survey, 59 percent of Germans view Israel as aggressive, 57% believe Israel is leading a war of extinction against the Palestinians and only 21% think Israel respects human rights. The trend is increasingly negative.

Along with these and other shocking figures on the perception of Israel in Germany came a wave of theories by Israeli publicists and bloggers; some say it’s a new form of anti-Semitism while others claim “It’s the settlements, stupid,” as Carlo Strenger titled a recent Haaretz op-ed.

It’s stupid, but it’s not the settlements. Nor is it anti- Semitism alone.

Many Germans criticize Israel’s settlement policy and still are outside these statistics. They base their criticism on factual – if disputable – opinions. They raise the settlements finger while remembering the context in which they emerged. They know settlements are reversible – as Ariel Sharon proved in 2005 – while Palestinian Authority-sponsored incitement of Palestinian children against Israel and Jews isn’t. Last but not least, they do not obsess about criticizing Israel: they are neither blind nor deaf to facts that contradict their views or to world events that take place outside Israel.

Who is? Take, for example, the mayor of Jena, a picturesque university town in eastern Germany; Three days after the Houla massacre, in which 108 civilians, including 30 children, were butchered by the Syrian regime, he threw his public weight behind a boycott- Israel campaign set in scene by the Catholic organization Pax Christi at a local supermarket. The sacred cause: to prevent innocent German citizens from committing a crime against humanity by buying nonlabeled bananas from the West Bank. To be on the morally safe side, they shouldn’t buy from the Jewish state at all. A heroic quest for peace, while the mutilated corpses of Houla were still warm.

Underlying these trends is a cocktail of issues that will require an army of Dolphins to treat. A selective urge for political activism, blown out of proportion by the extremely complex historical context within which Germans relate to Israel and Jews; a mixture of (secondary) guilt-complexes, flawed – if any – historic education; and frustration with the perceived perpetrator stigma, to name a few. Agents of socialization hardly provide adequate impulses to cope with these difficulties.

Many teachers omit Israel-related subjects, afraid to anger Muslim students. Many clumsily teach the Holocaust, afraid to bore their students.

Add to this a lack of objective information about Israel, its policies and people – an information vacuum that has been filled with subtle or blunt incitement by major media outlets and NGOs. This, of course, is not the sole responsibility of the German leadership. A more professional, proactive and fine-tuned information policy by Israel would come in handy.

Sound waves don’t spread in a vacuum as as we learned in intro to physics, but sound bites do – and these are proactively produced and distributed by those who thrive on their resentment of Israel and those providing juicy anti-Israel propaganda, including the well-oiled machinery within the Arab world.

When incitement precedes balanced information about Israel’s policies, when the receiver of such information has “issues” coping with Germany’s history in a healthy way, propaganda meets fertile ground.

Very fertile. Feeling the anti-Israel breeze in his homeland and the calling only a former-SS-memberturned- radical-leftist can feel, Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass recently provided those “resenters” with a seal of legitimacy by publishing a masterpiece of incitement against Israel and German-Israeli relations that shows the deadly cocktail in action.

In his op-ed alias poem, Grass “unmasks” Israel, rather than Iran’s ayatollah regime, as the world’s greatest threat and blames Germany for helping Israel wipe out the Iranian people by providing submarines.

Ergo, he cries out to prevent Israel from becoming the inhumane perpetrator Germany once was. Following an international tsunami of publications debating the poem, the Grass affair is over. The genie it unleashed, however, has just begun its work.

Those who previously made Israel/Third Reich comparisons in silent subtexts, who whispered that Israel exploits Auschwitz, now more than ever feel the duty to save the world from Israel’s “aggressions.”

This new anti-Israel public discourse in Germany ignores geo-political and historic facts. It recycles leftist slogans from the past, flips upside-down the threat constellations in the Middle East and engages in secondary anti-Semitism, applying Holocaust vocabulary and scenarios to Israel’s politics.

Last week’s cover story in Der Spiegel on the German- Israeli submarine deal shows that the Grass genie has borne fruit. The Dolphin’s capacity to carry nuclear warheads was dramaturgically presented as the pantheon of secrecy, although it has been publicly discussed for years. Why risk losing the reputation of serious journalism? Because sensationalism sells.

As does the authors’ pseudo-morality: “Is Germany, the country of perpetrators, allowed to help Israel, the country of victims, in establishing a nuclear weapons force which can be used to extinguish hundreds of thousands of human lives?” The subtext is clear: Israel plans to wipe out the Iranian people and is thus equivalent to the Third Reich. The second message: Israel should give up on its capacity to defend its existence, for the sake of Germany’s moral purity.

How well this version of reality resonates with its readers was proudly displayed in the next edition, in which a selection of letters to the editor included the following statements: “I am ashamed to be governed by people who let themselves be blackmailed by Israel” and “whoever arms submarines with nuclear weapons plans on launching them. This way we come closer to the truth and to Grass.” Proportionate to the above statistics and the magazine’s quest for a quota, nine of the letters published bought into the Grass narrative while three were friendly toward Israel.

So the Dolphins are a wake-up call. An opportunity for the government to back its friendship with Israel with a strategy equipped to reverse the current trend. A trend that endangers not only the future of German- Israel relations, but also Germany’s socio-political makeup.

Beyond the “special responsibility” aspect of the Dolphin deal, which doesn’t interest the man in the street, Germans must understand that the ayatollahs’ ballistic missiles can reach Europe. That Ahmadinejad’s and radical Islam’s intentions toward Israel are intentions toward the West, including Germany. That the friendship with Israel is based on strategic interests, shared values of freedom and democracy, and not on guilt.

German political leaders, in cooperation with their Israeli counterparts and the Jewish communities in Germany, should develop a creative strategy focusing on the education of the young generation in an era in which Facebook suppresses history books, and inaccurate sound bites travel at the speed of light. If educating young people about Germany’s relations with Israel is left to people like Günter Grass or Jena’s mayor, if this vacuum is not filled with competent information about the reality and values behind the building of this bond, Stern had better not publish next year’s survey results – out of courtesy to survivors and the healthy remnants of the street.

The writer is a political communications and strategy consultant in Israel and Germany. She is the winner of Israel’s 2006 The Ambassador competition.


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