Envoy to a Jewish graveyard

Israeli Ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein compares the ambitions of the 'new Germany' with the old.

By EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON
September 20, 2006 20:49
Envoy to a Jewish graveyard

shimon stein 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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In Israel for a brief vacation at home, Israel's ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, is observing events closely and granted an extensive, exclusive interview to The Jerusalem Post. A career diplomat, Stein, 58, is adept at being simultaneously careful and outspoken. With graduate degrees in history and political science, he articulates, carefully and bluntly, the intricacies and the bottom lines of Israel's and Germany's complex relationships. Anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise in Europe in general and in Germany in particular, despite descriptions of "the new Germany." Is he concerned? He answers decisively, "In the past few years, we have seen a worrisome phenomenon of anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism/anti-Zionism - call it what you like. "In the past, it was restricted to the periphery and now it is moving back to the center. The German leadership is aware of this, and is not neglecting it at all. They recognize this as a problem of German civil society, and that there is no limit to the educational efforts they must invest to prevent anti-Semitism from growing. "From a historical perspective, it will be very difficult to completely uproot German anti-Semitism. But it can be kept in check. Germans have done more to combat anti-Semitism than other countries, such as Austria, for example." Yet in media interviews, Stein has expressed concern regarding Germany's ability to withstand an economic crisis - a crisis which seems to be impending. "Yes, there are disturbing signs. Against the background of the decline of the modern welfare state, Germans are looking for a new model, because they have come to see that the state cannot bear responsibility for its citizens in the way it did until the end of the '90s. For the first time, Germans must come to realize that the father state, or the mother state, cannot provide for all their needs and that Germans must accept individual responsibility; this is something that they have not had to do before. "The German economy is adaptable, but, like the rest of Europe and most of the world, it has yet to find the right economic recipe. It will not be an American recipe; it will be an economy with a human face. But this is a time of transition, and in a time of transition and economic instability there is always the danger of populism. "Some Germans will search for a scapegoat - the Turkish immigrants, for example, or the Jews. But I always emphasize, and the German government is aware, that anti-Semitism is their illness, it is an illness in their society." In the past few years, Germans have increasingly emphasized their own victimization at the hands of the Nazis, viewing themselves as victims rather than perpetrators. Is this a growing trend? "This is not a new phenomenon," he says. "Once you leave Berlin - and Berlin is not all of Germany any more than Washington DC is all of the United States - the entire country is strewn with monuments to the brave German soldiers who died and the German public who suffered so severely. On the local level, this is not a new phenomenon. True, it is being expressed at a national level now more than before. "But we must also recognize that the Germans did suffer. The danger here is that emphasis on German suffering would bring about a kind of relativism, in which they would not be able to see that they not only suffered, but that they caused greater suffering. I believe that Germany has come of age, to a point where it can take care of its own pain without relinquishing responsibility for the pain and suffering it caused others." In fact, he says drolly, sometimes the Germans have gone to other extremes and taken responsibility for others' activities and problems. Stein has been an outspoken critic of some of the Palestinian-Israeli peace projects supported by German non-governmental organizations. "German organizations receive government moneys to promote Israeli society and to bring Germans and Israelis closer. But increasingly, they are taking upon themselves the role of bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer. They want to be part of the great world show, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is definitely a main attraction. They see themselves as facilitators. It's bon ton, part of what was once referred to as 'track II diplomacy,' and it's also patronizing. I think that it is a mark of shame for the Palestinians and the Israelis that we need someone else to bring us together." With such a horrible history and such a complex past, can Israel and Germany ever have a "normal" relationship? What would that mean? He answers, "Germany and Israel will always have a unique relationship. But I don't think that that relationship is special. As time goes by, we will have to find a new rationale for this relationship. The Holocaust will be the backbone of the relationship, but it will not be enough to sustain the relationship in the future. The relationship will have to be built on mutual interests, on strategic partnership in the framework of the EU. "We have had 40 years of diplomatic relations. But where will we be 40 years from now? Germany is part of the EU, and that creates tension for the Israeli-German relationship. That is true. But who says that the Israeli position is static? In planning our future, in the decisions Israel makes, we must take into account that we have to create bilateral, and not unilateral, relationships." He says that it is "absurd to drag the Holocaust into every event." Several years ago, when minister Dan Naveh insisted that a postage stamp commemorating the 40 years of German-Israeli diplomacy make "significant references" to the Holocaust, Stein wrote a scathingly critical letter to the Foreign Ministry. "I am not less aware of the Holocaust than anyone else," he says passionately, "but if we drag the Holocaust into every issue, we are actually creating a banalization of the Holocaust. Mentioning the Holocaust is not the yardstick of whether we, or the Germans, do or do not remember." The Holocaust is always there, whether officially noted or not, as in the recent announcement by Nobel Laureate G nter Grass that he, too, had a Nazi past. Stein does not seem particularly perturbed. "Yes, of course his confession, much too late in his life, that he had enlisted in the Nazi forces damages his image as the man who always called on Germans to accept responsibility for their actions and their history. But we must divide this issue into two parts: the man and his work, and the man who preached to others. "As a preacher, he has failed. As an author, there have always been those who preferred the other German authors, such as Heinrich B ll, who have always been more modest, less pretentious and even more talented. But I don't think there are any collective statements to be made here. Not about Germany and not about how we, Israelis and Jews, view the issue." Despite his name, Stein says that his family, at least as far back as they have been able to trace, did not come from Germany. This is his second tour of service in Germany. He has even appeared on a popular television cooking show. Is he enjoying his work? He smiles. "That show got a lot of attention. In recognition of the 40 years of diplomatic relations, we tried to present Israel in non-political, non-conflict ways. So I agreed to appear on a very popular television show. "It's not something I'll do often - unfortunately, I appear on television and radio more than I would like to. But a popular TV host and commentator and I appeared together, wearing aprons imprinted with '40 years,' and we cooked. It was quite good, actually." What did he make? "Something from the Middle East. A special dish with feta cheese and red peppers that I had prepared in a certain way, with a very interesting sauce. It was my son who thought it up - he's the one who cooks in our house. The moderator made pasta and we drank Israeli wine. "I enjoy being in Germany, although it is always a mixed experience. I can never forget where I come from and where I will be going back to. Germany has always had tremendous destructive potential and tremendous constructive potential. "It is crucial to see them both. For a student of history and culture, as I am, there are few countries that provide the wonderful historical and cultural experience that Germany can provide. But Germany is filled with reminders, with monuments. The Holocaust is never far from you, and so Germany is never merely a place of fun or enjoyment. It is also, always, a graveyard for my people."

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