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Germany's strict support for Israel, informed by history


As the world reacts to the events in Israel and Gaza, Germany has taken the lead in condemning Hamas and showing solidarity with Israel. At the same time, pro-Palestinian protests have broken out in many of Germany's largest cities, raising tension in a country that believes it has a historic responsibility to support Israel. NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about this. Hey, Rob.


DETROW: So German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Israel and Egypt, declaring his country's solidarity with Israel but also saying Germany's existence depends on that of Israel's. What does he mean by that?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. This goes back to the previous chancellor, Angela Merkel, who coined the phrase (speaking German) on a visit to Israel. This is literally translated as reason of state in German, and it means that the security and existence of Israel is tied to the foundation of modern Germany, given the atrocities that Germany committed against Jews in the Holocaust during World War II. Now, that's important for those outside of Germany to understand because it helps explain the country's strict response to pro-Palestinian rallies and protests that we've seen here in Berlin since the Hamas attack on October 7. After Chancellor Scholz visited Israel and Egypt. He spoke at the Bundestag, Germany's Parliament, about threats posed to Jews here in Germany.



SCHMITZ: And he's saying here that antisemitism has no place in Germany, and he urged police to ban all demonstrations where there could be a potential threat of antisemitic slogans. And as a result, police here in Berlin have banned all demonstrations from pro-Palestinian groups.

DETROW: It's banning all demonstrations. Berlin is home to Germany's largest Palestinian population. How have people in the community responded to that?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Nearly every day this past week, we've seen protests from groups who support Palestinians ignoring the police ban. This is happening in one of Berlin's largest districts, Neukolln, which is home to one of Germany's largest Muslim populations, as well as the country's largest Palestinian population. The response in Neukolln immediately following the Hamas attack grabbed some headlines. Pro-Palestinian groups held a rally that celebrated the attack, and the pro-Palestinian group Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, posted photos of activists in Neukolln handing out sweets to children to celebrate. Samidoun is now banned inside of Germany. Chancellor Scholz called their celebration a crime that must be prosecuted. And Berlin police, like I said, are not allowing any more demonstrations. But that ban has been defied over and over in the past week, and each time, police have had violent clashes with protesters.

DETROW: Do we have a general sense of who the protesters are? Is this mostly Muslim immigrants, or is it a mix of different groups?

SCHMITZ: It's a mix. Berlin is not only home to a significant Muslim population, but it's also a center for left-wing politics and left-wing causes. And support for Palestinians is one of those popular causes here. So many people here are angry about this ban on rallies supporting Palestinians. They're saying that they do not support Hamas and only want to show support for families in Gaza, but they're not allowed to do that because the German government is worried about these rallies turning into attacks on Jews. And, of course, that is a very sensitive issue here in Berlin, a city that still struggles with its historical role in the Holocaust. So there's a complicated and sensitive backdrop to all of this here in Berlin.

DETROW: That's NPR's Berlin correspondent, Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRACUDA SOUND'S "LUZ OCULTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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