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Sports and Diplomacy? A Game-Changer

Randy Pinsky

Can athletic pursuits pave the way towards reconciling geopolitical differences?

Twenty-five years after the Holocaust, two unlikely countries met for what would be a historic football match.[1] In 1970 and “against insurmountable emotional and political barriers”, Israel and Germany faced off in a game that was a travesty to some and a breakthrough for others, featured in the documentary Game Changers hosted by the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies on January 30. With first-hand interviews and rare archival footage, viewers got a glimpse into what would spark half-century of Israeli-German relations

A Tenuous Relationship

In 2015, Israel and Germany celebrated fifty years of diplomatic ties with a football match, symbolic of the connections made through sports. Many would recall the very first of such matches, the iconic and ‘game changing’ one of 1970.

From the perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in human history, to Israel’s most influential trading partner in the European Union, what changed since 1945? 

The Context

The Second World War left Europe in tatters, families uprooted, refugees in their own lands.

Thousands emigrated to the land of Israel, a burgeoning new state which was struggling to meet the needs of its own citizens. Stretched to its limits and reeling from Arab attacks post-1948, the new government was forced to impose austerity rationing to stretch out food and supplies.

The country was desperate.

And then emerged a possible solution; a lifeline to some. A deal with the devil, for others…

The Luxembourg Reparations[2]

In seeking to move beyond the Nazi past, the government of West Germany sought to renew diplomatic ties. Its tarnished name, however, led to distrust and ostracism on the international scene.

Paramount among these attempts was reaching out to Israel.

The West German government reiterated that the reparation payments proposed were not an attempt to compensate for the atrocities committed, but rather to demonstrate remorse and assist the survivors to rebuild their lives. 

‘Blood Money’

The influx of refugees doubled Israel’s population within its first five years of statehood, straining its capacity to provide for its citizens. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saw the merit of this controversial proposal, and accepted the offer.

He was immediately attacked by both the right and left, including Menachem Begin, leader of the opposition Herut party. Survivors who had lost entire families in the Shoah[3] were appalled at the prospect of even considering tainted funds, the ultimate disrespect to the memories of those who had perished. Many were convinced this was merely "a move designed to absolve the Germans of their guilt for crimes committed."

In Game Changers, one survivor numbly asked, “They think they can buy me with money? Will they [try to] buy my soul, [too]?"

Difficult Choices

While many were quick to criticize Ben-Gurion, the reality was that at the time, Israel was receiving very little international aid, even from its main ally, the United States. As a result, “were it not for the German reparations, Israel would probably have been forced to continue rationing for another three to four years,” observed Israeli economist Yoram Gabbay.

The payments and later, Israeli exports to West Germany, would thus play an invaluable “role in stabilizing the fledgling Israeli economy.”

After the Reparations

The Luxembourg Agreement was a critical start to Israeli-German relations.[4] And it has endured and diversified greatly since.

As repeatedly stated by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, relations with Israel are a cornerstone of Germany’s foreign policy. Beyond being a critical ally at the United Nations and advocate for fair proceedings regarding the Middle East conflict, Germany is Israel’s most important economic partner in the EU.

Not only that, but Germany’s financial and military assistance is believed to have been critical in key Israeli battles such as the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973). It was even involved as a mediator to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

It is for that reason that Israeli Ambassador and special envoy to Berlin, Ron Prosor, recently stated that Germany is Israel’s most important ally after the US.  

But What Does the Football Game Have to Do With All of This?

In emerging from the war, Germany was viewed with wariness internationally, but grudgingly admired for its prowess in sports, particularly in football where they won the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, with 6 minutes to spare.

Mordechai Spiegler, captain of Israel’s national football team, recalled in Game Changers, “For me it was a very difficult day. My father cried, ‘how can that be?’...[coming] from a Jewish European family, Germans must never win.”

Israeli Football Goes Professional

Emmanuel (Eddy) Schaffer, recognized as “the greatest coach in the history of Israeli football,” had lost his entire family in the Holocaust. Alone in the world, the one thing that gave him purpose was playing the sport. His whole life, survival and everything, revolved around football.”

Schaffer would train with legendary German coach Hans (Hennes) Weisweiler, and bring the knowledge to Israel, elevating it from amateur to professional status.

Are You Meshugah?

In 1970, Schaffer proposed the impossible: bring the German team to Israel for a match. In his view, “football could be used as an ambassador” between the countries.

While for some, “they were a team that symbolized perfection,” others were aghast at the notion; “this was the greatest demon that c[ould] come.”

Much like the polarized reaction to the Luxembourg reparations, the proposal divided the society, not helped by Arab terrorist attacks on German soil to frighten the team from boarding an El Al plane.

Yet they still came.

The Game-Changing Football Match

What ensued was a game like no other. Never before had people witnessed such prowess, such speed and skill. Though the Israelis played their best, they were no match for the German team.

But far from bitterness, the latter was greeted with deafening cheers. From a site of segregation, where Jewish athletes had been banned, the sports field was now one of reconciliation. The match accomplished more than any form of diplomacy could have, humanizing the Germans, and leading “profound contributions to changing the unchangeable,” observed Noam Sobovitz, director of Game Changers

Beyond the Football Field

Sobovitz dedicated the documentary in memory of his grandparents, both Holocaust survivors. His ambition had been to explore “the power of personal friendships and football to bring down the wall between nations”. At its screening at the United Nations in Vienna, Maya Karmely Sommer, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Austria, observed, “Sport is where people get to know each other and build relations.”

In the 1960s, thousands of young Germans came to assist in the building of the country. To this day, 70-75% of all international volunteering in Israel is led by Germans, and hundreds of Israelis have also moved to Germany.

To this day, Germany is also one of the most popular football teams in Israel. 

Lived Realities

Yet perceptions of the country are not uniform.

Young Israelis surveyed appear to have a more neutral view vis-à-vis Germany. Cognizant of a problematic past, many are committed to moving forward, as one stated, “it is common to assume that we are supposed to hate the Germans forever. But I don't see any point in [doing so].”

Additionally, one cannot overlook the centuries of strong and proud Jewish-German connections. “Beyond the immeasurable black hole left by the Nazis, the old Berlin and the new Berlin beckon to Jewish Israelis with the siren song of family resemblance,” observed historian Fania Oz-Salzberger in Israelis in Berlin (2001).

Still, some Israelis refuse to buy German products or even travel there due to what it represents. “My father lost his entire family aside from one sister [in the Shoah],” stated one Israeli businessman. “I don’t believe I have the right [or the expectation to] forgive and forget.”

Israeli-German relations thus remain a complex and emotionally charged phenomenon. As concluded by one Israeli, “I wouldn't deny the post-game shows bother me. The sounds of German language are hard for Jews to hear….[but] they are just football players…I love them for what they are, not for what their fathers did.”


[1] “Football” here refers to ‘soccer’.

[2] See Reckoning with the Past, Committing to the Future: Israel and Germany’s Reparations Agreement” at the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies.

[3] Hebrew for the Holocaust.

[4] Following this announcement and to show their disapproval with this decision, Arab states such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria broke off diplomatic relations with West Germany.

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