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Fifty years on, practical lessons from German-Israeli friendship

On the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, Israel and Germany offer a model for others in reconciling after a dismal past like the Holocaust.

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    German President Joachim Gauck (L) welcomes Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Berlin, Germany, May 11.
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In a speech marking this week’s 50th anniversary of official ties between Germany and Israel, the German foreign minister made a special plea to the world, one that should not go unnoticed.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked that anyone looking at the close friendship forged between Israel and Germany “after the unspeakable cruelty of the past” should not merely praise it in words. The message of this remarkable reconciliation – which was inconceivable 70 years ago – must be put "into practice whenever and wherever possible” in a world still full of conflict and hate, he said.

Three generations on, most Germans and Israeli Jews take the friendship between their countries as a matter of course. Many Israelis enjoy life in Berlin, for example, while Germany helps pay for Israel’s security, backs it in international disputes, and keeps teaching its own youth about the Holocaust. More than two-thirds of Jewish Israelis hold a favorable view of Germany and nearly half have visited it. Israeli literature is very popular in Germany. And last year, Israel gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel its highest civilian award.

Yet the rest of the world must not be as casual about these five decades of a unique friendship. The achievement in mutual understanding sets an example for other people either coping with the wounds of mass slaughter or trying to take responsibility for being a perpetrator of such crimes.

It also shows, as Mr. Steinmeier points out, that “hope is not necessarily a manifestation of naiveté.” Reconciliation must be won by hard work, such as standing up against ethnic hate, as Germany has done. And it is maintained by an appreciation of shared values, such as democracy and freedom.

As the two countries have grown close, they have also become comfortable in sometimes disagreeing with each other. Germany criticizes Israeli controls over the West Bank, for example, while Israel insists Germany support its interests more strongly in Europe.

For both countries, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations has been an opportunity to look forward more than to recall the past. The lessons of the Holocaust will never be forgotten. But now neither can the way Germany and Israel created a type of bond for all the world to both praise and practice.

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