In May 1966, Konrad Adenauer visited Israel as an official guest of the government. Of the several demonstrations that overshadowed the former West German chancellor’s visit, the one held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 5 May was the most turbulent. More than just attesting to the Israeli attitude towards (West) Germany at the time, the violent clashes that broke out between student demonstrators and the Israeli police in front of the National and University Library in Jerusalem reveal the internal social tensions between what would come to be known as the »First« and »Second« Israel.
The Sixties did not reach Israel: Instead of a 1968 student protest movement, Israel had a 1967 War. Nevertheless, Adenauer’s visit – and indeed relations with (West) Germany in general – were still controversial enough to stir up students from across the political spectrum. Adenauer’s »reception« at the Hebrew University, as the protestors called it, was organized by students affiliated with the communist party and was joined by members of the nationalist Herut movement,Forbear of today’s ruling party Likud which had led the opposition to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic in the early 1950s. The event began peacefully, with some 200 student protesters and curious onlookers huddling together in front of the university’s administration building, some carrying signs calling on Adenauer to go home. The visitor himself was made aware of the rally, but indicated that »demonstrations don’t scare me, I am used to them.«
The Israeli police were evidently less accustomed. Trouble began when a large group of students gathered at the entrance to the library to which Adenauer was heading. Instructed beforehand to not only physically protect the guest but also »to prevent any injury to his honor,« the police declared the protest illegal and demanded the students disperse. As they refused to leave, some policemen started tearing up the protestors’ signs. Backed up by reinforcements, the police forces began using their clubs to push the demonstrators away from the entrance. The escalating demonstration, which quickly turned into a violent clash, resulted in the injury of more than a dozen students and a similar number of policemen.
Shaken by what they perceived as unprecedented police brutality on university grounds, the students quickly announced a protest strike in response. An inquiry commission appointed by the government concluded that it was the presence of several dozen policemen, armed with shields and clubs and violating the traditional permission to protest on campus, which accounted for the horrific impression the episode left on the students. It was perhaps the students’ distress that explains their contempt towards the police. Their characterization of the police as »Nazis« may have been somewhat predictable, given the subject of the demonstration. Other insults directed against the policemen were perhaps less in line with the nature of the protest: »illiterate,« »dirty Moroccans,« and »this is not Ashdod«A city in Israel’s periphery, inhabited mainly by Mizrahi Jews at the time. Ashdod was also where, on May 1, a protest over unemployment turned sour, ending in injuries and arrests. for example, all referring to the social, ethnic and geographical origins of the policemen.
Indeed, the protest against Adenauer continued to make waves, even when the German visitor was no longer the issue. The principal question that occupied the university’s intellectuals concerned the very presence of the police on campus. The German-born Orientalist Martin Plessner, who expressed his opposition to the demonstrations against Adenauer, had nonetheless declared that »the very activity of them [the police] within the university […] is in my view unbearable.« The demand for clarification of »the status of the university with regards to the organs of the state,« as Plessner put it, had led to the appointment of an internal inquiry commission, which acknowledged the need to better regulate police activities on campus. On the other hand, another German-born Orientalist, David Zvi Baneth, who expressed a deep shame for »what was done to the 90-year-old statesman« who had risked his life opposing Hitler, found the demand for campus autonomy a »rotten remnant of the Middle Ages« which contradicted democracy, as it granted students privileges over other citizens.
The students’ offensive attitude towards the police, it seems, remained on the margins of the discussion. Only one faculty member, the scholar of Judaism Ephraim Urbach, mentioned the students’ harsh words directed towards the police. Otherwise, it was actually a student who referred to it most elaborately, in a letter to the Rector Nathan Rotenstreich. Referring to the attacks on the »illiterate« policemen, he insisted that it was the university and its students that ought to examine themselves and to see the events as breaking new records of alienation between the university and Israeli society.