A Decade of Bundeswehr-American Jewish Committee Cooperation

David A. Harris, Executive Director  

Minister of Defense Peter Struck, Federal Academy President Rudolf Adam, members of the German Parliament, Israeli Ambassador Shimon Stein and other distinguished diplomats, officers of the Bundeswehr and NATO armed forces, American Jewish Committee colleagues, ladies and gentleman,

I am deeply moved by the high honor presented to me by Dr. Struck.

I would like to dedicate it to the memory of my father, who was a thirteen-year-old boy in this very city when the Nazis came to power, and who spent the ensuing twelve years as refugee, soldier in the French Foreign Legion, concentration camp inmate, soldier in the British Eighth Army, and espionage agent behind enemy lines for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and to my mother, who spent seventeen months, together with her family, fleeing the Nazis in occupied France until they were able to board a ship from Lisbon for New York in November 1941.

That their son could be standing here today on such an occasion speaks volumes about the possibilities of history. It also serves as eloquent testimony to something they both taught me by their example—the need to understand and remember the past, but never to abandon hope in the chance for a better future.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege for me to be with you today at the Federal Academy of Security Policy to mark the tenth anniversary of the unique relationship between the German armed forces and the American Jewish Committee. What an auspicious occasion this is! Allow me to pay tribute to my founding partner in this effort, Colonel Jochen Burgemeister, who is in the audience. I would also like to acknowledge the presence of General Klaus Wittman, who was a great believer in expanding our partnership.

Relations between Germany and the Jewish world have come a very long way in the postwar era, especially relations between Germany and Israel.

Indeed, next year we will mark the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The needs of statecraft required Israel rather early on to make painful but necessary decisions regarding links with Germany that Jews elsewhere in the world were not compelled to do.

In the Diaspora could choose to ignore Germany if they wished, boycott its products if they so desired, and avoid travel there. Israel, on the other hand, faced with the Herculean challenge of building a state while defending its borders against those who sought its destruction, could ill afford to reject out of hand relations with West Germany, however painful those links might have been for many Israelis.

The special relationship forged between Berlin and Jerusalem has been a matter of great consequence to Israel and of benefit to both countries. We trust that this special relationship will continue to grow and develop in the years ahead, even as the process of integration of European foreign and security policy advances.

Diaspora Jewish groups, with one notable exception, were several steps behind Israel in their policy regarding Germany.

From the start, the one exception was the American Jewish Committee. Not only did it not lag behind, but, to the contrary, it took the lead in its understanding of Germany's dynamic postwar history.

Grasping the enormity of the Shoah, the American Jewish Committee began to follow the wise counsel of Confucius, who said, in another era, "Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

Germany would not suddenly disappear, the American Jewish Committee reasoned; it would always be a major presence in the heart of Europe and, sooner or later, it would reemerge from the shambles of defeat and the occupation.

The only question was whether this postwar Germany would evolve in a positive or negative direction. History had taught us that we could ill afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for the question to resolve itself; we had to seek a role, however modest, in ensuring that light prevailed over darkness.

Our contact, it must be said, began quite tentatively. We Jews were apprehensive, and, truth be told, few Germans were interested. But it has grown dramatically over the span of decades. Thousands, actually tens of thousands, of people in Germany and the United States have been directly touched. And a high point in the relationship came for us in 1998, when we opened our office in Berlin, today headed by Deidre Berger.

For me personally, given my family history, the opportunity once again to plant Jewish roots in the soil of Berlin was one of the more moving moments of my life.

Yet, even as the comfort of light has, over time, replaced the terror of darkness, the past remains with us. The wounds have not fully healed, nor are they likely to anytime soon. The ghosts and shadows and cries of anguish continue to torment us. The questions, ultimately unanswerable perhaps, nevertheless persist.

The perfected industrialization of genocide still awakens us from our deepest sleep, fifty-nine years after the machinery was silenced.

