How do people in Germany act in the face of apartheid and massive violence in Israel-Palestine, recognizing the weight of German history? As a US-American international worker with a peace organization in Germany, it has surprisingly felt more comfortable to engage in advocacy and work on Israel-Palestine here than in the US. This is perhaps surprising because the history here is of course so much more difficult. But because German and European Christian responsibility for the Holocaust is so profound and sensitive, and also because German political power on the world stage so modest, one has the feeling that political engagement is a non-starter and has little to offer. An alternative to more political organizing is to focus on civil society engagement and partnership with Palestinians and Israelis who work for peace and justice in their communities. Through such relationships, Germans can cultivate peace and justice to be a part of healing the world´s wounds. And as the rest of the world outside of the United States also has too little influence on the situation, this model of centering civil society partnership has much to offer the overwhelming majority of Anabaptist Christians who don´t live in the US.
Germany has a special relationship to Israel, and the German government names promoting Israel’s security as an integral reason for the German state to exist. Because Germans centrally caused the Holocaust, many Germans feel a deep responsibility—an important and valuable sense of history—even if German dedication can take narrow, self-serving, or virtue-signaling forms at times, as historian Masha Gessen has recently argued regarding German understandings of Israel-Palestine. For better and for worse, the history of genocide is very present and makes criticizing Israel very uncomfortable.
Germany is also a country with modest power. Even insofar as Germans are interested in taking a strong stance against injustice, ethnic cleanings, apartheid, and genocide in Israel-Palestine, Germany is not doing nearly as much harm as, say, the US. German arms sales to Israel in 2023 amounted to about 1.7% as much as US arms aid to Israel. And German politics are nowhere near as important in creating diplomatic space for Israel´s settlement and war policies. There is surely room to debate the importance of German politics and there are reasons to exert pressure, as German politicians can still register dissent behind the scenes. Speaking up also affirms the millions of Muslims in Germany who are hurting right now. But compared to the US there is less space to push politicians and less to be won from doing so.
What opportunities are available in this context, given how little room there is for politics? There is potential for a rich array of civil society relationships. Aware of trauma on many sides and deeply invested in peace, German Mennonites can support networks of Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians, and solidarity-minded Jews that are nurturing Christian community and witness, and that are feminist, environmental, human rights-affirming, educational, anti-racist, interfaith, and justice-oriented. These networks both strengthen communities of justice and peace in Israel-Palestine and bear witness to tens of millions of people around the world. They provide space to learn about ethnic cleansing and, in this time, the ongoing genocide on the part of Israel and the United States.
The AMG (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden in Deutschland), the Mennonite denomination in Germany to which I belong, has for at least a couple of decades maintained active relationships in Israel-Palestine. These connections arose partly through North American Mennonite relationships—Community Peacemaker Teams has been a significant partner, and North American Mennonites in volunteer placements in Germany have played a role in facilitating visits and study tours to Israel-Palestine. Through Community Peacemaker Teams, many from the AMG have visited Hebron. (A notable side benefit of these contacts with CPT has been that they helped draw AMG Mennonites into developing a sense for non-violent resistance and human rights organizing and opting to co-found and support a CPT team on Lesbos, together with Dutch Mennonites).
AMG Mennonites have developed many distinct relationships independent of other Mennonite connections. Guesthouses and Christian centers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem have received and cultivated friendships with AMG Mennonite visitors over the decades as they have traveled on church-connected trips. AMG Mennonites are also blessed with a deep sense that Jewish voices, security needs, and participation or leading in peace processes are important. Several decades-long relationships reflect this vision, including connections to an Israeli group that brings bereaved Jewish and Palestinian families that have lost loved ones together to work and witness for peace. AMG Mennonites have also related to a Jewish organization that resists the Israeli policy of widespread housing demolition. In recent years, AMG Mennonites have been open and generous in hearing from and supporting groups with significant Jewish leadership and/or membership. Human rights work, interfaith Arab Christian-Jewish religious projects, and a non-profit run by Israeli Jews that installs solar power for Palestinians are some examples.
