Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans at the University of Tel Aviv

Speech (in English) by Frans Timmermans, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the University of Tel Aviv on December 9, 2013.

I am from the southern part of the Netherlands, from a province called Limburg, which was liberated in 1944 by American troops. We have a vast American cemetery in the south of Limburg, in which over 8,000 American servicemen are buried. People from my part of the country will sometimes adopt and maintain these graves. For me, this was an opportunity to educate my kids about the history of the region and the history of the Second World War. If you express an interest in adopting a grave, you are assigned one at random. We were given one about ten years ago and we went to see it. I only had the name of the soldier buried there (Leo Lichten), the date of his birth and the date he was killed: 20 November 1944. And I knew he was Jewish because his grave had a Star of David on it instead of a cross. I also knew that he was from New York, because his place of origin and the unit in which he served (the 84th Infantry Division) were engraved on the headstone.

I then started looking for his family. It took me years and years before I made any progress. But recently I found more information about his parents, and I wanted to share that with you. Because while doing this research, I became much more aware of Jewish history than I had been before.

His father, Max, was born in 1894 in Colovan, a shtetl in Galicia which was then part of Austria-Hungary and which is now part of Poland. He travelled to Bremen in 1912, got on board the steamship Königin Luisa and went to New York. His mother Mollie was born in 1900 in Bazalia, a small shtetl near Ternopil in what is now Ukraine. Before that, it was the Soviet Union, before that Russia, and when she was born, Austria-Hungary as well. She travelled on the Aquitaine to New York in 1921. They got married and had two kids, Bella and Leo, and then they divorced.

And I wanted to know: why were these people called Lichten? How did the Jews get their names? Why did they leave? What were conditions like in what is now Ukraine and Poland? You get so overwhelmed: you want to know more and more. And I will keep on digging into that history. I mention this now because it is the perfect example of how, even if they would like to, Europeans and Israelis cannot disentangle their common history and so cannot disentangle their common future.

I would like to share one more example, and then I shall stop with my personal digressions and go on to policy. Three years ago, my wife and I bought a house, and we wanted to know something about its history. We discovered that during the war, two Jewish men had been hidden there. I managed to find out the story of the people who lived in the house at the time. Their youngest daughter is still alive, and I have talked to her at great length. The men who were hidden there were Walter Kaufmann, a German pianist, and Rudolf Jacob Zeller, a well-known portraitist from Hamburg. I managed to acquire two of his paintings, and it is wonderful to have them.

Zeller had worked as a painter, a man who went to rich families to make portraits. He was given a Berufsverbot in 1935. His wife, who was a Gentile, could not accept the way Jews were being treated in Germany and committed suicide. He left Germany with their two boys, and they were sent far away from Europe. He himself went to the Netherlands with Walter Kaufmann and they stayed in Zandvoort, on the North Sea coast. After 1940, when Jews were no longer allowed to live on the coast, they went into hiding in the house which my wife and I later bought. In the neighbourhood where we now live, there was also somebody who supported the Nazis and he denounced quite a lot of Jews who were in hiding. Fortunately, this never happened to these two men. This Nazi sympathiser was eventually killed in the street, for fear that he would expose more Jews. But Zeller survived. And what I found so touching is that he never understood why he was singled out for being a Jew. He never understood because he never regarded his Jewishness as something that set him apart. He was not a religious Jew. As he saw it, he was just a German painter.

This story has stuck in my mind. Of course we see what happened to us and what happened to the Jews with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we should look at these events through the eyes of great writers who lived in that period, such as Joseph Roth. In his books, you sense where it was all going, even though he did not know, having died before the war. Anybody who would argue that anti-Semitism or other forms of discrimination is not a dangerous game should go read his books. His writings should be compulsory in schools and universities so young people can understand what it means to blame people for what is wrong in society.

This takes me right to the heart of my speech. Europe is going through a crisis. It is much more than an economic crisis. Some would say that it is an identity crisis. I see Europeans from many countries who feel they have been abandoned. By whom? By the system, by the government, by the economy? Then an age-old European – or should I say human – reflex comes into play: we have been abandoned, so we need to blame someone. We are in trouble, so we need to blame someone. For centuries, Jews were at the receiving end of this reflex. But this is no longer the exclusive ‘honour’ of the Jews. We find other minorities to blame today. This is part of human nature.