Besides we Jews, who else today agonizes so much over the history of the Third Reich, sees the films, reads the accounts and memoirs, seeks out the survivors, visits the fields of ashes, the museums, and memorials, and attempts to connect this information to the contemporary world?

The answer, I believe, is that the struggle persists here in Germany more than anywhere else. This remains the case, even as we have left behind the twentieth century, and even after a new generation of German political leaders, largely born after the war, has assumed the mantle of national responsibility.

Not so among all Germans, to be sure. There are those who feel the time has long since come to close the history books, and even those who find false comfort in the writings of relativists who seek to challenge the singularity of the Nazi crimes.

But I have met an impressive number of Germans—in schools and universities, in churches and clubs, in the government and military—for whom the intellectual and emotional struggle goes on, for whom it is not yet possible to turn the page and put the past fully behind them.

For them and for us, the result is to bring us closer together. We might come at the issues from very different starting points, but, in fact, we are drawn nearer to one another than might at first seem obvious.

There is, then, much that we can do, that we should do together.

Let me suggest that our common agenda today, as Germans and as Jews, comprises at least four parts: (a) preserving memory; (b) building a world respectful of democracy and human rights; (c) serving as an early warning system against extremism and xenophobia; and (d) standing firm against those in the international system who flout the rule of law and threaten the precepts of peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution.

Why preserve memory? The answer is really very simple—or is it? It is to ensure that those who were consumed in the flames of the Shoah did not die in vain. It is about them, but also, truthfully, it is about us.

Unless we are somehow able to understand how a demented, antihuman ideology could take root in an otherwise advanced nation's soil, leading so many to participate so energetically in genocidal policies without parallel in human history, what world will await our children and grandchildren?

And this brings me to our second joint responsibility: building a world respectful of democracy and human rights.

This endlessly complex world, one thing is abundantly clear from even a brief glance at history, and it offers the ray of hope we so desperately need.

It is the simple, irrefutable fact that democratic nations do not, as a matter of habit, declare war on other democratic nations; they resolve their differences peacefully.

Democratic nations don't deliberately starve their populations as an instrument of state terror, as the Soviet Union did in Ukraine, with devastating results, in the 1930s, or as North Korea has done more recently.

They don't use poison gas against their own citizens, murdering them by the thousands, as was the case against the Kurds in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

They don't assassinate dissidents, or imprison journalists who expose the failings of the state, or silence protesting students, as has been the case in Iran.

They don't subjugate women, denying them education, employment, and even health care, as we witnessed in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

They don't indoctrinate their children from the earliest grades to despise and distrust people of other faiths, as the Saudi school system systematically does.

They don't limit access to the Internet out of fear of the impact of unauthorized sources of information, as Syria has done.

And they don't seek to murderously suppress religious or ethnic minorities, as has taken place on a massive scale in the Sudan against Christians and Animists, or as has occurred in the Darfur region, where widespread murder and rape have gone unchecked.

By nature, democracies may be imperfect, but, as Winston Churchill famously said in the House of Commons in 1947, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Democracies are a permanent work in progress and, yes, let's admit it, many remain deeply flawed.

Some democracies have been associated with slavery, colonialism, racism, anti-Semitism, costly military misadventures, and abuse of political power and legal authority.

And some democracies have not been immune to violence themselves. Indeed, today we mark the forty-first anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an American leader inextricably linked with this city at the height of the Cold War.

But one notable strength of a democratic system lies in the fact that when things go off track, corrective mechanisms are triggered.

Democracy has formed the cornerstone of the Federal Republic since 1949. Democracy is the common denominator of the twenty-five members of the European Union. The newest EU members knew full well that the price for admission included an unquestionably democratic system of governance. Earlier, Greece, Portugal, and Spain made the successful transition to democracy; others, no doubt, will follow suit.

