This Week in History: The ‘special relationship’ is formed

Twenty years after World War II the Israeli Cabinet approved a German proposal to formalize ties between the two countries.

Twenty years after World War II, 17 years after the State of Israel was founded and 13 years after a violent national saga nearly halted Holocaust reparations, Israel and West Germany formally established diplomatic relations. On March 14, 1965, the Cabinet approved a German proposal to formalize ties between the two countries.
After the Holocaust, and in the first years of the State of Israel, a highly emotional and sometimes violent opposition sprouted against accepting reparations from Germany. The largest and most famous of the incidents took place in a cloud of tear gas in Jerusalem as the Knesset was debating accepting the reparations package.
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In the early 1950s, Israel began negotiations with West Germany on reparations for stolen property, use of slave labor and persecution of the Jewish people. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, aware of the morally ambiguity of accepting money from Germany, nonetheless argued that the money was necessary to build the struggling Jewish state.
Invoking the shunned and shamed memory of the European Jewish ghetto communities, Ben-Gurion said: “There are two approaches. One is the ghetto Jew's approach and the other is of an independent people. I don't want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don't want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build here.”
The opposition, led by then-MK Menachem Begin, held a different view. Begin, vehemently opposed the reparations, which his party held would be equivalent to pardoning Germany for the crimes of the Holocaust. Addressing demonstrators gathered to oppose the German agreement with Israel, he went so far as calling for the overthrow of the democratically elected Knesset.
As Israel’s legislature was discussing the reparations, some 15,000 people broke through road blocks, lines of police and IDF soldiers dispatched to prevent a mutiny, eventually reaching the Knesset. Dozens were arrested and injured and the Knesset was interrupted, but the protesters were eventually dispersed. Begin was barred from participating in the Knesset for several months for inciting the non-democratic violence.
Undeterred by their failure to stop the reparations deal in the Knesset, members of the opposition continued their violent opposition to it. In one of the worst incidents, former members of the Irgun militia sent several package bombs to those involved in negotiating the deal. One of the bombs was sent to German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Although the bomb did not reach Adenauer, it killed one German policeman and injured four others.
The impassioned opposition that was determined to stop a deal they saw as forgiving the murder of 6 million Jews failed to stop the reparations deal from being signed and ratified by both countries.
Israel and Germany were not yet on stable ground, but the two countries were moving forward.
In the late 1950s, ties between Germany and Israel took a different shape. Berlin began sending American tanks and German submarines to the Jewish state. Ties between the countries were upgraded from financial reparations to military armament. Until this day, the Israeli navy fleet of submarines is outfitted by Germany.
In late 1964, however, in the height of the Cold War, the German press exposed Berlin’s armament of Israel. The outing of secret Israeli-German military ties drew outrage and threats from Arab countries, who among other things threatened to recognize Soviet East Germany; the arms program was immediately cut off.
In order to make up for the loss of military ties between the two countries, Chancellor Adenauer decided to defy the Arab threats and offered full diplomatic relations to Israel on March 7, 1965.
One week later, the Israeli cabinet passed a decision to move towards establishing formal ties with the state formerly led by Adolf Hitler. Talks to formalize diplomatic relations progressed quickly. Ambassadors were exchanged between the two countries in May 1965.
As occurred previously with the reparations treaty, however, a coalition of Holocaust survivors and supporters from the opposition vehemently opposed the Jewish state normalizing its relations with Germany. Leading up to the formalized exchange of ambassadors, demonstrations took place in Jerusalem urging the president not to participate in the ceremony where he would have to shake hands with a German official. On the day of the ceremony, a large demonstration took place outside Beit Hanassi, attempting to disrupt and prevent the exchange from taking place.
Since 1965, the relationship between Israel and Germany has seen both good and bad times but remains strong. Germany is Israel’s second most important trade partner and its strongest ally in Europe. Every year, the cabinets of the two countries hold a joint session to symbolize their “special relationship,” as it is often called.
The “special relationship,” rooted in the Holocaust and weighed with emotional baggage was best summarized by leading German Jewish author and journalist Henryk Broder, who once wrote: “Germany wants to escape from the shadow of its past by proving to the world its good will toward the Jews. Israel, for its part, needs a strong partner in Europe that can be relied upon to take its side -- and one that, if needed, is susceptible to a bit of historical blackmail.”