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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

German at the Knesset

German chancellor Angela Merkel is going to address the Knesset tomorrow, during her visit to Israel. After a loud and public debate, the Knesset House Committee approved today that she can give her speech in German.

More than sixty years after the end of the Second World War, this is still a very touchy subject in Israel. Many people still shun anything that has to do with Germany: they don't buy German products, they don't travel to Germany and they look with disfavour at any rapprochement between Israel and Germany. I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for this position. However, I believe that if the Israeli parliament invited Ms. Merkel to speak, she should be allowed to speak in her own language (arguing that she is technically not a "head of state" and therefore the Knesset by-laws do not apply to her is a disingenuous argument, to say the least).

Modern-day Germany in general, and Ms. Merkel in particular, are supporters of Israel. As Israel's former ambassador to Germany recently pointed out, no other country in the world has gone to such lengths to erect museums and monuments to commemorate atrocious deeds from its history. Germans of my generation are not only ashamed about what their grandparents' generation did, but more importantly, they are educated and knowledgeable about it. Not forgetting the past is the best mechanism we have (although not a guarantee) that similar horrors will not be repeated in the future. Israel should be careful about stepping over that fine and ambiguous line separating rememberance and alienation.

This is not an easy path. I can speak about my own experience. Although my family was not harmed directly by the Holocaust, I still have mixed feelings when I'm in Germany (I used to manag an office in Munich with German employees and I still visit customers there). These feelings often lead to emotional rather than rational thoughts: the announcements in the train stations will suddenly bring up images of other commands being shouted out at rail stations; when speaking with a German I might wonder what his granfather did during the war; and the sight of a motorcycle-riding policeman in uniform, leather boots and all, sometimes sends a shiver down my back.

And yet, when all is said and done, Germany today is a beautiful country with beautiful people. The German they speak was the language spoken by the Nazis but also the language spoken by the Jews. As difficult as it is, one needs to realise this is a complex issue that should be handled with care, and not painted in bold black-and-white strokes.

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