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Germany: Any form of anti-Semitism threatens peace

Any form of anti-Semitism is a threat to peace

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder

The German government is against allowing demonstrations by radical right-wing groups in the vicinity of memorials to victims of the Holocaust. In an interview with the 'Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung' Chancellor Gerhard Schröder advocated making the law regulating the right to assembly in public places more restrictive, saying that despite freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate the government must have the right to put a damper on this kind of activity.

Mr. Chancellor, do you like to read Kishon?

I have to admit that I haven't read very many of his works. But I think that as a humorist and satirist he had a very special way of describing everyday problems and interpersonal relations. His death is a great loss.

Isn't it strange that an Israeli author should be so popular among German readers?

I don't think so. Ephraim Kishon was a citizen of the world. He had an inimitable way of describing situations people experience. Doubtless because of his roots and his Jewishness Kishon had a good sense of the everyday world people live in. Humor was something that helped him deal with his own personal life, having lost several members of his family in the Holocaust.

Can satire and irony be helpful where German-Israeli relations are involved?

Yes, I think so. Despite the serious nature of the relationship this kind of approach is something people respond to. You need only think of the considerable success the film comedy "Alles auf Zucker" is currently having. Kishon's use of irony and satire has done a great deal to promote understanding between Germany and Israel. He succeeded in doing what he wanted to do, i.e. to promote reconciliation through humor.

Has this helped to make the relationship more relaxed?

For certain.

Diplomatic relations were established between Israel and Germany forty years ago. Is this anniversary something to celebrate?

Yes, very much so. The establishment of diplomatic relations wasn't something that could simply be taken for granted. You have to remember how it all began, the statesmanship that was required on the part of Israel to normalize relations with Germany after the Holocaust. Looking back on the past forty years we can speak of a success story. I think it has been shown that today's democratic Germany is a good friend and partner and that it has stood at Israel's side in every phase of this period.

How normal are relations between the two countries?

They are as normal as relations between two countries can be at the government level. However, everyone knows the historical background these relations have. The Holocaust, awareness of the past, and knowledge of Nazi crimes are part of the special relationship between Israel and Germany. As a result, Germany has a special responsibility towards Israel. This doesn't mean that you have to agree with every measure taken by an Israeli government. But there can be no doubt that this special responsibility exists. And that it must exist - and must continue to exist in the future.

At the official level a lot is said about how good the relationship between Israel and Germany is. People on the street have different views.

I don't see it that way. The vast majority of Germans are aware that these relations are something special. There may be some that aren't. But those engaged in efforts to promote good political, trade, and cultural relations certainly are.

How do you explain the circumstance that in polls taken a majority of Germans see Israel as the greatest threat to peace in the world?

I am not aware of any polls of that kind. I'm not interested in what might have been asked by whom and in what way. I'll stick with the facts. Israel is the only functioning democracy in the region. And the State of Israel is not a threat to peace in the world. However Israel's security will continue to be threatened as long as a political settlement to the Middle East conflict is not found.

Can a special role for Germany in the Middle East conflict be inferred from the special relationship that exists between the two countries?

I would want to exercise caution here. A solution to the Middle East conflict can be found only if the two parties are willing to return to the so-called Road Map - and that's what it looks like is happening at the moment. And that means recognizing a leading role for the United States. I don't think that outside of the United States there is any country in Europe or elsewhere in the world that would be able to exert key influence in this process. The Europeans, and the Germans in the framework of the European Union, can help in this process, and we will. But we don't presume to have a role as a mediator in this conflict. That would be overestimating our capabilities.

Does your emphasis of the European context mean that Germany is increasingly giving up its own role in favor of a European policy on the Middle East?

I think we can exert a strong influence. But this influence should and must lead to Europe as a whole playing a greater role. We are in the midst of a process of developing a common European foreign policy. Germany would be overrating itself if it were to claim the right to take a position independent of the EU.

Can you then still speak of "special" German-Israeli relations?

Of course you can. In addition to the ties the European Union has with Israel there is the sphere of bilateral relations. And we have always understood our task to be that of promoting understanding for Israel within the EU.

A cautious rapprochement seems to be emerging at the moment between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What is your assessment of this?

This is, at the moment, "only" a hope, but it is more than what we had before the death of Yasser Arafat and the change that has taken place in the Palestinian leadership. These signs of hope need to be pursued. We can't allow ourselves to be discouraged by recurrent regrettable acts by radical forces who want to disrupt this process. I found Rabin's strategy convincing. You have to negotiate as if there were no terrorism, but you have to fight terrorism as if there were no negotiations. That's an apt description of what's involved here.

But isn't there an enormous danger that the terrorists will destroy everything with their bombs, including hope?

