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An interview with the German Ambassador to Australia

February 24, 2011 – 10:17 pm4 Comments

Ambassador Michael Witter, left, with Manny Waks

The Capital Jewish Forum (CJF), based in Canberra, has recently launched a new initiative, where distinguished guests are interviewed on a range of issues which are relevant and of interest to Jewish academic, policy, business and other professionals.

First to be interviewed is the German Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Michael Witter.  The interview, conducted by Manny Waks, covers the topics of Israel, the Holocaust, Iran, tolerance, as well as some questions of general interest.

Israel

Capital Jewish Forum (CJF): Germany is often regarded as Israel’s closest European ally. Would you agree with this observation and if so, why do you believe this to be the case?

Ambassador Michael Witter (MW): Germany and Israel enjoy close and friendly bilateral relations. Only recently, the cabinets of both countries have met in Jerusalem to hold their third official governmental consultations. We’re talking about a degree of direct government interaction that in Germany is only matched by few key partners. But cooperation is not limited to the governmental sphere: GER-ISR relations are also special due to a very tight network of civil society contacts. Israel and Germany are aligned in their remembrance of the Shoa in a unique way. As a consequence of our painful past, Germany has a strong interest in the security of Israel. This remains a matter of heart to us.

CJF: As a close ally to Israel, would the German Government consider taking a more active role in the Middle East peace process, independently of the European Union and/or the Quartet?

MW: In the framework of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, Germany is playing a very active role in all issues related to the Middle East peace process. It contributes strongly to the work of the Middle East Quartet which most recently met in Munich on February 05. Beyond that, Germany enjoys strong bilateral ties with Israel as well as with its Arab neighbours and with the Palestinian Authority, and much of our bilateral engagement in the region is linked directly or indirectly to furthering efforts towards achieving a lasting settlement to the conflict.

CJF: Germany has been heavily involved in the negotiations with both Hezbollah and Hamas with regards to Israeli soldiers missing in action – most recently in relation to kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Why has the German Government gotten so involved in this issue and does it expect to see a resolution some time soon?

MW: In this humanitarian issue Germany stands ready to offer its good services aiming to find a solution to this problem and help to ease tensions related to it. At the occasion of his visit to the Gaza strip on November 8 last year, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle publicly demanded the release of Gilad Shalit and met his family.  Germany will remain committed.

CJF: With two prominent Islamist entities on Israel’s border, namely Hezbollah and Hamas, whose goal is to destroy the State of Israel, and an array of other Muslim states who are also dedicated to this goal, is a durable peace in the Middle East ever likely to be achieved?

MW: A durable peace in the Middle East is not only in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians. It is also in the interest of the whole region and beyond. A two-state solution is without alternative. Germany remains committed to a solution as laid down in the road map: Security for Israel in recognised borders and the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian State. In the process of getting closer to a final settlement, all involved have to fulfill a number of obligations, and stopping incitement is certainly one of these. The Federal Government demands that all actors in the Middle East refrain from violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist and the results of the peace process so far. This also applies to Hamas and remains the basis of every decision regarding this organisation.

CJF: What does the German Government think of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel?

MW: The German government does not support such campaigns.

CJF: What are some of Germany’s strategic interests in relation to Israel?

MW: Peace and stability in the Middle East are in the best interest of Germany and Israel.

For decades it has been a German foreign policy priority to contribute to this goal around the world. With regard to the Middle East, we want to actively contribute to a situation where Israel is able to live in peace and security with all its neighbours. We are convinced that a two-state solution would represent a sustainable solution to the conflict and serve both sides. The people in Israel and Palestine deserve to live in peace and prosperity.

The Holocaust

CJF: Is forgiveness for the Holocaust necessary from the German perspective? Do you believe that broadly speaking the global Jewish community has forgiven Germany? If not, is there a period in time in which this could or should be achieved?

MW: Forgiveness is in my eyes a very personal thing. It can neither be asked for, nor can it be granted on behalf of someone else. I would not use the term in connection with whole communities or even nations. Reconciliation seems, if I may say so, maybe the more appropriate term in this context. And it is indeed a gift to us Germans that meanwhile many Holocaust survivors are ready for reconciliation. Apart from individual guilt, the crime of the Holocaust makes Germans feel horrified and ashamed and it should of course never be forgotten. On the other hand, there are now a great number of encouraging signs for reconciliation. Think last but not least of the newly flourishing life of Jewish communities in Germany.

