The German Greens are having a hard time defining a Middle East policy. No wonder. Besides the usual difficulties of the whole European left, they are German.

How hard it could be was brought home with a thud by the six Greens who toured Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the occupied territories in December 1984. Trip leaders Jürgen Reents, of the Hamburg left wing of the party, and Gabriele Gottwald, the Greens’ most dedicated Third World solidarity militant, were startled and hurt when the Israeli press distorted their views and impugned their motives.

In south Lebanon, Gottwald accused Israeli occupation forces of “systematic psychological terror.” In Tel Aviv, deputy foreign minister Ronni Milo declared that: “The brown [Nazi] roots have sent up green plants.” A banner was unfurled in the Knesset: “Green-Browns get out.” The kindest thing said to them in Israel was the conclusion drawn by former Yugoslav partisan Hanna Levy-Hass, that the Grünen were “not brown, but truly green in the sense of immature.”

This media disaster had a dampening effect. Back in Bonn, the leading “realos” (Green realists or Realpolitiker) were most scathing. Joschka Fischer called the trip a “fiasco.” In the heated internal debate that followed, Bundestag member Antje Vollmer concluded judiciously that “the theme is too much for the Greens.”

The theme, in its complexity, has three main parts. The first is the Palestinians. This is perhaps the easiest part, oddly enough. Greens readily agree as a matter of principle on the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. This usually means negotiations between Israel and the PLO leading to an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories alongside Israel. But once the principle has been established, there seems to be no great rush to do anything about it. Within the new Bundestag fraction, at least, the focus is less on supporting the Palestinians than on relating to Israelis in a constructive way.

The second aspect is German guilt and responsibility for the crimes of Nazi anti-Semitism. “Collective guilt” is rejected. The question is the Germans’ heritage of special responsibility.

Finally, there is Israel’s role in global militarization. The Greens cannot escape this aspect of the issue without abandoning their identity.

Defense minister Manfred Worner has declared that the Israelis are “astonishingly far advanced in high technology,” thanks to their war experience, and that the Federal Republic of Germany “can profit from” the Israeli translation of battle experience into high tech weaponry. Last September, Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin visited West Germany as Worner’s guest. At the Dachau concentration camp, Rabin declared that an Israeli defense force would have prevented annihilation of a third of the Jewish people. “We are not here to forgive,” Rabin stressed, pointing to a “new wave” of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. But he said Israel appreciated the fact that West Germany had contributed to strengthening Israel. (In 35 years, the Federal Republic has paid DM 70 billion to the Israeli government and the Jewish people in war reparations and expects to pay another DM 30 billion by the end of the century.)

Rabin flew from the crematoriums to Nuremberg to visit an arms technology firm before going on to Munich for talks with Bavarian prime minister and arms industry boss Franz Josef Strauss. The Saarbrücker Zeitung found it “striking how even in Dachau, Rabin put military vocabulary in the forefront of his speech. Completely unfazed, he played on the strings of the Jewish past on one hand and of military might on the other.” Rabin’s program of inspections of arms factories and combat troop schools, complete with arms demonstrations, plus the talks with Strauss raised more than suspicion that behind the scenes the trip was “not just about German-Israeli relations and better understanding, but also of weapons deals: in both directions.” The newspaper concluded by warning Israel “not to exploit politically the special bond with the Federal Republic,” and Bonn to stay away from arms relations with any country in the Middle East.

Thus Rabin, playing on German guilt, was doing his bit to undermine the ban on military exports to “areas of tensions.” This has always been an important issue for the Greens, who have led opposition to exports of submarines and tanks to Saudi Arabia, as well as to Chile and South Africa.

The attitudes in the German left toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have evolved not only in relation to events, but also in relation to the parallel evolution of attitudes in the German right. Horror over Auschwitz was a starting point for much of the new left of the post-war generation. But the left’s overwhelming sympathy for Israel was shaken by the June 1967 war, not only because Israel emerged as an aggressive conqueror, but perhaps even more because of the enthusiastic cheering for Israeli military prowess from the ranks of the conservative right.

The left found the right’s new “philo-Semitism” suspect. As leading Green “realo” Otto Schily once put it, “blanket support for Israeli policies” was the easy path to a clear conscience. German conservatives admired “the good Jew who can wage a blitzkrieg, who is efficient and who represents a Western outpost in the Arab world.”

The far left reacted more vehemently. Writing in Konkret in 1967, journalist Ulrike Meinhoff (who 10 years later later died in prison after following Andreas Baader into the “Red Army Fraction”) gave her reading of rightwing enthusiasm for the Israeli blitzkrieg: “If only instead of gassing the Jews, they’d been taken along to the Urals, the Second World War would have ended differently…. The new German fascism has learned from old mistakes. Not against, but with the Jews, anticommunism can win.”

