The German Political Foundations’ Work between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv

Taylor and Francis OnlineThe German Political Foundations’
Work between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Tel Aviv: A Kaleidoscope of Different Perspectives

Gerald M. Steinberg

German Stiftungen [political foundations] are unique and controversial institutions. Many Western countries maintain cultural centers, usually linked to embassies, to promote their image around the world. However, only Germany does this through taxpayer-funded foundations, which are run independently by each of the political parties represented in the Bundestag. Their sizeable budgets are used for conferences, publications, and support for a select group of local partners, often ideologically aligned with the political party behind the foundation. With these resources, political foundations can become significant shapers of public opinion in the countries in which they operate—an issue that has led to the closure of offices in some countries, and to instances of sharp censure in Germany.

In the context of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, the activities of the six political foundations, particularly Rosa Luxemburg (Die Linke) and Heinrich Böll (Green Party), are especially controversial. The relationship between post-Holocaust Germany and the Jewish State is inherently entangled in multiple and complex layers. For some Israelis, German attempts to manipulate Israeli society and politics, while ostensibly intended to catalyze democratic debate, are seen as inappropriate and insensitive.

Against this backdrop, the publication under review here and the related conferences held at Haifa University and in Germany in 2016 [11] claim to provide a range of perspectives on the Stiftungen and their respective activities. To their credit, the two editors—themselves affiliated with German political foundations—do not attempt to conceal their motivations and those of their sponsors, which is to counter the Knesset legislative initiatives calling for increased transparency for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are funded by foreign governments.

The campaign against this NGO legislation goes back to the initial draft of the law in 2009, which, with cross-party support, aimed at balancing freedom of expression with the need for greater transparency and accountability.[22]  Before the final vote in 2011, the Böll Foundation led the other German Stiftungenin sending to Knesset members an unprecedented public letter opposing the legislation.[33]  The two conferences and this book are continuations of this political campaign.

Many of the twenty short essays in the volume mix personal histories with ideological musings on Israel, the Palestinians, peace, social justice, and democracy. Most sing the praises of the foundations, condescend to Israelis, and criticize the legislation, claiming that it endangers their achievements. The combined result is a sponsored publication rather than an objective analysis.

Fania Oz-Salzberger’s overview of the uniquely fraught relationship between post-Nazi Germany and Israel is especially direct. She summarizes the “counterproductive” efforts to “normalize” the relationship, delves into current German–Israeli points of friction, including the legitimacy of the foundations’ political agendas, and criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for, in her words, targeting them as “moral hypocrites, or worse.” But she also asks whether the foundations are capable of acting as “benign ‘neutrals’ from a powerful country whose own history is far from neutral.” Are they “honest workers in the fields of humanity and hope, or latter-day moral colonialists, pretending to even-handedness” (p. 12)?

Unfortunately, it seems that the other authors did not adopt Oz-Salzberger’s point of reference; had they done so, perhaps the foundation officials’ essays would have come across as less condescending. For instance, Dr. Ernst Kerbusch of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Social Democratic Party), who boasts of his foundation’s role in helping the Israeli Labor party “recover from its political breakdown,” might have been more circumspect (p. 17).

Gerald M. Steinberg

Another example appears in the essay by Katherina Konarek, one of the book’s editors and also a veteran of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. She opens with an expression of moral equivalence and obtuseness that enrages many Israelis: “On the one hand, the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust had imposed a responsibility on the Germans towards the new State of Israel. On the other hand, there were millions of Palestinian refugees whose fate had been exploited in the context of the Cold War … ” (p. 35).

Turning to the NGO legislation, Konarek does acknowledge the key question of whether the foundations are “acting as foreign agents interfering in the sovereignty of the state” (p. 73). However, her response is unconvincing; she claims that they merely “catalyze debates,” as if Israelis need German politicians for this purpose. This argument is also not credible. She cites the Böll Foundation’s funding (revealed under the 2011 transparency law) of a “subcultural left-wing digital magazine criticized by the Israeli public for being antisemitic and pursuing an apartheid strategy towards Israel” and also attacked by “Israeli left intellectuals.” Konarek does not explain how German support of an English-language blog that demonizes Israelis promotes democracy.

The other essays written by various foundation officials are also aimed at mounting a defense of their agendas. Marc Frings, who represents the Ramallah office of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), contributes such a piece. His organization is affiliated with the ruling CDU party (headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2005). One of West Germany’s founding fathers after the war, Adenauer spearheaded the difficult rapprochement with Israel. Writing at the present time, Frings emphasizes his foundation’s goals of promoting peace and Palestinian state-building, but avoids any mention of terrorism or the wars between Palestinian factions. He also highlights various funding partnerships, including with the Institute of Law at Birzeit University—ostensibly to encourage the “harmonization of law,” in other words, consistency in the legal code and its uniform application, both of which are essential for democracy (p. 106–07). In reality, that institute plays a leading role in weaponizing human rights and exploiting international law to attack Israel. Other KAS partners include the Society of St. Yves, a major BDS supporter affiliated with the World Council of Churches, and the Palestine Strategy Group—a project of a British NGO that consistently advocates for anti-Israel policies. Such “partnerships” appear to be inconsistent with the legacy of Konrad Adenauer.

