The unofficial ambassador

Dr. Johannes Gerster, former VP of the German-Israeli Society, has become Israel's unofficial ambassador to Germany.

johannes gerster 88 (photo credit: )
johannes gerster 88
(photo credit: )
In the strange and sometimes strained relationship between Germany and Israel that was forged between Konrad Adenauer and David Ben Gurion, the shadow of the Holocaust never disappears. Thus the most enduring impression in the memory of Dr. Johannes Gerster, who spent eight years as representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Israel, and returned to Germany in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday will be of the fact that Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupoliansky was among the hundreds of people who attended Gerster's farewell reception at the King David hotel on Wednesday. Lupoliansky's family comes from Karlsruhe, and many of his relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, Gerster told The Jerusalem Post on the eve of his departure. Yet Lupoliansky, "an ultra orthodox Jew" would come - not for the first time - to pay his respects to "a German Christian who is a member of a nation that destroyed his family. This is a special honor for me. It's a miracle and it contributes to the good relations between Germany and Israel." Unlike many Germans whose acts of goodwill towards Israel are by way of atonement for the sins of their parents and grandparents, Gerster, 65, has had a pro-Israel attitude for as long as he can remember. A former parliamentarian, he was chairman of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Group, and for sixteen years prior to taking up his post in Israel, he was vice president of the German-Israeli Society. In Israel he became vice-president of the Israeli-German Society. Working until almost the last minute before his departure, Gerster escorted Dr. Bernhard Vogel, the chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation on a visit to Yad Vashem. Gerster estimates that he has been to Yad Vashem at least 150 times. "After every visit I'm ill." It is always a painful experience to confront the inhumanity of his own people, even though his own family was different. It is a matter of record that his parents Gottfried and Elisabeth Gerster were members of a group brought together by the Bishop of Mainz to help Jews escape from Germany during the Holocaust years. His father never cared to dwell on the subject said Gerster. "He said it was a normal thing to do, but the more I go to Yad Vashem the prouder I am of my family. They were ordinary working class people, not academics, but because of them I have been involved in German-Israel friendship organizations for 45 years. The history of Israel and Germany and the shoa is always uppermost in my mind." As a German, Gerster feels a special responsibility for Israel's well-being. I don't feel guilty, but I feel responsible. It's like wearing a second skin." Although he helped to arrange it, Gerster will miss out on the state visit on Sunday of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not only the chief political leader of his country but also of his party. Prior to joining the Foundation, Gerster who has been a member of the Christian Democrat Union since 1960, spent twenty years as a Member of Parliament. His most recent position was as chairman of the CDU National Faction of Rhineland-Palatinate. Before that he was deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Faction. He has been a member of the CDU executive committee since 1996, in which capacity he was in contact with the Minister of State in the Chancellor's office to assist in the preparations for Sunday's visit. A lawyer by profession, Gerster will return to his practice in Wiesbaden, but he won't have very much time to attend to cases. An unofficial ambassador for Israel, he has more than 60 speaking engagements lined up throughout the length and breadth of Germany from January 26 until the end of June. Gerster believes that one of the most effective means of combating anti-Semitism is to present a true picture of Israel from the perspective of a German who has spent a long time living in the country. Aside from that he has been asked by The Jerusalem Foundation and Tel Aviv University to represent them in Germany in a voluntary capacity, and this is something that he is pleased to do. He is also confident that he can help to advance the joint Israel-Palestine projects of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Although he will not make a formal return to politics, he will act as an advisor to Merkel. Looking back on his period of service in Israel, Gerster said that what amazed him most was the readiness with which Israelis accepted him. It was something he had not expected. Although he had come with the best of intentions, he had not anticipated reciprocity. To his surprise he was suffused by Israeli hospitality. As for KAF achievements, he's particularly proud that the Konrad Adenauer conference center was constructed and completed on his watch, and that it has become an integral part of Jerusalem's cultural scene as well as a venue for national and international events. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation is involved in many spheres of Israeli endeavor. One of Gerster's favorite projects carried out in conjunction with the Education Ministry, Ben Gurion University, the IDF and Bank Leumi is an integration program for Beduins and youngsters from Negev development towns who need to improve their competence in Hebrew, English and Mathematics in order to be at a level at which they can hope to go on to higher education. The program for pupils in grades 10-12 operates in 29 schools throughout the Negev. In addition the students come to the university every Friday to gain a fundamental knowledge of humanities and sciences. This gives them a sense of familiarity with the campus and whets their intellectual appetites. In 1999 said Gerster, there were only 53 Beduin students at BGU. Today there are around 600. Another project in which Gerster takes pride is the development in conjunction with the Justice Ministry of a draft of a Civil Law codex that will simplify the process of civil law which is currently based on Ottoman, British and Israeli law. The new civil law codex, if adopted by the Knesset, will be more compact, less complicated, much easier to understand and more transparent, said Gerster. KAF works with all of Israel's universities. Together with Tel Aviv University, KAF produced a data bank with what Gerster believes is the most comprehensive information about Arabs in Israel. This data bank was utilized by the Orr commission in exploring the reason for Arab riots, and by the media in its quest for justice for the Arab population. KAF is also at the root of a free trade zone between Jordan, Israel and the US. Jordan was losing out in sending exports to the US explained Gerster, because shipping took 37 days compared to 19 days from Haifa. KAF organized annual conferences between Israeli and Jordanian business people and set up two huge tents along both sides of the border. Contacts established not only enabled Jordanian companies to send their exports to the US via Israel, but also resulted in a number of joint ventures. The volume of trade grew from $29 million in 1999, said Gerster, to more than $1 billion in 2004 and continued to grow in 2005. Israel earns 8 per cent gross on the export costs, he added. The advancement of the status of women is another area within KAF's purview. KAF works closely with the Israel Women's Network, and organizes seminars and leadership courses for mixed groups of Jewish and Arab women to give them tools to ease their way into influential positions in the public and private sectors as well as the political arena. On average said Gerster, KAF organizes some 250 conferences, seminars and workshops per year with different partners having different needs. Sometimes KAF succeeds where all else has failed. Gerster cited as an example the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue during the height of the intifada. "The groups were unofficial," he said, 'but there were official representatives from both governments." The economic working group was the best he said, meeting as often as eight times a year. KAF is one of several German Foundations operating on a regular basis in Israel. Far from resenting what could be perceived as interference in Israeli affairs, Israeli government bodies and NGOs turn to these foundations for assistance. KAF gets more than 200 such requests a year, and all the foundations between them would handle in the range of a thousand requests. "We're not imposing ourselves," said Gerster, "we're only facilitators." But there is great satisfaction in what KAF does. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Gerster's comment was: "It's better to talk to each other than shoot each other." Aside from KAF, the other prominent foundations are the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, the Hans Seidel Foundation and the Friedrich Neumann Foundation. Some of their work overlaps but in general, they have separate programs. Representatives of all the foundations come together four times a year with the German ambassador to review their activities and to share common problems. Gerster left Israel with the strong conviction that regardless of how difficult conditions may be, "this country will have a stable future. I'm more optimistic than 80 per cent of Israelis." Given Gerster's long and close ties with Israel, it is not really goodbye, but simply auf Wiedersehen. "I will have so much to do with Israel, that I will come several times a year to Jerusalem," Gerster promised.