This spread of democracy in Europe allows us to believe that the bloody wars of the past will not be repeated, at least not on the territory of the European Union. Given the scope and magnitude of conflict over the centuries on European soil, that is no small feat. Indeed, I believe European integration to be the single most ambitious and successful peace project in modern history, and I applaud Germany's role as one of the EU's six founding members.

National rivalries are now played out on the football field, not the battlefield. This is something worth celebrating, regardless of the outcome of the match, though you might not agree that it's almost beside the point who wins and who loses.

Our governments are answerable to the people, not the reverse. It is the rights of the individual, not the exaltation of the state, which forms the foundation of our societies.

President Adam, you quoted from a speech of mine just a couple of years ago in which I described myself as a committed transatlanticist, and thus a potentially endangered species. I am pleased to tell you that, for my part, nothing has changed. I remain absolutely stubborn and steadfast in my views.

I fully realize that, until just a short time ago, being a committed transatlanticist was a rather unexceptional thing; most people I knew on both sides of the Atlantic were, to varying degrees, in the same club. Now, however, in some places, it could get me in big trouble.

Call me hopelessly, irredeemably naïve, but as a son of America and grandson of Europe, I remain convinced that Americans and Europeans are joined at the hip by common foundational values and, yes, common existential threats, and thus by a common agenda.

Our shared values emanate from the very building blocks of our respective societies: democracy, the rule of law, and respect for the dignity of the individual.

The ties that link this precious fraternity of kindred nations, including, of course, Israel, must never be permitted to fray, for they represent the best—indeed, I would argue the only—hope for the ultimate realization of a genuinely peaceful and prosperous world.

Europe and the United States may face battles over Airbus versus Boeing, or over currency values; disputes over global warming, genetically modified foods, or the death penalty; tensions over the respective roles of NATO and the new European defense initiative; and differences over concepts of preemptive military action and unilateralism versus multilateralism.

I don't for a moment minimize these challenges, far from it, especially after the experience and mutual disappointments of recent years.

Yet, no matter how serious, these divisive issues must never be allowed to overshadow the commonalities that link us as nations, as peoples, and as societies. We must stand together. Our fates are intertwined because our overarching vision and values are intertwined. Our foes despise precisely what unites us—a bedrock commitment to open, democratic, and pluralistic societies.

It means for us never losing sight of the larger picture of Europe and America as the likeliest of strategic allies, as we are today in Afghanistan, to cite but one example.

It means never succumbing to the notion that Europeans and Americans may still live in the same solar system but no longer on the same planet.

It means resisting the temptation to declare that all Americans have gravitated irreversibly toward Hobbes, hard power, unilateralism, and the tug of faith, while all Europeans have been hypnotized by Kant, soft power, multilateralism, and secularism.

And it also means facing the inevitable tough issues where we may not necessarily find a complete convergence of views, but always discussing them in ways that befit friends and allies.

We look to our partners in Berlin to emphasize on this side of the ocean the vital significance—and contemporary relevance—of the transatlantic partnership.

You can be assured that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the voice of the American Jewish Committee will continue to be heard, as it has been consistently, in support of the partnership and, more broadly, of an active and enlightened American role in world affairs.

Democracy is a strategic necessity, not a tactical option. It represents the best chance we have to transform the conduct of interstate relations and human behavior, the best opportunity to ensure that the Bundeswehr, NATO, or a European Rapid Reaction Force will always be underemployed, not overemployed. Please note that I did not say unemployed, just underemployed.

Our third common agenda item is to serve as an early warning system. This is an essential element of what militaries do to guard against armed threats to the security of a nation.

By virtue of our historical experiences and rather acute understanding of human nature, Jews and Germans today can serve as an early warning system when challenges to a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect occur, when extremist political parties seek to infiltrate the political mainstream, and when the prospect of ethnic cleansing or genocide looms.

We know from the past that menacing words and threats cannot be ignored. Adolf Hitler quite revealingly laid out his plans when he wrote Mein Kampf while in the Landsberg fortress, but how many took him and his book seriously?

