If we’re already talking about reparations

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

Should German Chancellor Angela Merkel reopen the reparations agreement with Israel? In answer to this question, which appeared on the Internet site of the German edition of The Financial Times, 84 percent of the surfers replied in the negative. Although this is no statistical sample, it does represent the prevailing mood in Germany, in the wake of Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan’s proposal to “reopen” the 1952 Reparations Agreement, as was published in Haaretz. Eitan has called for more German money to help fund governmental support for thousands of Holocaust survivors who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. After some embarrassed fumbling in Berlin, including an evasive response by German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, Merkel has announced that she would view a reopening of the agreement favorably, if indeed this is what the government of Israel really wants. But with all due respect to governments, the response of both Israeli and German civil society is much more important and interesting.

As usual, German media consumers are largely unaware of the public debate raging in Israel. This is why it is important to tell them about the many Israeli voices that have spoken out in recent days against Eitan’s proposal. True, there were also several important supporters of the proposal (including Tom Segev, who writes for this paper), but a majority of public opinion – from journalists to “talkback” writers on the Internet, and from politicians to intellectuals – is strongly opposed to reopening the German wallet.

These voices signal a profound, refreshing change in Israeli self-awareness. They are saying that agreements must be honored. Israel is both strong and rich enough to support the Holocaust survivors living here in a manner that is both decent and dignified, including those who arrived during the wave of Russian immigration.

Germany has kept all its financial commitments to Israel – every jot and tittle and even beyond – and it is superfluous to challenge the proven friendship. While Eitan’s proposal may reflect the Israeli government’s budgetary difficulties and its ongoing failure to translate a flourishing economy into a decent welfare society, it does not represent the prevailing mood in Israeli civil society.

There is a huge difference between the Israel of 2007 and the Israel of 1952; back then the “Reparations Agreement” (a phrase that disgusted poet Natan Alterman, who suggested “Returning the Theft” in its stead) was aimed at giving a boost to a young and poor country that was fighting for its life. Even back then, many Israelis were opposed to accepting even a single German pfennig. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s government considered the German money and goods as an elixir for the country’s economic survival and to help it build its technological and human infrastructure. And so Israel signed the agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, thereby helping West Germany to become a full-fledged member of the family of nations.

Today, Israel is capable of confidently telling German society that we are already standing on our on two feet. Our economic survival is not in doubt. Israel will see to its elderly on its own. We will be glad to see the German euro here, but only in the context of ordinary economic transactions, information and research exchanges and historical and cultural projects. That is, only when it comes to decent economic normalization.

But there is one small problem. Dear Germans, while Israel’s economic survival appears safe and sound, its political survival is less certain. Even in Germany there continue to be some citizens who tell public opinion pollsters that Israel has no right to exist. It appears that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thoroughly concurs with them.

We are being told that Iran is developing nuclear technology – for peaceful purposes, of course. As such, it has two atomic reactors near Bushehr. They were built by a German company called Siemens. Here is an odd coincidence: My family is very well-acquainted with this company. Many years ago, my mother-in-law and her sister worked as slave laborers in a Siemens factory at the Ravensbruck Camp. It is a small world after all.

Thank you, we have no need for reparations monies. My mother-in-law, unlike many other survivors, was healthy enough in both body and mind to work hard and refused to accept a single Deutschmark for herself. But she understood the importance of the money, which was paid on her behalf as well, for building the infrastructure of the young State of Israel. Make no mistake about this: Israel is a legitimate heir of those who were murdered because hundreds of thousands of survivors found a home and a defender here and consciously delegated to it their moral right to a decent and dignified life. Therefore, although the Israel of today is wealthy enough to support the survivors financially, it is still, with perfect justice, demanding Germany’s total commitment to its existence and to the security of its inhabitants.

In recent days we have been informed that in the wake of prolonged American pressure, Siemens will not sign any new contracts with Iran. This is good and presents a cause for rejoicing. It is a pity, though, that Siemens and dozens of other German companies and banks are still doing excellent business in Tehran on the basis of existing contracts. This, gentlemen, is not “normal” economic behavior. This is not fair trade. This is vile economics. This German-Iranian celebration deviates from everything we, many Israelis, have learned to respect and admire in contemporary Germany.

The Reparations Agreement is closed, and it should remain closed. But there are other, open files between Israel and Germany that will remain open. Israeli society will not allow these matters to be closed. What is now pending between us is more important than money: clear memory, moral fairness and above all self-respect. Of both nations.

This article also appeared in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.