CJF: How much do you estimate has the German Government contributed to the global Jewish community, including Israel, in financial terms (excluding trade with Israel) and how much of this is specifically for Holocaust-related reparations? Is there a financial cap the German Government has for this ongoing contribution?

MW: Since the end of World War II in 1945 the Federal Republic of Germany has paid compensation to victims of Nazi persecution of more than € 68 billion. By far most of this amount was paid to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Exceptions would apply to compensation settlements for victims of pseudo-medical experiments and to the compensation paid to former forced labourers under the regime of the German foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”, of which the majority of recipients were former forced labourers from the Central and Eastern European countries.

More than € 27 billion went to Israel, of which € 1,53 billion to the Government of Israel under the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952. Almost € 20 billion have been paid to individual victims in Israel under the Federal Compensation Act (BEG). Under the same regime another € 26 billion were paid out to Jewish victims outside Israel.

Almost € 3 billion have been paid to the Jewish Claims Conference for the implementation of various programs financed by the German Government and implemented by the JCC, such as the Hardship Fund, the Article 2 Fund and the Eastern European Fund. There is no cap for continuing such payments. The payments of pensions to individual recipients under the BEG will continue as long as they live, in certain cases they continue to be paid to surviving spouses. The programs for the compensation of Jewish victims as agreed between the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and the JCC will continue to be financed and implemented as long as there are Holocaust victims who qualify as beneficiaries of those programs.

CJF: In relation to recent reports that millions of dollars were stolen from the Claims Conference, which is essentially funded by German tax payers, is the German Government taking any measures in response to this major fraud?

MW: In November 2010 the public prosecutor’s office and the FBI in New York officially informed the public that 17 suspects had been indicted for a series of fraud cases committed against the Jewish Claims Conference (New York Office).

Obviously, the JCC and the German Government share an interest in recovering as large a part as possible of the sums fraudulently paid out to non-qualified claimants and to look into a reorganisation of the administration/management of the funds so as to avoid such fraud cases in the future. There is no question of terminating the programs concerned as agreed between the German Government and the JCC, as genuine Holocaust survivors should not suffer from such fraudulent practises by some unscrupulous persons.

Iran

CJF: What do you believe is the best approach in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat and what steps is the German Government taking to address this?

MW: During the past years the German Government, along with its European and international partners (France and UK as well as the US, Russia and China, i.e. the so-called E3+3), has continued its intensive engagement to find a diplomatic resolution of the international community’s concerns regarding the exclusively peaceful character of Iran’s nuclear programme on the basis of successive Security Council Resolutions and Resolutions of the IAEA Board of Governors. The E3+3 builds on a dual approach: On the one hand, they have constantly underlined their willingness to engage in substantial talks with Iran on this issue to find a diplomatic solution. On the other hand, they are exerting pressure through the implementation of effective sanctions in order to bring Iran to the negotiating table since it refuses to seriously address the issue.

CJF: How do you explain the dichotomy between Germany’s public support for sanctions against Iran and the recent record-breaking level of trade between Germany and Iran, including a 2.6% increase in exports and 75.5% in imports over the last year? Don’t you feel that this undermines the strict UN and even stricter EU sanctions against Iran?

MW: Germany is meticulously implementing the already existing sanctions and regimes. Beyond that, we actively discourage our business community from doing business with Iran. This has led to a downward trend in German-Iranian trade relations. The 2.6% rise of German exports to IRN for Jan-Nov 2010 is far below the overall increase of 19.2% in German exports for that period. Many German companies do not enter into any new business relations with Iran. The effect of the sanctions on the statistics will only be seen after a while. But Iran already feels the effect now, because Iran can see that investors are staying away, that important infrastructure projects in the oil- and gas-industry are not going forward.

Tolerance

CJF: Why do you believe German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared recently that multiculturalism in Germany has “utterly failed” and what has been the impact of this declaration?

MW: Chancellor Merkel made that remark at the height of a controversial debate in the German public domain about the achievements and short-comings with regards to integration. It is not my job to second-guess comments made by the Chancellor. Having said that, one needs to differentiate between “multiculturalism” as a descriptive term for a situation where people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact in a common societal space, and “multi-kulti”, which in the specific German context signifies an essentially ideological approach to the issue of immigration and which implies a large degree of “laissez-faire” when it comes to the integration efforts of migrants. My feeling is that today few people disagree that Germany first has neglected the issue for too long, and then maybe put too much stress on accepting large-scale migration as a fact of life without acknowledging that it can create tensions, too. Today, we’re seeing a more sober and balanced position, with integration perceived as a two-way street, where demands on migrants, e.g. with regards to language skills, are seen as legitimate and even necessary, but obligations on the host society to offer opportunities are likewise not ignored. German Government initiatives such as the German Islam Conference certainly reflect that more nuanced and dialogue-oriented approach.