We know that demagogues may test the waters to see how far they think they can go, just as Hitler first moved into Sudetenland, then paused, and just as he gradually imposed restrictions on Germany's Jews over the span of years.

More recently, we saw Saddam Hussein confidently conclude that the world would look the other way while he seized Kuwait in 1990, and Slobodan Milosevic similarly assume that his international critics did not have the stomach to translate words of condemnation into a tough-minded plan of action against his thuggish rule.

And most recently, there has been the unfolding tragedy in Darfur—murder, rape, pillage, and dislocation—while the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia leaders concluded that the world simply didn't have the will to confront yet another colossal man-made human tragedy.

We have witnessed a range of responses to such catastrophic events, including denial, appeasement, and silence. History should have taught us the devastating consequences of a failure of will and resolve. Inaction, for whatever reason, only invites more acts of evil. And remember, in particular, Churchill's definition of an appeaser as "one who feeds a crocodile, hoping he will eat him last."

There is no such thing as moral neutrality in these situations. No one can be let off the hook and permitted to argue that it is someone else's problem alone or, as we sometimes hear, that economics trumps morality.

Nor, in the final analysis, can there be any Faustian bargains or backroom deals. Tempting though these have been to some nations, the record shows that not only do they not work, but they almost always backfire.

In the face of manifestations of hatred, whether as governments, nongovernmental organizations, or individuals, our opposition must be loud and clear, and our presence felt. This is all the more important for us these days as anti-Semitism has been given new life in the extremist precincts of right and left and in vast swaths of the Islamic world.

That is precisely why, in 1999, when Milosevic began driving Kosovar Muslims out of their homes in a policy of ethnic cleansing, we at the American Jewish Committee felt it important to set an example by our actions—words alone are insufficient at such moments—in a region where hatreds have a tragically long life span.

We raised funds from our members to help the refugees. Before disbursing the money, however, we visited several refugee camps in Macedonia and a field hospital run by the Israel Defense Forces to assess the situation on the ground.

We were deeply touched by what we saw. The Israeli field hospital was superbly run. Today, as a sign of hope, there are a number of Kosovar Muslim children with Israeli names, in gratitude to the doctors and nurses who helped bring them into this world.

Of the four refugee camps we visited, one in particular impressed us. It was a German military operation. There was a special effort to provide a measure of dignity to the refugees by serving hot meals and building wooden floors for the tents; these amenities existed nowhere else. It may not sound like a lot, but, believe me, it was. And we were also moved by the medical assistance being provided by Die Johanniter, the German humanitarian organization.

W hen we returned to the States, we contacted our friends in Germany and proposed a joint humanitarian operation to assist the refugees. The response was immediate and enthusiastic.

The result was a pioneering effort, jointly sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and Die Johanniter, with cargo planes provided by the Bundeswehr, to bring relief supplies to thousands of refugees.

Our goals were three, and I believe we accomplished all of them:

  1. To assist people in need, in this case Muslims, who were victims of intolerance, and thereby to underscore the sacred notion of one human family.

  2. To send a symbolic message that history could move forward and enhance the human condition, using our German-Jewish project as an example.

  3. And to give shape and form to our belief that the German-Jewish relationship was at a sufficiently mature stage that we could act together in times of humanitarian crisis.

And this brings me to the fourth and final part of our common agenda.

There are, as you well know, dangers to the international system to which we must remain alert.

Let me mention briefly just a few of those most pertinent to our discussion today, leaving aside for now such consequential matters as demographic trends; ecological threats, including global warming, the depletion of water resources, deforestation, and desertification; growing gaps between rich and poor nations; and the spread of infectious diseases.

I am particularly concerned about several developments.

Iran's quest to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them with ever greater range and precision ranks at the top of my list.

For a while, many in the West thought that Iran had turned a corner, that the arrival of President Mohammad Khatami on the scene had shifted the balance of domestic power in the direction of the so-called moderates.