Such repugnance with German “philo-Semitism” contributed to support in the 1970s for the Palestinians as “the victims of the victims.” A minority took up the cause of Palestinian solidarity with special zeal, arguing that the Germans had a special debt toward the Palestinians, since without German persecution of the Jews the Palestinians would not have lost their homeland.

The Israelis have beaten back this line vigorously and with some apparent success. When Helmut Schmidt, then chancellor, ventured to criticize Israel in the summer of 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin silenced him instantly with a vehement speech attacking Schmidt for wartime obedience to the Nazis and spoke of the collective guilt of the German people.

Begin’s verbal attack on Schmidt, together with the Israeli bombing raid on the nuclear reactor in Iraq, roused “violent emotions in the Federal Republic,” according to Dietrich Wetzel. The Social Democratic Party headquarters in Bonn was flooded with mail expressing sympathy for Schmidt.

Wetzel, who entered the Bundestag as one of the 44 Green members last January, has pointed to the summer of 1981 as a turning point. Appalled by both Israeli policy and the reactions it aroused, Wetzel and other Frankfurt intellectuals formed a study group which led to the 1983 book German Jews and the Palestine Conflict. [1] The group concluded that psychological projections stemming from the trauma of Nazi annihilation contribute to making the Palestinian conflict unsolvable. Israelis project Nazi motives onto the Arabs.

The conclusion of this reflection tends to be that even the most justified criticism of Israel by Germans reinforces this projection and is thus counterproductive.

But there is also the German projection onto Israel. Wetzel recalls that in popularized Nazi ideology, the Jews were the aggressors, “the Jewish-Bolshevik worldwide conspiracy” out to destroy Germany. The “popular delusion” was that the extermination of the Jews was a sort of “military action against enemies in war.”

The surviving Jews “were fantasized as the victors.” The Israeli stress on military valor and scorn for the image of Jews as passive victims have retrospectively given support to the Nazi view of World War II. For those who believe in collective guilt or collective innocence, the events of the 1980s, and especially the invasion of Lebanon, have provided the discreet self-satisfaction that “the Jews are no better than their German persecutors.”

Is the left, are the Greens free of anti-Semitism? By philosophy and principle, yes. In a relative world, they at least know they are less anti-Semitic than most of Israel’s ardent fans on the right.

No count has been made, but many “Eco-socialists” and other “Fundis” put the political need to voice honest criticism above the dangers of psychological projection. They cite Israeli opposition lawyer Felicia Langer’s 1986 plea: “We need international condemnation of Israeli authorities…. Don’t let yourselves be enslaved by your guilt feelings, which are abused by the Israelis. They have no right to use the victims of fascism to cover up their methods in the occupied territories.”

Instead of silencing criticism of Israel, these Greens argue that more must be done to combat renewed anti-Semitism and to build awareness of Nazi crimes. Greens are active in campaigns to stop construction of commercial buildings on the sites of the old Jewish quarter in Frankfurt and a synagogue in Bonn burned down by the Nazis. Instead, they call for memorials to Jewish victims and their culture.

The new Bundestag fraction of the Greens has yet to define a common position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Prominent “realos” Otto Schily and Waltraud Schoppe were accused by colleagues of trying to change Green policy without group consultation by greeting the visit of Israeli president Chaim Herzog without any mention of the PLO or of Lebanon. Schily tends toward the view that Germans, Green or not, cannot criticize Israel without making matters worse.

The search for peaceful solutions rather than Third World solidarity characterizes the Green approach to the Middle East, as to most other regions. Jutta Oesterle-Schwerin, an Israeli who has lived for 20 years in West Germany and now represents the Greens in the Bundestag, has introduced an original position attacking the PLO from an anti-statist standpoint. The PLO is as bad as the Zionists in believing that human happiness depends on having a state. “My position comes from very far left, it’s hard for the left to answer,” she says. Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories immediately, allowing them to revert to the Arab states. Palestinian “men and women” should be given full rights everywhere and financial compensation paid by the major powers.

Controversy between Green factions currently centers on whether or where to sponsor a public forum promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The left would like to hold it in the Federal Republic to educate Germans; realos object that any conference held on German soil would have negative resonance in Israel. They prefer Amsterdam or Brussels.

The left, with no illusions about influencing Middle East events, sees the issue as important for the future evolution of Green policy. Last July, Otto Schily issued a surprising statement calling for ostracism of “the terrorist regime in Iran” and “solidarity with France in its conflict with Khomeini.” This fed the suspicion that Green realpolitik is leading toward accommodation with the nationalist and militarist tendencies of governmental ties. The new nationalism is not centered on Germany but on “Europe” or “the West.” The final issue could be the choice between a new sort of all-Western nationalism, whose Middle East outpost is Israel, or on the other hand a new internationalism, a global sense of community.


[1] Dietrich Wetzel, 'Die Verlängerung der Geschichte," in Deutsche Juden und der Palestinerkonflikt (Frankfurt: Neue Kritik Verlag, 1983).

How to cite this article:

Diana Johnstone "Germany’s Greens and Israel," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

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