With polished Hebrew, Germany’s ambassador to Israel draws inspiration from the job
While the Holocaust still plays a central role in German diplomacy with Israel, Ambassador Steffen Seibert tells Jewish Insider that does not disqualify it from sharing concerns over government policies
If the unique diplomatic relationship between Israel and Germany is defined by events of the last century, namely the atrocities of the Holocaust, then Steffen Seibert, the German ambassador who arrived in the Jewish state just over a year ago, is in the right job.
A former journalist and news anchor, who more recently spent 10 years as the government spokesman under former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Seibert is smooth, sharp and as sensitive as one can be in a country that still bears the scars of the systematic Nazi genocide of Jews in Europe more than 75 years ago.
Seibert, who took up his post in Tel Aviv just over a year ago, has already made impressive strides in getting to know the country, meeting with leaders both in the current and former governments, ordinary citizens and Holocaust survivors, some of whom he hosted in his living room earlier this year as part of a special Yom HaShoah program.
Oh, and he has also managed to learn fluent Hebrew.
“My wife thinks I’m a total nerd and I think she might be right,” Seibert, who regularly uploads snappy and polished videos in Hebrew to social media, told Jewish Insider last week. “Speaking in videos is still very different from speaking in real life. Hebrew is one difficult language to learn.”
Despite the difficulties, the ambassador said he is dedicated to his weekly lessons and always makes sure to do his homework – in between diplomatic appointments.
“I do it because it helps to show the people that watch the videos and the Israelis that I meet that I care deeply about their country, their language and their culture,” Seibert said. “Because in Hebrew you find the history, the religion and so much of what makes Israel what it is.”
In a wide-ranging interview at the German Embassy in Tel Aviv, Seibert discussed a number of issues — from Holocaust remembrance and the rise of the right in Germany, to the rise of the right in Israel, the controversial steps taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to overhaul the judiciary and the mass public backlash the government has faced.
He also highlighted the importance of a $3.5 billion deal for Israel to sell its Arrow 3 missile-defense system to Germany – Israel’s largest defense export in history – which was given the green light by the U.S. earlier this month.
“I can take absolutely no credit for it, but if and when it happens it will be a very big deal,” said Seibert of the agreement, which still needs to be ratified. “It is highly valuable for both sides – of great material value for Israel, and of a symbolic value for both of us because for many years the military relationship with Israel was more of a one-way street; us providing material to the Israelis.”
Seibert explained that the shift in the military partnership began several years ago when Germany purchased Israeli-made Heron drones to protect its soldiers abroad. The Arrow 3 procurement, which he explained was a direct response to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, will “add a whole new dimension that will finally make the military-security relationship [with Israel] a two-way street, which is a good thing.”
Even as military ties between the two countries are changing, there is one consistent theme that colors Germany’s relations with the Jewish state: the Holocaust.
Relations between Israel and Germany emerged slowly following World War II and only began warming after what was then West Germany offered the Jewish state reparations in 1952. Formal ties were established in 1965, yet even today, the website of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office notes that relations with Israel are viewed as “unique” because of the events of the past.
“When you are the German ambassador here, you work on the whole breadth, the whole bandwidth of Germany-Israeli relations, which really covers everything, but you always come back to the issue that makes this relationship so singular, and that is the most unimaginable crime in human history, the Shoah,” Seibert said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
A main focus of Seibert’s work in Israel has been to connect with the last remaining Holocaust survivors, to hear their stories, and also to explore ways to keep their memories alive.
“There is always the question of how we can make sure that every future generation will know about what happened. We need to pass on the knowledge and do it in a way that doesn’t let the Holocaust become just a chapter in history,” he explained. “For us Germans, it is part of our identity. Not a question of personal guilt for today’s generations but one of responsibility – and that mustn’t get lost.”
Even as the Holocaust still plays a central role in German diplomacy with Israel, Seibert said that does not disqualify it from sharing concerns with the government over policies such as the judicial overhaul and its approach to the Palestinians.
“It’s no secret that the judicial plans this government is pursuing have caused great concern in Germany and we, like the U.S. government, have chosen to voice these concerns,” the ambassador told JI. “The German-Israeli friendship will always have as a foundation the memory of the Shoah and the responsibility that comes with that, but another foundation of this relationship is and always has been the values of liberal democracy that we share.”
He said that Germany has always viewed Israel as a “shining beacon of democracy” in the region and while it respects the country’s right to make its own decisions, “when we feel that what is being planned here can harm Israeli democracy, then of course we have questions and concerns.”
Seibert, whose embassy sits just minutes from the epicenter of the anti-judicial overhaul protests at the Kaplan junction in Tel Aviv, added that he has found the mass public pushback against the government, which include weekly street protests, “inspiring.”
Asked about the rise of right-wing parties and political figures inside Germany, where polls suggest support for more extreme, nationalist views have risen in recent years to 20%, Seibert said a scenario where such sentiment becomes more mainstream in his country was “nightmarish.”
“What I’ve learned from Israel is that regardless of where you stand on the issue of judicial reform, it is incredibly inspiring that for 32 or 33 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have gone out into the streets to demonstrate for what they think is right, for their idea of democracy and for the values that we share,” he said. “If such a moment ever came in Germany, I would think of these people in Israel, and you would know where to find me.”
Seibert also shared concerns over heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, which has seen some 35 Israelis killed in terrorist attacks and more than 200 Palestinians killed since the start of this year.
“This is an area, where as very close friends and partners of Israel, we have a disagreement,” he said. “We think that the current status quo of an occupation that’s been going on since 1967, is neither in the interest of Israel’s security nor does it do justice to the rights of the Palestinians — and that is also the way that international law sees it.”
“Right now, nobody can say that this is a safe and good situation of sustainable peace for the Israeli people,” Seibert pointed out. “There are horrible cases of Palestinian terror — we just recently saw a woman getting killed in front of her child and a father and son shot in the car wash — and we condemn this.”
Seibert also pointed to Palestinian civilian deaths, highlighting that while Germany believes Israel has the right to defend itself, “there is a disturbing number of Palestinians unrelated to terrorism [who] were killed this year already and their lives matter just as much.”
Seibert said that Germany still believes it’s possible to find a political solution to the conflict and, he told JI, that as his country’s envoy, he would like to do more to facilitate the process. In addition to peace, the ambassador said he would like to see greater collaborations between Israelis and Germans in the fields of science, education and culture and that he hopes to forge stronger ties with all sectors of Israeli society.
“It is probably true to say that we have traditionally looked at the Jewish part of Israeli society and mostly at the secular Jewish part of society,” observed Seibert. “We are now trying to do much more to get to know the Haredi sector and the 21% Arab Israelis.”
“I know there are great places where you can live and maybe there are places where you have a little less headache [as an envoy], but I don’t think there would be any place that would be so fulfilling or important in my eyes,” concluded the ambassador. “I couldn’t think of a better place for me to be right now.”