Unfortunately, the book does not include a chapter on Adenauer’s Jerusalem office, which, over the past thirty years, has gone through a number of major changes. After a rocky start, it now judiciously eschews intervention in internal Israeli affairs and politics. The KAS Jerusalem office comes closest to the model of a “benign catalyst” to which the editors claim all the foundations adhere. An analysis of its evolution would have been useful. Instead, essays by two Israeli academics, Shlomo Shpiro and Benjamin Mollov, describe the projects they are carrying out in cooperation with the foundation.

The section written by Kerstin Müller, the former head of the Green Party’s Böll Foundation office in Tel Aviv, heightens the sense of political confrontation. Müller is the only author in the book who fails to mention the sensitivity of Germany’s relationship to Israel and the backdrop of the Shoah—nor does she demonstrate any understanding of, or interest in, Zionism and the centrality of sovereignty and self-determination for the Jewish people. A separate essay by Oz Aruch and Omer Hakim on the ideological conflicts in the Green Party on these issues presents a somewhat broader analysis, including reference to far-left interference in the 1984 Israeli elections, to which Yeditot Ahronot referred as a crude effort at foreign intervention, and “typical German chutzpah” (p. 43).

Müller’s use of the foundation’s money and power to intervene in Israeli politics and society and impose its own ideology—what might be called democracy by proxy—is symptomatic of this phenomenon. (During the 2015 Israeli election campaign, Müller posted a photo of herself with a placard from an Israeli political group that sought the defeat of Netanyahu.) As could be expected, Müller also condemns the NGO funding transparency laws. Indeed, the activities of the Böll Foundation are among the main examples raised in the criticism of foreign government-funded political interference in Israel.

Law professor Eli Salzberger focuses on the complexities of the political role of NGOs, beginning with a High Court decision from the mid-1980s that encouraged the circulation of petitions from “public cause organizations” (p. 80). The newfound influence of NGOs in politics and in the courts, leveraged almost entirely by organizations from the left of the political spectrum, triggered a backlash. He could also have mentioned the Israeli reaction to the central role of foreign-funded NGOs in the infamous 2009 Goldstone Report on the Gaza conflict, which accused the IDF of deliberately killing civilians and contained other forms of demonization. As Salzberger notes, Israel is not unique in passing laws on NGOs and foreign funding—at least seventy countries now have such legislation.

In this context, Salzberger briefly examines the Israeli legislation, explaining its political and legal sources and implications, and remarking that the language of a 2016 addition to the 2011 NGO funding transparency law could potentially include German foundations. He rejects the argument that foreign NGO funding is a threat to democracy but agrees that the foundations’ involvement “in internal political issues under debate is more problematic” (p. 87).

As opposed to that of Müller, the chapter by Walter Klitz of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, affiliated with the Free Democrat Party (the flagbearer of what remains of liberal German politics), emphasizes Germany’s “special historical responsibility.” Unfortunately, instead of providing information on and an analysis of the foundation’s activities, Klitz joins in attacking the NGO transparency legislation, most of which, he recalls in passing, did not become law. Once again, the foundation’s political and ideological agendas seek to influence Israeli society, as Klitz singles out the Bayit HaYehudi [Jewish Home] Party for criticism.

Noticeably absent is a chapter on the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS)—the arm of Die Linke, the radical far-left group formed from the remnants of the East German Communist Party (SED). Perhaps the editors and the other foundations behind this project realized that no credible defense of RLS’s very clumsy activities and partnerships in Israel was even possible.

Taken together, this collection of essays will not convince Israelis that the powerful German political foundations operating in Israel are benign catalysts of debate, and that the absence of funding transparency or oversight is not problematic. It clearly is. Indeed, the main takeaway from this book is the need for independent research on the agendas, activities, and impact of these foundations. Even if they were not German, their activities related to Israeli society and politics require systematic analysis. However, because they are German, the problems and insensitivities are more disturbing. The essays in this book, as well as the blatant omissions, and the attempt to end critical debate on foreign funding for NGOs—including the role of the foundations—will serve as useful points of reference for the next round of research and discussion on the topic. In this sense, the book is a valuable contribution.

1 The book includes the details of these conferences. The first, entitled, “New Gatekeeper in a Globalized World? The Israeli Transparency Bill: Legal and Political Aspects of the Work of Israeli NGOs supported from Abroad,” was held in Haifa in March 2016. The second, “A Player and Not Just a Payer? The Work of German Political Foundations Abroad,” took place in Bochum in July 2016.

2 In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that based on my academic work, several Knesset members from various parties consulted with me in writing this legislation, and I have authored a number of academic publications on these issues, none of which is cited in this book.

3 Heinrich Böll Foundation, “German political foundations write joint letter to Members of Knesset on NGO funding bills—Democracy,” November 20, 2011,

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