It is now abundantly clear that, much as some had hoped for an improvement in the internal situation, it has not occurred. To the contrary, the fundamentalists firmly hold the reins of power. They are determined to wage their struggle against perceived enemies within the country and beyond, including, of course, Israel, or the "Zionist entity" as they call it, and also against the West more generally, although sometimes their policy in this regard is subtly cloaked.

Temporary or short-term agreements may at times seem useful—and I recognize the efforts by Britain, France, and Germany in this regard—but painful experience, yours and ours, has taught us that countries like Iran or, for that matter, North Korea, cannot necessarily be expected to keep their word and fulfill their commitments.

The United States, by dint of its size, power, and global reach, brings a great deal to the table. So does the European Union.

We must find and sustain a common approach to Iran. I believe this to be the preeminent test of the transatlantic relationship in the months ahead. If we can, not only does it increase our chance of success in halting Iran's nuclear program, but it also proves the resilience of the relationship. Conversely, working on separate tracks or, heaven forbid, at cross-purposes, we only embolden what in the final analysis are our common enemies.

Let's face reality. Since 9/11 but even before, we have been confronted with a global threat. There are those who choose to believe the threat is exaggerated, or is only episodic, or derives from our own behavior, especially American (or Israeli). They assert that a change in American (or Israeli) attitudes is the needed antidote. They are deluding themselves.

Let's call the threat by its real name. Take your pick—Islamism, Islamo-fascism, jihadism, radical Islam, or militant Islam. It is not—I repeat, it is not—a war against Islam per se. In fact, it is a war to defend Islam against those who would kidnap its good name.

In other words, we are faced with an ideology, fueled by a combustible mix of theology, politics, self-righteousness, and fury, which has an airtight worldview and hasn't been shy to express it. Just as we fought fascism, Nazism, and communism in the twentieth century, today we are locked in a struggle with yet another variant of totalitarian thinking in possession of "absolute truth." Our semantic effort to cloak the true nature of the struggle by deliberately avoiding naming its source, lest we risk offending anyone, is misguided, if not downright disingenuous.

No, this is not a war or, if you prefer, a campaign against terrorism. Rather, it is against those who, in the name of their fanatical beliefs, employ terrorism to advance their aims, as well as those who give them succor and sanctuary. Terrorism is their weapon of choice, but if they had potent armies, is there any doubt those would be employed as well?

The organizational nature of the enemy greatly complicates matters. Its geographic dispersal; the nature of the weapon of choice—i.e., terrorism; the wide-ranging support structure of mosques, madrassas, front organizations, satellite technology, encryption programs and the Internet; readily available funds from the Persian Gulf (thanks in large measure to our hopeless addiction to the region's energy resources); and the openness of democratic societies all mean that there is no one central address for us to target, no V-E or V-J day to signal when a formal end to hostilities is declared, and no Iron Curtain to raise or Berlin Wall to demolish as signifying victory.

We in the West have an attention-span problem that will be severely tested. We dare not be found wanting. Passivity is not an option. The stakes are far too high. Bear in mind the path of death and destruction to date. Imagine the frightening possibilities ahead, including the potential use of biological or chemical agents or even, one day, nuclear weapons, which Osama bin Laden has declared must be acquired as a "religious duty."

Remember also that this enemy insists that its love of death through so-called martyrdom matches our passion for life. In 1997, for instance, bin Laden declared: "Being killed for Allah's cause is a great honor achieved only by the elite of the nation. We love this kind of death for Allah's cause as much as you like to live." And recall that for our adversaries, everything and everyone is fair game—the more carnage the better. After all, spreading fear and anxiety is the name of the game. The traditional military field of combat has been extended to include every conceivable civilian venue.

At the same time, we need to encourage and empower the forces of moderate Islam—and, yes, they do exist—to assert themselves more forcefully in the battle for title to their religion. We must strengthen their hand through political support and social and economic development programs.

