An Israeli president in the Bundestag: Still moving after all these years - analysis

Even though an Israeli president addressing the German parliament is no longer novel, it remains symbolic and significant and moving.

 German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his wife Elke Buedenbender, Israel's President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal Herzog visit the memorial site of the former WWII concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Lohheide, Germany, September 6, 2022. (photo credit: FABIAN BIMMER / REUTERS)
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his wife Elke Buedenbender, Israel's President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal Herzog visit the memorial site of the former WWII concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Lohheide, Germany, September 6, 2022.
(photo credit: FABIAN BIMMER / REUTERS)

Ezer Weizman did it in 1996. Moshe Katzav in 2005. Shimon Peres in 2010. Reuven Rivlin in 2020, and now Isaac Herzog in 2022.

All of them, while serving as Israel’s president, addressed the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in Hebrew.

Even though an Israeli president addressing the German parliament is no longer novel, it remains symbolic and significant and moving. Hitler aimed to destroy the Jews, and here is the representative of the independent Jewish state speaking in the revived language of the Jews in the German parliament.

When Weizman addressed the Bundestag in 1996, it was – because it was the first – major news in Israel. Herzog’s speech on Tuesday merited the lead mention on several of the hourly radio news bulletins. But in the expanded news programs throughout the day, it followed reports of murder in the Arab sector, the rape of a daughter by her father and mother in Haifa and the regular pre-election political fare.

The significance of the Hebrew language

 German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Israel's President Isaac Herzog lay a wreath at the memorial site of the former WWII concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Lohheide, Germany, September 6, 2022.  (credit: FABIAN BIMMER / REUTERS) German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Israel's President Isaac Herzog lay a wreath at the memorial site of the former WWII concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Lohheide, Germany, September 6, 2022. (credit: FABIAN BIMMER / REUTERS)

The Israeli president addressing the German parliament in Hebrew – a parliament Hitler addressed – 77 years after the Nazis tried to destroy the Jewish people is no longer considered that big a deal, a victim of the “been there, done that” way of thinking that holds if something is not novel, if it has been repeated, it is not that significant.

Yet it is. Put in historical perspective, an Israeli president standing in the parliament in Berlin and addressing Germany is nothing short of remarkable – no matter how many times it has been done in the past.

“It is not easy for me to travel around this country and hear the memories and voices crying out to me from the ground. It is not easy for me to stand here and speak with you, my friends in this house.”

Ezer Weizman

“I stand here before you today, but I am not alone,” Herzog said. “I stand here as an emissary. I stand here as the president of the State of Israel, the sovereign and democratic state of the Jewish People, the fulfillment of the prayers of so many generations.

“But above all, I stand here before you carrying a single imperative. One that alongside the Ten Commandments and ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ is perhaps the most sublime, ethical and binding biblical injunction for all Jews: Remember. The Jewish People are a remembering people. This is an essential and inseparable part of our identity. And thus, treading on German soil, I cannot help but remember and retrieve the eternal photo album of my people, in which are scattered countless images from this land. Images of peaks. Images of voids.”

Herzog notes the highs and lows

Like the presidents who addressed the German parliament before him, Herzog noted the peaks – the German Jewish luminaries, both religious and secular, who enriched both German and Jewish life; and the valleys – the long chronicle of pogroms and riots and persecution in Germany that culminated in the Holocaust.

Peres took a little black kippah out of his breast pocket at the beginning of his speech in 2010 and recited Kaddish. Both Rivlin a decade later, and Herzog on Tuesday, reached for their breast pockets and took out a kippah at the beginning of their addresses and recited the Yizkor prayer composed for the Six Million Jews killed in the Holocaust, though they both redacted the original prayer a bit to soften the way it referred to the German nation. The term “murderous German nation,” for example, was taken out.

Bundestag speech pattern

Naturally, each presidential speech to the Bundestag follows a certain pattern. First a reflection on the past and the imperative to remember, then a look at the present state of German-Israel ties and current Mideast events, and then culminating in a promise to work together for a better future.

Herzog did not deviate too far from this formula, adding – as did the other presidents – his own personal touch, his own personal history: that he was a ninth-generation descent of Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman, who served as a community rabbi in Germany and who himself was a descendant of the rabbi of Hamburg and its surrounding towns, Rabbi Yehezkel Katzenellenbogen. And he recalled his father, Chaim Herzog, who as the seventh president of Israel was the first Israeli president to visit Germany in 1987. During that visit, the elder Herzog visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where – when he was a British officer – he was among the liberators of the camp 42 years earlier.

Herzog gave a moving speech on Monday, remembering the First Crusades, which gave birth to the Yizkor prayer, and he spoke of the duality of the Jewish experience with Germany: On the one hand, it gave birth to some of the greatest biblical and Talmudic commentators, including Rashi, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and also to numerous “titans of culture intellect and science.” But on the other hand, Germany also gave birth to the greatest atrocities ever inflicted on the Jewish people.

It is instructive to compare Herzog’s speech to the Bundestag, the latest by an Israeli president, to Weizman’s speech, the first one by an Israeli president to that body. Weizman’s speech, written by the author Meir Shalev, is the gold standard – a beautifully written speech that in poetic terms chronicles the Jewish journey from Abraham and Mount Sinai through the pogroms at Mainz, the gas chambers in Treblinka and the reborn State of Israel.

Disregarding the differences in style – it will be difficult for any president to duplicate the soaring words that Shalev wrote for Weizman – three other differences stand out in comparing those two speeches.

The first is that while Weizman said that “this was not an easy visit,” that type of terminology does not exist in Herzog’s address.

“It is not easy for me to travel around this country and hear the memories and voices crying out to me from the ground,” Weizman said. “It is not easy for me to stand here and speak with you, my friends in this house.”

At that time, a visit to Germany by Israeli dignitaries still stirred passionate debate in Israel. When Herzog’s father, Chaim, first visited in 1987, there was fierce debate about the move, with one of his predecessors, Ephraim Katzir, saying it was not yet time for such a visit. Today, these visits do not stir up any controversy at all – proof, among other things, of the strong state of German-Israel relations.

The second difference in the content of the speeches is the time that Weizman spent discussing the Palestinian issue and the time Herzog spent on the same matter. Weizman devoted nearly one-third of his address to the Palestinians and the negotiations and the prospects of peace. This is understandable. He spoke just three years after the signing of the first Oslo Accord and just short of three months after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The peace process was very much on the agenda, both in Israel and around the world.

Herzog gave the subject maybe three short paragraphs in his address, and part of that had to do with Palestinian terrorism. This is a reflection of these times: There is no peace process to speak of, and the issue no longer is a top priority for the Europeans.

And the third glaring difference between the speeches is that Herzog devoted time speaking about the dangers to Israel and the world of a nuclear Iran.

“The international community must stand on the right side of history, set clear conditions, impose fierce and essential sanctions, create an impermeable buffer between Iran and nuclear capabilities – it must act and not back down,” he said. “The State of Israel will defend itself and will fight by all means necessary against threats to it and its citizens. I call on the whole world: Don’t stand idly by.”

The word “Iran” did not appear in Weizman’s address. This reflected Israel’s priorities at the time. Even though by 1996 Iran was in hot pursuit of nuclear capabilities, Weizman’s failure then to even mention the issue demonstrates the degree to which Israel’s leaders at the time – unlike today – were not busy sounding the alarm.