Germany, Israel mark 50 years of friendship

They were pouring German beer and Israeli wine at the San Francisco celebration marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between the closest of unlikely allies, Israel and Germany.

The festivities took place May 12 at the Goethe Institute, a San Francisco center that promotes German language and culture. The reception drew more than 100 well-wishers, among them diplomats from the consulates of Holland, Singapore, Italy and Spain.

Two San Francisco–based consuls general — Stefan Schlüter from Germany and Andy David from Israel —hosted the event, which was co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.


Diplomats Andy David of Israel (left) and Stefan Schlüter of Germany in San Francisco on May 12 photo/dan pine

Schlüter called the alliance between the two countries a “miracle.”


“Today, 50 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel — [which came about] a mere 20 years after the Holocaust — even in hindsight [it] seems almost unimaginable,” he said.

Added David: “Both countries have a very special relationship, based on shared values and beliefs. It allows both countries to work together on many levels.”

The 50th anniversary was not only marked in the Bay Area. Celebrations were held in German and Israeli consulates and embassies worldwide. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin made a state visit to Germany this week, during which Israeli flags flew atop the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin, and Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild Zeitung, featured a front page in Hebrew.

In San Francisco, the two diplomats addressed the linked history of the German and Jewish people, and how Germany has strived to atone for its genocide through financial reparations to Holocaust survivors and strong ties to Israel.

“Normally, countries have interests and an agenda, ”  Schlüter said. “Why is it different with Israel? To me it has to do with personal involvement. The relationship will always be emotional. There are no normal relations. The unspeakable crimes will never be forgotten. This tragic shared past binds us together.”

That tragic past is well known and understood. But today, Germany and Israel cooperate culturally, economically and militarily (for example, Israel just acquired a new generation of German submarines). The countries also engage in youth exchanges. Holocaust education in German schools is mandatory, and Germany still outlaws Holocaust denial.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2014 photo/jta-getty images-ilia yefimovich

Perhaps more telling, Germany’s Jewish population, decimated during the Holocaust, has rebounded, with up to 200,000 Jews now living in the country.


That doesn’t mean all is rosy. Neo-Nazi groups, though banned, still exist in Germany, and violent anti-Israel protests over last summer’s war between Israel and Gaza rocked Berlin.

David addressed the topic. “Anti-Semitism is against the law [in Germany],” he said. “In the United States it is not, but here civil society goes after you [for anti-Semitic acts]. You will be shamed. [In Europe] the government says the right things but, maybe because of that, civil society does not do enough.”

Schlüter, who lived for a time during his youth on a kibbutz in Israel and early in his career served as the German embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv, had only good things to say about Israel, Israelis and the ties between the two countries.

He also told a story about the early days of the relationship, when former Prime Minister Shimon Peres paid a visit to Bonn (then the capital of West Germany) in search of military assistance at a time when Arab armies threatened the Jewish state with annihilation.

“[Germany] was not allowed to sell arms,” Schlüter recounted of the official German response to Peres’ request. “But nobody will know if we give them as a gift.”

The speeches were followed by a screening of the 2014 documentary “An Apartment in Berlin,” which explores the growth of the expatriate Israeli community in the German capital.

Even with the warm feelings in the room, which typify the bilateral relations between Germany and Israel, David reminded attendees of the sobering past, while he described Germany as Israel’s most reliable friend in Europe today.

“Eighty-one percent of Germans want to leave the Holocaust behind,” he said, citing a recent poll. “Israelis see this as impossible. It’s not that we forget. It’s not that we forgive. But there is a willingness to talk.”


Israel, Germany timeline

1965: West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol establish diplomatic relations. Iraq cuts ties with West Germany over its recognition of Israel.

1970: Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban becomes the first Israeli diplomat to visit West Germany. He travels to the former Dachau concentration camp. German law enforcement thwarts an Arab plot to assassinate Eban during his stay.

1972: At the Summer Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorists take 11 Israeli team members hostage. The athletes and coaches, and a German police officer, are killed by the terrorists or during the bungled rescue effort.

1973: Prime Minister Golda Meir asks German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who is visiting Israel, to convey the message to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that Israel is ready to give back most of the Sinai in exchange for peace.

1975: Yitzhak Rabin becomes the first Israeli prime minister to visit West Germany. He visits the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He tells the German chancellor that European leaders should not interfere in the Middle East conflict.

1983: Berlin-born Holocaust survivor Ralph Klein, an Israeli basketball star, is appointed coach of Germany’s national team.

1989: With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir tells West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl of his worries about a reunited Germany again posing a threat to the Jews. Kohl rejects the notion.

1991: During the Gulf War, Kohl, now chancellor of a unified Germany, approves assistance to Israel, including the gift of two Dolphin submarines. Since then, Germany has subsidized Israel’s purchase of four additional Dolphins.

1992: Rabin visits the newly unified Germany, urging European countries to reject the Arab economic boycott of Israel and speaks out against a recent spate of xenophobic violence in the country.

1998: German cadet officers travel to Israel to participate in joint military training. The officers visit Yad Vashem and lay a wreath at a tomb containing the remains of Nazi victims.

2002: More emigres from the former Soviet Union settle in Germany (19,000) than in Israel (18,000) this year.

2005: German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, speaking at the U.N. on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, describes Israel’s right to exist as a “non-negotiable, fundamental tenet of Germany’s foreign policies.”

2009: Germany votes against the U.N. General Assembly resolution endorsing the Goldstone Report, which accuses Israel and Palestinian militants of war crimes during that year’s Gaza War.

2011: German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she may halt delivery of a Dolphin submarine due to Israel’s settlement policy. She withdraws the threat after Israel releases $100 million in frozen taxes and customs fees to the Palestinian Authority.

2011: Visiting Germany, Israel’s Chamber Orchestra plays works by the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner, whose music was beloved by Hitler and appropriated by the Nazis.

2014: Israeli President Shimon Peres awards Merkel the Presidential Medal, Israel’s highest civilian honor, recognizing exceptional service to the Jewish state.

2015: For the first time, the European Maccabi Games will be held in Germany this summer. The opening ceremony will be in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where the 1936 Olympic Games opened in Nazi Germany. — jta

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.