To illustrate, in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country of incalculable importance in this equation, an estimated one million youngsters are currently studying in Saudi-funded madrassas. Their daily educational fare is the Koran, jihad, and martyrdom, we are told. But many of the youngsters are sent to these indoctrination centers only because they offer a hot meal at lunch and a roof over the children's heads, which too many state schools apparently do not. This must be addressed and corrected.

Easier said than done, I fully realize, and, to boot, the line between extremism and moderation is not always easily or neatly drawn. The world of Islam and the Arab culture in particular are still so alien, so impenetrable to most outsiders, that we must tread with great caution, avoiding the certitudes that too often have caused us to stumble in the region, yet not with such caution that we effectively paralyze ourselves.

Then there is Iraq.

Whatever one's starting point on the war itself, it is absolutely essential, I firmly believe, that the United States and its coalition partners press ahead in their current complex and dangerous mission.

If even a modicum of success is achieved in bringing about greater security and political stability, the positive repercussions will be felt far beyond Iraq's borders.

If not, the negative consequences will reverberate for generations to come and, make no mistake about it, impact on all of us. No one should underestimate what is involved here. And no one should take any perverse pleasure in observing the daily challenges faced by American forces and their partners.

And last but by no means least, there is the possible dawning of a new era in the Middle East. With the passing of Yasir Arafat, a potentially brighter new chapter will be written, though judging from the attendance at the Cairo funeral service and the statements of some political leaders and editorial writers, it would seem that the world lost a second Mother Teresa.

It is far too soon to predict the chapter's contents, but, in theory at least, it could usher in a new, more moderate and pragmatic Palestinian leadership, committed to peace with Israel and determined to move the negotiating process forward.

We should not, however, fall into the trap of unrealistic expectations. The new team must emerge, establish its authority, and persuade Israel and the world of its determination to reverse Arafat's corrupt, dictatorial, duplicitous legacy and unblinkingly confront the twin evils of terrorism and incitement.

If so, it will find an eager and willing partner in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Sharon has already confounded his critics by accepting the principle of a two-state solution, calling for withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank, and implicitly acknowledging the logic of territorial separation on the West Bank by the construction of the security fence.

But Israel must not be pushed farther and faster than it can responsibly go by the international community to satisfy the desire of those outside the region who seek a rapid solution.

No one—I repeat, no one—seeks peace for Israel more than the people of Israel, who have been denied that peace for fifty-six years.

No nation, faced with repeated wars for its very survival, has been more forthcoming in its willingness to compromise territorially for peace than Israel. And when else in history have the defeated nations, i.e., Israel's enemies, sought to set the terms for peace?

Peace cannot be built absent a credible negotiating partner. Peace cannot be built on empty promises. And peace cannot be built by simply talking about Israel's "legitimate security concerns," but not actively understanding and addressing those concerns, which begin with the basic proposition that the country is no larger than Wales or, put another way, is two-thirds the size of Belgium. Unlike Wales and Belgium, though, Israel's neighborhood is, shall we say, rather rough and tumble, and thus its margin for error is small to nil.

In other words, let no one ever seek to place Israel's security on the altar of political or diplomatic expediency.

Ladies and gentlemen, together, I hope, we will do all that we can to ensure Israel's security in the context of a Middle East where peace one day replaces war, where prosperity replaces poverty, and where harmony replaces hatred. It will not be easy, but the objective is worth the struggle, and the alternative is simply too frightening to contemplate.

In sum, we, Germans and Jews, have a full plate and a daunting agenda. But I am persuaded that our efforts can make a profoundly positive difference.

Our shared experience in the second half of the twentieth century, and during the past decade of cooperation between the German armed forces and the American Jewish Committee that we mark today, offers a glimmer of hope, perhaps even a metaphor for hope. It reveals what can be if only we dare to dream dreams and have the courage and determination to match.

For our part, we at the American Jewish Committee eagerly look forward to our next decade of collaboration.

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