Earlier this month (April 2019), I along with 12 of my AJC colleagues participated in the extraordinary AJC – Adenauer Leadership Exchange Program to Germany. For the past 39 years, AJC and the Adenauer Siftung have sent yearly delegations of their leaders to Germany and the USA for a weeklong immersive experience with top-level decision makers, politicians, ambassadors, journalists, opinion leaders and leaders of the Jewish community. Through a series of nonstop morning-to-night meetings in Hamburg and Berlin, our trip gave us a deep understanding and appreciation of Germany’s history, culture, current political atmosphere and the extensive domestic, European and global challenges Germany faces.
My key take-aways are that the more I learned (and we learned so much), the more I realized how little we know. Life is complex and surely that is the case with Germany. Every issue Germany faces has a myriad of aspects and there are no simple shortcut answers. It requires deep understanding, respect and skill. Diplomacy seems to me similar to brain surgery. A sledgehammer is not the right tool if you want to avoid doing more harm than good. Unfortunately, a sledgehammer is what Germans feel – the Russian Invasion of Crimea; America’s shift into a more isolationist stance (which, we were told many times, started with President Obama); the questioning of NATO; President Trump’s critical tone towards Germany (which is hugely upsetting to the folks we met); Brexit; the rise of authoritarian regimes in the EU; just to name a few.
I was struck by the depth of knowledge possessed by the people we met, many of whom spent decades immersed in their areas of interest. Others deeply moved me with their incredible caring, including, for example, the people in charge of helping refugees to effectively integrate into Germany society. I was inspired by the Chabad Rabbi who bravely set up a Jewish Day School in Hamburg for 12 students a decade ago for a school which today, is fully enrolled with 240 students (half of whom are not Jewish!) and a long wait list. The fact that the Chabad is only a few miles from the Hamburg Blue Mosque where four terrorists planned the September 11th attacks was unnerving to say the least. And, then infuriating to learn that Iran via Hezbollah continues to operate through that Mosque, notwithstanding AJC's tireless efforts to confront Hezbollah.
A half-day of briefings at the Bundeswehr Military Leadership Academy in Hamburg, taught me much about the central role Germany has played in a number of critical NATO actions and how the Germany public struggles to redefine the role a German military should play in an ever changing world against the backdrop of its troubled Third Reich history. We learned about the economic struggles and cultural disruption for many living in the former East Germany and the rise of xenophobia and the authoritarian AfD party.
Multiple visits to the Parliament (known as the Bundestag) to meet a range of parliamentarians exposed us to the complexity and challenges of coalition governments. Meeting with the EU’s Ambassador to Berlin gave us tremendous insight into the importance of Germany to the EU, the EU to Germany and the reciprocal Germany/EU relationship with the USA. I am now more convinced than ever that the Transatlantic Alliance is the greatest force of peace and prosperity ever known to humanity. We must do all we can to strengthen this Alliance and all the institutions connected to it.
I was fortunate to have a private tour of the Chancellery and the museum collection that included the original speech cards used by JFK for his famous “Est Ein Berliner” and President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. Photo below. This reminded me poignantly of the horrors of the Cold War and how we must remember that that although freedom has a high cost, that cost pales in comparison to the evils that are unleashed by authoritarian regimes.
I could go on and on. A colleague asked me, “Was the trip complete? Was anything missing?”. The answer is that it was full and complete as possible given the six-day time frame. That being said, the trip utterly failed to quench my thirst and instead whetted my appetite to learn much more. This to me, is the highest compliment to AJC, the Adenauer Siftung and its staff, my 12 fellow travelers, and to all the people we met who made this a most memorable and impactful experience.