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Between Banning and Contact

​Israeli Attitudes towards Renewal of Jewish Life in Postwar Germany

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​On the afternoon of May 14, 1948, while the People’s Council headed by David Ben-Gurion convened in Tel Aviv to declare the establishment of the State of Israel, members of the »Palestinian Delegation to the Surviving Remnant [of European Jewry]« gathered around radios at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Möhlstraße in Munich to listen to this declaration. Following the announcement, the Delegation head, Chaim Yahil (formerly Heinrich Hoffmann, 1905–1974), spoke excitedly about this significant event in the history of the Jewish people, and a sense of enthusiasm pervaded to everyone who attended the meeting. A day later, the festive atmosphere was replaced by a series of consultations dealing with the implications of the establishment of the Jewish state on the future of She’arit Hapleta (the Surviving Remnant) – Jewish Holocaust survivors who had stayed in displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany. The Delegation, which had arrived in post-war Germany in December 1945 to support Jewish DPs, now sketched the plan for their legal Aliyah to the State of Israel. As part of these activities, Yahil urged the newly founded Israeli Foreign Ministry, to open a consulate in Munich, where most of the DPs were concentrated. In the summer of 1948, Yahil’s request was approved, and a consulate under his leadership was accredited to the Western Occupation Authorities in Postwar Germany.

From the establishment of the State of Israel, the Israeli officialdom and society fiercely objected to renewal of Jewish life in Germany and demanded its banning. In their view, the foundation of a state for the Jewish people not only allowed the end of Jewish life in Germany, but also required it: the existence of Jewish life in the land of the perpetrators was unacceptable. If so, during its existence in Munich, the consulate was required to act in the gap between the banning of Jewish life in Germany on the one hand, and contacting the Jewish population as a representative of the Jewish state on the other hand. The fact that two different Jewish groups existed in Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of which was the group of DPs waiting for immigration mainly to Israel and the second a group of German Jews who had rebuilt the communities, naturally led the consulate to develop a different attitude towards each of the groups.

Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 1.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 1.
Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 2.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 2.
Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 3.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 3.
Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 4.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 4.
Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 5.
Letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 6.
A letter written by Eliahu Livneh to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs with his entrance to duty. Page 4 describes his objective towards the German-Jewish community, 14 November 1949. Israeli State Archive (ISA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) 533/7, p. 6.

​Regarding the Jews in the DP camps, for whose Aliyah the consulate had been established, the liaison was maintained. The Israeli consul visited the DP camps near Munich and was often received in a solemn ceremony, during which the American army played the Israeli anthem, Hatikva, before the American anthem in an attempt to arouse feelings of hope, pride and honor among the Jewish survivors. Almost daily, Aliyah candidates visited the consulate for medical examinations and to prepare for their journey to Israel.

While the contact with the DPs was preserved, the consulate’s initial policy towards the communities that had been rebuilt by some 15,000 German-Jewish survivors was that of avoidance. In Yahil’s view, the remaining German Jewry lacked Jewish values, and the issue of their presence in Germany was to be solved naturally by the mortality of the elderly and the sick. However, from autumn 1949 on, upon the arrival of a different consul to Munich, this approach changed significantly. The new consul, Eliahu Livneh (1906–1963), perceived the German-Jewish leadership as a »‘cheap’ partner« who would reconcile with Bonn’s government and sacrifice Israeli economic interests for material compensation from Germany (see displayed letter, page 4). Hence, from this moment on, the policy of the consulate was that of depriving the Jews in Germany from achieving political influence and ensuring that they would be solely a social entity.

This approach led the consulate to adopt banning measures of Jewish communal life in Germany. The consular staff refrained from partaking in dedication ceremonies of synagogues, joint prayers and memorial ceremonies for former German-Jewish communities that had perished in the Holocaust. However, regarding political matters of the new rebuilt communities, the consul intervened in issues relating to Israel’s interests. Thus, the consul supported the establishment of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland and even headed its founding committee. Accompanying and supporting the foundation of the Zentralrat served for Livneh as an admission ticket to its convening, and allowed him to direct its decisions concerning the matter of reparation, as indeed happened along the path to the signing of the Reparations Agreement (1952).

When the first meeting of the Zentralrat was held in January 1951, Livneh was the first to speak at the festive gathering. He concluded his speech with embracing words implying kinship: »The State of Israel does not forget its children, wherever they are.« Indeed, the Israeli consulate in Munich kept contact with the Jewish population in Postwar Germany, hence deviating from the formal Israeli banning position. However, it was involved in the life of the DPs and in political aspects of the German-Jewish community for utilitarian Israeli motives rather than for the renewal of Jewish life in Germany.

Irit Chen is a PhD student in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her dissertation focuses on the work of the members of Israeli Purchasing Mission in Cologne and their contribution to deepening the early connections between Israel and West Germany between 1953 and 1965. | irit.chen(at)mail.huji.ac.il

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Cover Picture: Consul Chaim Yahil greeted by children of Traunstein DP camp.
Published in: Das Wort, 8 April 1949, page 4. The Central Zionist Archives, A382/1.