CJF: With the rising level of antisemitism globally, especially in Europe (though perhaps less so in Germany itself), what measures is the German Government taking to combat antisemitism specifically and racism more broadly – especially given that there is a resurgence of the Far Right throughout Europe, including in Germany?

MW: The German Government as the vast majority of the German society is decidedly opposed to any form of racism or antisemitism. If you would like, this is one of the lessons we successfully drew from our recent past and this might also explain why so far there is no successful far right political party established in the German political spectrum. On the other hand, there are a whole number of mostly local prevention programs funded by both State and Federal governments to combat any form of racism or antisemitism.

General Interest

CJF: The German Jewish community seems to be thriving in contemporary Germany – its institutions, culture etc. Has the German Government taken an active role in this regard?

MW: As I have already pointed out earlier, indeed the German Jewish community is thriving in contemporary Germany and we are very happy for that. Jewish migration to Germany has started much earlier than a thousand years before and the Jewish contribution to German cultural and scientific achievements is tremendous. It has, therefore, been in the interest of the German government to help to restore Jewish life in Germany again. Just to name one example: It was chancellor Helmut Kohl who in the early nineties after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe provided possibilities for members of Jewish communities in the former Soviet empire to come and settle in Germany. Meanwhile, the first rabbis after many decades are ordained in Germany again.

CJF: What are the key areas of diplomatic cooperation between Australia and Germany, and what role does the Embassy play in all of this?

MW: Despite the geographic distance, bilateral relations between Germany and Australia are close and trusting.

Australia is aware of Germany’s importance as a leading nation within the European Union. Conversely, Australia is an important partner for Germany because of its growing influence in Southeast and East Asia and its support for peace, democracy, respect for human rights and good governance.

We are linked by a number of concrete political, economic, cultural and scientific cooperation projects to which both bilateral embassies contribute.

At the multilateral level, the excellent relationship between our countries is underscored not only by our cooperation within the G20 process and our endeavours to meet the challenges deriving from climate change, but also by our joint commitment in disarmament and non-proliferation policy. With regards to Afghanistan, Australia and Germany are both engaged within ISAF as in civil capacity building.

Economic and scientific relations are lively but could still be further intensified, although Germany ranks among Australia’s top ten trading partners already now.

Our relations have a long tradition and a strong people-to-people aspect. Tribute is regularly paid to the important role played by German immigrants in the late 19th century (Barossa Valley: wine growing) and after the Second World War (Snowy Mountains: hydroelectric power system). Visits by German tourists lead to numerous personal contacts. Particularly popular are the Working Holidays programme, which enables nearly 20,000 young Germans to visit and get to know Australia every year and the numerous school exchange programmes.

CJF: I note that Chancellor Merkel was recently awarded the Light Unto the Nations award by a prominent Jewish organisations, the American Jewish Committee, in recognition of her “outspoken support” of the Jewish people and Israel. What is the significance of this?

MW: Having received this prestigious award represents a high honour for our Head of Government. This equally counts for the honourable doctor degree of Tel Aviv’s Hebrew University she received earlier this month. Mrs Merkel recognises it as a sign of the high trust that is put unto Germany and its people. In her responsorial address she highlighted that the recent visit of our Federal President to Israel – where he was accompanied by his own daughter and a group of young people – should be seen as proof on how much effort the political leadership of Germany pays to keep responsibility and remembrance alive. She also stressed that human rights and basic dignity of man are disregarded at many places around the globe. So we still have a huge effort in front of us.

CJF: In relation to gender equality in Germany, what are some of the initiatives to ensure women’s equal participation in German society?

MW: One crucial aspect of gender equality is labour market participation. The German Government has implemented a series of initiatives to help women to better reconcile family and work duties. One was the introduction of a parental benefit, which was quite successful. Another aim of gender policy is to increase the percentage of women in management positions. The private sector has to do more in this context as politicians have repeatedly demanded with regard to Germany’s position in respective rankings.

Manny Waks is the Executive Director of the Capital Jewish Forum, which aims to promote discussion and engagement with intellectuals, dignitaries and leaders on topics which are relevant to Jewish academic, policy, business and other professionals. The Capital Jewish Forum has no political or ideological affiliation.

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