The AMG is a denomination of about 5,000 members. Perhaps a dozen or so AMG Mennonites visit Israel-Palestine annually, and contribute perhaps some tens of thousands of euros in donations. Some AMG members maintain supportive relationships and exchanges with friends in Israel-Palestine, and there is also support through the AMG to strengthen Community Peacemaker Teams. Financial support in a typical year might amount to a marginal percent of the budget of some of these organizations and guesthouses. This last year was exceptional, even in terms of the partnerships that my employing organization maintains. We raised support for multiple projects, some related to the war and others not. In February we took a learning tour to Israel-Palestine with nine people. Over the spring and summer we raised 35,000€ for a solar project at a Christian Bible school and center in Bethlehem. And in the fall we gathered donations from kind German Mennonites amounting to about 20,000 to 25,000€ for a variety of partners. We hope this fundraising work can sow seeds of peace in some communities, and help the world learn about what is happening.
We have also, it should be said, offered moral support, encouragement, and helped make contacts. We are not situated to generate programs ourselves, but we can certainly be friends to people who are working for peace and justice. We are also sometimes well-positioned to strengthen networks and bring people together.
When measured financially against the scale of many Christian endeavors in Israel-Palestine, our financial and relational impacts are minor. Even this year with a war going on, our support has only made a significant budgetary impact on a small set of partners.
The resources we offer partners are small, but the impact of these partners and their work is great. In Israel and internationally, some of our Jewish connections and friends in the land comprise a meaningful part of the face of dissent and defiance in the face of genocidal state policy. In a moment in which less than 2% of Israeli Jews feel their government is “using too much firepower in Gaza” and many dissident Jews are arrested, they are a witness to history. The dean of the earlier-mentioned Arab Bible school in Bethlehem is also a witness to history—he provided the city of Bethlehem´s defining Christmas statement in global news in December—a call for ceasefire and for repentance from the West´s complicit Christians, and a condemnation of Western hypocrisy. Tens of millions of people read about or watched that speech and it generated or informed hundreds of news articles, including from international publications and prominent Christian media. Another farm and peace project we support received delegations from the US and German governments this year and educates thousands or tens of thousands of other visitors annually. These education and communication pieces are very important to me as a peace worker. The impact of this financial help also makes a difference on the ground in West Bank Palestinian communities that were thrust literally overnight into an economic depression with Hamas´s massacre of October 7.
Because of what they know and have seen, German Mennonites are better positioned than most in Germany to share with others. German Mennonites can serve as a bridge for other white Germans to Israel-Palestine, just as Mennonites in the US have pointed other US-Americans in this direction. Many AMG Mennonites engage in a worldwide women´s ecumenical movement called the World Day of Prayer, which each year focuses on a country. The country of the year for 2024 is Palestine, and many German Mennonite women are engaged in conversations with their neighbors from other denominations about how to participate in this event in light of the current crisis. Such advocacy is important in shaping ecumenical gatherings in many places. Germans generally are aware that the pain in Israel-Palestine is deeply connected to German history and actions. But there is too little advocacy in Germany to acknowledge Palestinian experiences—AMG Mennonites can be a witness.
What is in the future for German Mennonite relationships in Israel-Palestine? That is of course up to German Mennonites. This year, my organization will hopefully bring several groups to visit Israel-Palestine, along with financial resources, encouragement, and hopefully a feeling of a trace of normalcy. We will also provide a reminder that there are white Christian people in rich and powerful countries who are watching Israel´s various crimes against humanity—a powerful deterrent, even since the founding of the country and ethnic cleansing in 1948. I also hope that German Mennonites will maintain some of the relationships they have formed over these last decades and perhaps generate new projects out of those connections, offering support including prayer, giving, visiting, and perhaps sending some volunteers.
Taking action is part of recovery from the despondency that accompanies this and other crises. Many freeze and feel powerless in the face of such wanton destruction by their political leaders. Worldwide, hundreds of millions or billions read news about Israel-Palestine with discouragement but take no action to actively support or strengthen advocates there or globally. Many have a sense that such violence is wrong but feel they can do nothing. Bringing people together to strengthen partners works against these feelings of powerlessness even as it equips leaders to organize in the future.
As a North American who is able to encourage networks to support political organizing in the US, I feel that the emerging network Mennonite Action and similar efforts to build pressure are absolutely central. Such organizing is long-overdue as a centerpiece of US American Mennonite witness. While we US American Mennonites have deep civil society relationships in Israel-Palestine that have been hugely generative, we have not done enough about the unacceptable ways that our government enables a permanent crisis. We must be a strong voice against that. At the same time, our witness of supporting partners with their own unique moral authority and platforms and audiences is invaluable. My prayer for the next years of US Mennonite engagement is that we will embrace both these realms of action—strengthening relationships with partners in Israel-Palestine and also organizing politically.