German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier defended his country’s top leaders for meeting with left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence, during a speech in support of democracy that he delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Sunday.
“I do believe that anyone who uses his voice, who expresses criticism, but at the same time respects the voice of others, is not a ‘traitor of the people,’ but is in fact a preserver of the people,” Steinmeier said. “For that reason, I believe that civil society organizations that are part of the social debate deserve our respect as democrats, even when they take a critical view of a government – in Germany, but also here in Israel.”
His comments were made in reference to an incident last month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his meeting with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to protest the latter’s meeting with Breaking the Silence representatives. Other German diplomats have also met with the group in the past.
Steinmeier, who frequently visits Israel and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University, opted not to meet with the group during his four-day trip. He will be speaking with other civil-society representatives, however.
“You will all be aware that the German and Israeli governments have taken very different views in recent days on the question of who is a legitimate interlocutor,” Steinmeier said. “I have thought long and hard about what this means for my visit to Israel today. To be frank, quite a lot of people told me this was the wrong time for a trip to Israel. Some thought it would be more appropriate to cancel, or at least postpone the trip.”
Steinmeier traveled to Israel anyway, he said, “not because I find your prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with Germany’s foreign minister correct, but because I believe that it would not be in keeping with my responsibilities if I were to let relations between our two countries move deeper into a cul-de-sac, at the end of which all sides will have lost.”
Germany and Israel are bound together because past generations worked to overcome the terrible wounds created by the Holocaust, Steinmeier said, paying tribute to former president Shimon Peres for his rapprochement efforts.
“Particularly at times like this, we must not allow this friendship, a friendship built on the ruins of the past, to become less important or a matter of indifference to us.
Whatever happens, there must never be silence between Germany and Israel! This is my responsibility as federal president, and that’s also what my heart tells me. That’s why I’m here,” he said.
Democracy is imperiled across the world, he added, including in Germany.
“Do we have to put up with populists reheating nationalistic, racist ideas from fateful times in their speeches? Do we have to get used to the fact that synagogues in our country still need to be guarded? Do we have to accept it when people coming to Germany from the Muslim world import their hostile stereotypes too?” Steinmeier asked.
Germany should not tolerate attacks against journalists, a profession crucial to the survival of democracy, he said, nor should any other country.
“In some Western democracies, including, unfortunately, my country, there are populist forces who claim to be the ‘true’ voice of the ‘true’ people and denounce all others as liars or intruders or traitors.
I firmly believe that anyone who rejects plurality in society, and who denies others their legitimate place, is marginalizing himself,” he continued.
“Democracy means ‘government by the people.’ But ‘the people’ can only be a plural noun. ‘The people’ has many voices; plurality of voices is democracy’s oxygen,” Steinmeier stated.
Earlier in the day, he met with President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu. On Tuesday, he is scheduled to visit technical and medial projects that Germany supports. Before departing on the same day, he is set to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.