There are signs of hope now and you want to talk to me about what would happen if these hopes were destroyed. I'd like to talk about what will be possible if these hopes are fulfilled.

And what will happen if that is the case?

Peace, a chance for peace at any rate. It doesn't make much sense for journalists or politicians to focus continually on failure. I know that from public debate on the economy and other domestic issues in the German context. I am not willing to enter into a discussion of failure with regard to international issues. I'm not attracted to failure but rather to success.

Peace in the Middle East - is that something we will experience in our lifetime?

I certainly hope so! There is no disputing the fact that the Middle East conflict plays a key role in the fight against international terrorism, in that it makes it possible for the terrorists to attract mass loyalty based on despair and radicalization. Resolving the Middle East conflict will mean denying the terrorists these mass loyalties. And that is important if terrorism is to be rooted out.

Resolving the Middle East conflict would have an effect on international terrorism?

Not directly, since those who are perpetrating terrorist violence are using the conflict tactically. But it would make it more difficult for those who wrongly invest their hopes in the terrorists to use the conflict to justify their passive support of violence.

Let's talk now about the extremists in Germany. Members of right-wing parties are now sitting in two state assemblies. Representatives of the NPD talk about a "bomb Holocaust" and in doing so are seeking to relativize the importance of the Shoa. Is the government doing enough to combat right-wing extremism?

This is not the first time that right-wing parties have been represented in state assemblies. German democracy has always been strong enough to deal with phenomena of this kind. But, of course, what is currently happening in the Saxony state assembly is alarming for every democrat. I think we need an overall strategy for fighting right-wing radicalism, neo-Nazism, and the NPD in Germany. First of all, we will need to continue to provide enlightenment in our schools. Secondly, we will need to organize public resistance to these movements. The police and our justice system will need to be rigorous in counteracting these phenomena. I am among those persons who do not want to accept the fact that it is currently possible to demonstrate and chant right-wing slogans near memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. For this reason I am in favor of making the law that regulates our right to public assembly more restrictive by making it possible, despite freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate, for the government to say "yes, but not there". It is my hope that the parties in our national parliament will be able to reach an agreement on an amendment of this law.

And what about banning the NPD?

As far as I am concerned the legal battle over a ban of the NPD is not yet over. I want my government to avail itself of every possible means of attaining a ban in a court of law. However, the case must be strong enough to have a chance of succeeding. A renewed defeat in court would only help the NPD.

Would it help things if the NPD were to be banned?

I think the government would then have shown very clearly what it wants and considers to be right. That's no substitute for addressing the issues, but it could be helpful. Our democratic system of government would have sent a clear signal.

Aren't the 'dominant culture' and 'patriotism' debates playing into the hands of the right-wing groups?

If they are conducted in the wrong way, certainly. For me patriotism is what I do every day, i.e. work for my country. A German can be a patriot in that sense. There is no better definition of patriotism than the one Brecht expressed in his Children's Anthem:

"And because we'll make it better,
Let us love and guard our home,
Cherish this our dearest country,
As other people love their own."

This definition of patriotism states that you are proud of the achievements of your own people, that you like to live in your country, that you have emotional ties to your country, but that you are aware that the same thing applies to other people with regard to their own countries and that this is something to be respected. That's the difference between patriotism and nationalism.

According to the polls there is an anti-Semitic potential of about twenty percent in Germany. Is this something we are going to have to resign ourselves to?

No, it's not. What needs to be done again and again is to explain the causes of anti-Semitism and what the historical consequences of this have been. What this has meant and will continue to mean for millions of Jews and for world peace. And what it has meant for the people of our country. We need to make people aware of the fact that any form of anti-Semitism is racism of the worst kind and a threat to peace. For this reason it must be emphatically stated that this Germany will use the power at its disposal to protect, as is the task of any democratic government, and to prosecute those who commit anti-Semitic crimes.

Can Jews living in Germany feel reassured then?

I can understand that Jews who live here are concerned by phenomena of this kind. I would like to assure them that the government is on their side.

There are recurrent affirmations that Jewish life is an enrichment for our country. What does this consist of?

The fact that we again have one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe is a reason to be happy, in that it has brought with it an enrichment of our religious, cultural, and academic life. This is also the reason why we said we want Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. And that will continue to be the case.

But under different conditions?


That's because we have passed an immigration law in Germany that is among the most modern in the world. But we have no intention of restricting Jewish immigration. I think that this question will be dealt with under the new law as liberally as it was under the old one. Those immigrants who received their letter of approval before the end of 2004, i.e. before the new law went into effect, will be processed under the terms of the old law. The federal and state interior ministers have agreed to formulate a new set of regulations under the new law. It is my assumption that these regulations will also be based on the desire to strengthen and not to limit the possibility of Jewish life in Germany.

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