What Really Must Be Said

Lily Gardner Feldman

Senior Fellow

Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman is a Senior Fellow at AICGS. She previously served as the Harry & Helen Gray Senior Fellow at AICGS and directed the Institute’s Society, Culture & Politics Program. She has a PhD in Political Science from MIT.

From 1978 until 1991, Dr. Gardner Feldman was a professor of political science (tenured) at Tufts University in Boston. She was also a Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies, where she chaired the German Study Group and edited German Politics and Society; and a Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs, where she chaired the Seminar on the European Community and undertook research in the University Consortium for Research on North America. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Gardner Feldman was the first Research Director of AICGS and its Co-director in 1995. From 1995 until 1999, she was a Senior Scholar in Residence at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. She returned to Johns Hopkins University in 1999.

Dr. Gardner Feldman has published widely in the U.S. and Europe on German foreign policy, German-Jewish relations, international reconciliation, non-state entities as foreign policy players, and the EU as an international actor. Her latest publications are: Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, 2014; “Die Bedeutung zivilgesellschaftlicher und staatlicher Institutionen: Zur Vielfalt und Komplexität von Versöhnung,” in Corine Defrance and Ulrich Pfeil, eds., Verständigung und Versöhnung, 2016; and “The Limits and Opportunities of Reconciliation with West Germany During the Cold War: A Comparative Analysis of France, Israel, Poland and Czechoslovakia” in Hideki Kan, ed., The Transformation of the Cold War and the History Problem, 2017 (in Japanese). Her work on Germany’s foreign policy of reconciliation has led to lecture tours in Japan and South Korea.

The furor over Günter Grass’s most recent “poem” has begun to dissipate in both Germany and Israel, with debate moving away from what Grass said and toward the appropriateness of the official Israeli reaction (declaring him persona non grata) and to the representativeness of Grass’ views (is the poem the tip of an iceberg?).  Before the discussion disappears completely, as it surely will (judging by past “crises” between Germany and Israel, and past debates over Grass), we can highlight four lessons that relate to a larger context: the depth, complexity, and fundamental stability of German-Israeli relations.

Lesson 1:  Grass Is Neither The First Nor Alone Among Germans Criticizing Israel

Despite frequent journalistic references to Grass’ taboo-breaking in his aggressive criticism of Israeli policy, such harsh, one-sided criticism of Israel and Jews by German public figures is not new.  Recall the 2002 remark of Jürgen Möllemann, then-vice chairman of the FDP, endorsing Palestinian violence against Israelis in Israel (not only against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza). Or, the earlier controversy between Grass’ fellow writer Martin Walser and German Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis after Walser’s 1998 characterization of the Holocaust as a “moral cudgel” (Moralkeule) used against the Germans. Even in the very origins of German-Israeli relations, prominent Germans, while not openly criticizing Israel,  implicitly took  issue with Israel’s perception of vulnerability, and downgraded Israel’s need for reparations to absorb immigrants—those few who had survived the Holocaust.  For example, Germany’s finance minister, Fritz Schäffer, opposed compensation to Israel and world Jewry during the reparations negotiations of the early 1950s out of concern for German economic interests and Arab objections.

A significant aspect of these “neuralgic points” regarding history, including Grass’ words, is the reality that for every denunciation of Israel, there has been an outpouring of support by public figures from many segments of German society and across the German political spectrum.

More measured, balanced, and constructive criticism of Israel’s policies concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—for example, criticism of the Jewish state’s settlement policy—has been advanced by the German government itself at least since 1973. The Israeli government accepts Germany’s right to voice such official criticism, even when it does not agree, and receives it as the opinion of a friend (second only to the U.S.).

Lesson 2:  German Leaders Steadfastly Promote A Special Relationship With Israel

What may be new is the prominence of Grass, the internationally-acclaimed Nobel laureate. However, Grass is not the first German to vilify Israel as a threat to regional and global peace. In a 2003 EU poll, 65 percent of Germans thought Israel was the greatest threat to world peace, ahead of Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. Those views, however, do not change the German government’s support of Israel, as Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear in her 2008 speech to the Knesset.

Separating herself from the possible rhetoric of the occasion, Merkel asked what it meant to have a “unique relationship” in concrete policy expressions, and how Germans should react to the reality “that a clear majority of European respondents say that Israel is a bigger threat to the world than Iran.” She continued her questioning: “Do we politicians in Europe fearfully bow to public opinion and flinch from imposing further stricter sanctions on Iran to persuade it to halt its nuclear programs?” Her answer was clear and indirectly acknowledged the frequent distinction between German leaders and public opinion: “No, however unpopular we make ourselves, that is precisely what we cannot afford to do.”

To keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, Merkel argued that “[t]houghts must become words, and words deeds.” The German government vigorously condemned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s questioning of the fact of the Holocaust and the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Merkel called on German industry to limit its business with Iran, and endorsed the EU’s new, stiffer sanctions in January 2012, but Germany was not prepared to go as far as Israel wanted: to  sever its trade relationship with Iran.  Israel, consequently, has not been satisfied and has criticized Germany for putting its considerable economic engagement in Iran ahead of Israeli interests. Were there to be any lasting socio-political outcome of Grass’ poem, it might be in the sharpened question of how Germany balances its national (economic) interests with Israel’s security needs, but that question  has been an issue framing German-Israeli ties from their beginning.

Like all previous German governments, Merkel’s is committed to Israel’s right to exist. The provision of a sixth submarine to Israel, the proximate cause of Grass’ poem, is the latest concrete demonstration of that commitment. The military relationship, dating from the mid-1950s, has been consistent, skating around German prohibitions since the mid-1960s against exporting weapons to “areas of tension” (Spannungsgebiete).  It also has involved well-developed joint training and exchange of military officers; and extensive intelligence relations (it has been the German intelligence agency that has negotiated, at Israel’s behest, with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran over captured Israeli soldiers).

