December 8, 2023 - 7:00am

“The Shoah fills us Germans with shame,” Angela Merkel told Israel’s parliament in 2008, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. To her, this meant that Germany has a special responsibility for Jews and Israel. “Threats to you are threats to us,” she told the Knesset. Her successor Olaf Scholz repeated her words in the wake of Hamas’s terrorist attacks on 7 October: “Israel’s security is Germany’s Staatsräson (reason of state) and we will act accordingly.”

But what it means for Israel’s fate to be so tightly bound to Germany’s has never been properly defined. “If you take it seriously,” Carlo Marsala, a prominent German political expert, said to the media, “it takes the question morally and politically to a constitutional level.”

Now one of Germany’s 16 states is doing exactly that. Saxony-Anhalt has made it a requirement for people who want to acquire German citizenship to confirm in writing “that they recognise Israel’s right to exist and condemn any efforts directed against the existence of the State of Israel”. It’s calling on the other 15 states to follow, arguing that Israel’s existence as German Staatsräson means that one can’t be German without sharing this belief.

Even if one agrees that Israel has the right to exist and defend itself — which I do — it is unlikely that making citizenship applicants sign a statement to that effect will produce the desired results. By comparison, in the process of becoming a British citizen I was asked whether I had ever committed an act of genocide. Other war crimes, perhaps? It’s unlikely that anybody ever replies “yes” to those questions even if they are guilty of mass atrocities, just as people will sign the required statement in Saxony-Anhalt regardless of their views.

The government also finds it difficult to convince those who already have citizenship of its stance on Israel. A recent survey showed that while the majority of Germans agree their country has a special relationship with Israel, two-thirds felt that this did not mean that Germany had a particular responsibility for its fate.

Experts say this isn’t necessarily down to anti-Israel sentiment but that a lot of it is crisis fatigue. Renate Köcher, CEO of the Allensbach-Institut which conducted the survey, observed “a notable tendency among the public not to want to be dragged into the conflict”, and added that this was also the case in previous wars.

Ultimately, the idea that Germany has a special responsibility for Israel is difficult to uphold with words alone. I was fortunate to attend a school exchange project as a teenager, and it was hard not to feel the weight of history as I walked through Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem, with my Israeli exchange student. She suddenly broke down in tears and told me the horrific story of how her grandfather had survived the Holocaust, a crime my great grandparents’ generation had enabled. Suddenly history seemed very real, and I have never forgotten what that felt like.

But few Germans have such personal encounters with Israel. To them, the idea that the state’s fate is intrinsically tied to Germany’s is academic, a theoretical concept that has little relevance as they themselves struggle from one domestic crisis to the next.

If Germany is serious about making the security of its Jewish communities and Israel a “reason of state”, it needs to define what that means exactly and then make a strong case to the public. The relevance of history in the German-Israeli relationship isn’t something that can be conjured up by legislation or rhetoric.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.