If I understand a little about Jewish culture and heritage, you do not deny human nature; you embrace it, and you tackle the dark side of that nature. And this is something we Europeans need to do: to stop denying that there is racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our societies. We have to see that for what it is and tackle it.

I believe that Israelis and Europeans share a common heritage, a common belief, which is one of the greatest of all human achievements: a willingness to accept the Other for who he is without condemning him. We should cherish that. This takes hard work. I know one thing for sure: if we wish that anti-Semitism were gone forever, it will be with us forever. The way we deal with it is what matters, the way we deal with discrimination and the blaming of outsiders, judging people not by what they do but on the basis of who they are. There is too much of this in our societies today. And nobody is beyond reproach. I do not think that because someone is Jewish, he or she does not do this. Everybody does, and it is a common challenge for us all to tackle it.

When it comes to the relationship between the European Union and Israel, there is always talk about double standards. And it is true. There are double standards. Even if Europeans do not say so, they judge Israel by different standards than they would judge other countries in this area. Why? Because deep down, Europeans see Israel as a European country. So they judge Israel in the same way they would judge other European countries. This is sometimes perceived as unfair. And incidentally, the reaction to criticism of Israel and its policies is sometimes perceived as unfair as well.

When I say that Israel is part of Europe, it means more than being part of UEFA, the Eurovision Song Festival or the basketball Euroleague. It means you are part of a community of values, whether you like it or not. I understand that Israel, being where it is, is reorienting its focus and policies to other parts of the world. I see new attention being paid to the BRICs and other emerging countries. This is a natural development. As they say: in international politics where you sit is where you stand. If you are in a certain region, you adapt to that region. That is logical. But what I want to try to get across – in Europe too – is that even with its geographical position, even with Israel’s reorientation towards other nations and regions, there is no way we can ever disentangle the destiny of Europe from the destiny of Israel. We had better face that fact.

In the Netherlands and other European countries, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a zero-sum game. You are either for Israel or you are for the Palestinians. If you try to take a more neutral position, as I do, everybody will want a piece of you. The advantage of choosing sides is that at least half the people will be happy with you. But if you refuse to take sides, there is a chance that everybody will be unhappy with you.

The European Union should consider that whatever we choose to do or not to do in terms of our policies, there is no way we can disentangle the destiny of Israel from the destiny of Europe. It is our common responsibility. And in that sense, Europe needs to devise a more sophisticated policy for working with Israel. The contribution we have made today by creating a forum for cooperation between Israel and the Netherlands is a more sophisticated way of elaborating our relationship in the academic and economic fields.

In our talks Prime Minister Netanyahu raised a number of issues that are highly relevant to Israel. Can we reclaim land from the sea? Well, we have a little experience with that. But can we do it in a way that is environmentally acceptable? We can do that. In fact, we did it just recently. So why not share the experience? Can we devise ideas that will ensure people’s privacy in cyberspace while simultaneously maintaining security? Can we do that? Can we work together on this – scientifically, economically and politically? Yes, we can and we will. Can we look for more business opportunities on a triangular basis so we can discover and open new markets, in countries whose markets are now closed? Yes, we can. These are the things we need to do.

Some European countries take the attitude that Europe has an alternative to offer for the peace process now being driven by John Kerry. I think it is a mistake to pretend that Europe has such an alternative. Europe’s task is to fully support what the Americans have put on the table, to fully support both parties in trying to find a solution, and to be there, once a solution is found, if guarantees and support are needed.