The substantial and significant military and intelligence relationships are matched by vibrant ties in other policy areas, for example in science and technology, the environment, and economics. Policy preference goes beyond the bilateral relationship. Germany adheres to the EU’s policy advocating a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it also acts as a brake on EU policy (arguing against economic sanctions against Israel), and champions Israel’s inclusion in EU economic and technical programs.

Lesson 3:  German Public Opinion Has Always Been Ambivalent Toward Israel

If Grass were broadly representative of German private views about Israel, as Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times (April 13, 2012) seems to think, it would be important to note that German public opinion has been more ambivalent about Israel for the last six decades than Grass seems to be, although neither Germans collectively nor Grass on his own support Israel the way German leaders do.  In a comparison of countries with which Germany should seek “the closest possible cooperation,” in March 1953 Israel stood in eighth place with only 15% (just before Poland with 11%). When German-Israeli relations faced challenges in the mid-1960s, public opinion did not come to Israel’s support with a majority on either the provision of weapons (64% against, 11% for, 25% undecided) nor the establishment of diplomatic relations (46% for, 20% against, 34% undecided).

A decade later, surveys on attitudes toward Israel registered more sympathy than in the Adenauer period. In 1972, 25% of respondents chose Israel as the country with which Germany should have the closest possible cooperation, an increase of 8% over 1963 (but behind Poland). Sympathy within the German public for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict dropped, first only slightly, from 50% at the end of 1974 to 44% in 1978, but then dramatically, to only 21% in 1981, tapering off at 20% and 19% in 1982 and 1983, respectively.

Israel continued to receive negative responses from the German public in the 1990s as well. Fewer Germans (39%) sympathized with Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1991 than in 1987 (40%), although only 16% supported the Arab side. The “do not know” category had risen by 1991 to 46%, when only 36% of respondents felt Germany had a “special responsibility” for Israel and 50% disagreed.

During the Schröder government, Israel was still seen negatively by the German public, tying the Czech Republic in fifteenth place (out of nineteen) in the July 2001 cooperation poll, and second to last in the sympathy poll (the same standing as China). By March 2001, on the Middle East conflict Israel had dropped a dramatic twenty-five points from a decade earlier (the “neither/nor” category represented the chief gainer at 53%) when it recorded only 14% support.

In Merkel’s first government (2005-2009), specific questions about Israel continued to yield the negative responses of previous periods.  A majority of respondents considered relations with Israel “good,” with only 6% indicating they were very good and 2% registering “very bad”; a full 22% could give no answer. A minority of Germans (35%) agreed that Germany “has a special responsibility for the fate of Israel,” whereas half of all respondents disagreed. Yet, 65% of respondents still characterized the relationship in general as “special,” with only 18% calling it a “normal” relationship.[i]  This history of public opinion thus suggests that Grass’ prominent and vocal expression is little more than an exaggerated reflection of a significant portion of German society.  What it is not, has never been, and is not likely soon to be, is a reflection of German policy or the views of German social and political leaders.

Lesson 4:  German Societal Organizations, Like German Governments, Promote Special Relations With Israel

For the most part, German chancellors have diverged with public opinion over Israel. So have German societal organizations. The non-governmental organization, Peace with Israel (Friede mit Israel), was one of the catalysts for Adenauer’s 1951 decision to offer reparations negotiations with Israel. The Societies for Christian-Jewish Cooperation (Gesellschaften für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit) were early advocates of support for Israel.  From its inception, Action Reconciliation/Peace (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste) gave priority to Israel , and began its volunteer work there in 1961 after the Eichmann trial. Like these early organizations, more recent actors such as the Fritz Bauer Institute (Fritz Bauer Institut);  Against Forgetting/For Democracy (Gegen Vergessen/für Demokratie); and Learning from History (Lernen aus der Geschichte) are committed to developing a German “culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur), in which the past is a focus of engagement and understanding.

These “history” organizations are joined in their solidarity with Israel by countless other societal actors: the German Federation of Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund); more than 10,000 young Germans who every year participate in youth exchange, volunteer work, and school partnerships; the German-Israeli Society (Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft); the more than one hundred German cities and municipalities involved in twinning with cities and municipalities in Israel; the German-Israeli Chamber of Commerce (Deutsch-Israelische Industrie- und Handelskammer); the many thousands of German scholars, scientists, artists, writers, and musicians who travel regularly to Israel for collaborative work. The list is boundless.


Criticism of Israel has been built into the fabric of German-Israeli relations since the early 1950s, but it is but one thread in a much larger tapestry of consistent vibrancy, strength, and stability.  Rather than the ramblings of an old, perhaps anti-Semitic writer, what must be understood is the abiding, official view, rhetorically and in practice, of successive German governments and of private social institutions.  The quotidian miracle of a German-Israeli friendship built over the abyss of the past, just seventy years after the Holocaust, may be too easily forgotten in the attention a Günter Grass may attract.


Lily Gardner Feldman, Director of the AGI Program on Society, Culture and Politics, is the author of Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in September 2012.


[i] Public opinion data are from the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, the only polling organization to survey opinions on Israel consistently since the early 1950s.

Further reading from AGI affiliates on the Günter Grass “poem” debate?

“The Odious Musings of Günter Grass,” The New Republic, by former AGI Fellow Jeffrey Herf

“The Mendacity of Günter Grass,” Wall Street Journal, by AGI Trustee Dr. Josef Joffe

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.