I think the Netherlands can take pride in having great relations with both Israel and the Palestinians. It is an interesting position to be in.
Traditionally, the distinction has been made between the ‘hard power’ of the Americans and the ‘soft power’ of the Europeans. That paradigm has been changing very quickly. In the next generation or so you will see that Europeans and Americans will be driven together, whether we want to be or not, to tackle some very serious security challenges in the wide area that starts on the west coast of Africa and ends in the Indian Ocean. I believe that this area will be a source of instability and challenges for a generation to come.
We would all benefit from closer cooperation with Israel in tackling some of these challenges, given Israel’s position, the information it possesses, and the kinds of security analyses it makes on a daily basis. I do not believe that the Arab world is going to quiet down in the next couple of years. This is something that can last generations. Injustice, arbitrary borders and so on – these are things that were built up over generations. To undo that and create a new equilibrium will also take time.

There is something upon which I wish to elaborate, especially with young people in mind. Last week I was in Kyiv, where young people are protesting because they want to be closer to Europe. The young men and women with whom I spoke are about the same age as my oldest children. My oldest daughter is 27; my oldest son is 24. I was amazed by how much it was like talking to my own children. They have the same aspirations, the same wishes for themselves and their futures. They are not political in the traditional way that we were in our youth: left vs. right, etc. That is not their agenda. They want to create a better world. They are no less idealistic than people who previously called themselves social democrats or Christian democrats, liberals or conservatives. They just do not think in those terms.

These students, these people under 30 make me optimistic. Whether they live in Israel, Holland or Ukraine, most of them – unless they are in an economically difficult situation – have an incredibly open mind to what is different, to things they may not even understand yet. The information society has changed the way their brains operate, and most of them are open to seeking friendships and solving problems in a non-ideological way. This is a wonderful message, especially for a country like Israel, with its young, very smart and very educated population.

I believe that the task of my generation is to provide the knowledge we have acquired to the younger generation and to combine their optimism, their will to change things, their willingness to make sacrifices – they are far less materialistic than we sometimes assume – with our organisational skills. The weakness of the youngest generation is their lack of organisational skills. Many of them think that once their cause is on Facebook that it is reality. To get things done, you need to get organised. That is something the older generation knows.

I truly believe, as Willy Brandt once said, that any societal change is the consequence of an alliance between grandparents and grandchildren. That is a very interesting way of looking at things. Those people in Europe and Israel who knew harder times, who had to work for everything they have and those people in Europe and Israel who are prepared to take two steps back to have a better future should join forces.

Among the younger generation in Europe – I do not know about Israel – there is great disenchantment with politics and the political system. Moreover, there is a rising disenchantment with democracy, which they believe is unable to deliver on big issues like climate change and global inequality. We need to educate our children in the art of using democracy to achieve their goals. This is an international effort. This is also an effort that scholars need to think about, because in this day and age, we go to the polls every four years. But every night on television, you can vote for a singer, an artist, a dancing couple, and your vote counts. People do experience direct democracy this way. But when it comes to politics, they vote every four years, and they do not see that translated into what they want because they have not been educated in the nature of coalition politics, which is the reality in both Israel and the Netherlands.

Let me end on this. My call to the academic world is this: help us find new, innovative ways of translating this innate human necessity to be heard, to influence one’s environment, to be part of the decision-making process. Help us adapt that in a modern way, so that young people see democracy as the best way forward. As Churchill said it is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried. I think that is still true today. As fathers and mothers we have somehow failed our children by giving them too much freedom and sometimes withholding too much parenting.

Finally, I have no complete answers to the challenges we face. I notice that it is hard for many outside Israel, especially in Europe, to understand the position of Israel in this environment. It is also difficult, psychologically, to deal with an Israel that is strong, or that is perceived as such. It is easy to be Israel’s friend when Israel is the underdog. That is a cultural element; that is part of our heritage as well. It is much harder to be Israel’s friend if Israel is seen as the dominant power in the region, the top dog, an unrelenting force that refuses to give into justified requests from other parties. I think both images are wrong. We need to ensure that Israel is not backed into a corner and compelled to accept every demand in the belief that Israel’s strength enables it to make unlimited concessions.

The Netherlands will do whatever it can to help convince others that there will be no just peace without firm security guarantees for Israel. That would be impossible. This point comes across in all the negotiations. But there can also be no just peace if the people of Israel are not willing to live peacefully with the nation next door that deserves to become a country as part of a two-state solution.