German War Guilt and the Jewish State
May 14, 2008; Page A19

As Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary there is no denying that the Jewish state has an image problem in Europe.

Opinion polls in the U.S. consistently show that a majority of Americans are sympathetic to Israel. But the situation is the reverse on the other side of the Atlantic. It's particularly bad in Germany. In a British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) survey last month, for example, Germans were among the Europeans with the least favorable views of Israel, second only to Spain. Even the respondents in the United Arab Emirates had a more positive perception of the Jewish state than Germans did.

This may be surprising, given that Berlin is considered one of Israel's more reliable allies in Europe. Successive German governments have justified the "special" relationship with Israel by pointing to the countries' "special" history. In light of the Holocaust, Germany seems to have no choice but to support the Jewish state. Former Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer advocated this policy of "historical responsibility" as effortlessly as Christian-Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel does.

But guilt is an unhealthy basis for a relationship; it easily turns into resentment. This may help explain why so many Germans – 30% according to last year's survey by Bertelsmann Foundation – are eager to compare Israel to fascist Germany. If it were true that Israelis are modern-day Nazis, there would be less reason to feel guilty about the real Nazis.

Historical obligations also tend to have a statute of limitations. Postwar Germans may reasonably reject any special obligations to Israel as a result of crimes committed before they were born.

This brings us to the fundamental problem with Berlin's Israel policy. It implies that had there been no Holocaust, Israel would have no right to exist or, at least would have no reason to expect Germany's support. Israel's detractors take this argument one step further, claiming it was immoral to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East to atone for European crimes.

In 1922, long before the Holocaust, Winston Churchill debunked the idea that Israel could be justified only as reparation for past atrocities when he said, "The Jews are in Palestine by right and not by sufferance." Europe and Germany should thus be able to support Israel not just because of past wrongs committed against Jews, but because of Jews' inalienable right to a state in their ancestral homeland.

Israel's right to exist doesn't mean Germans must automatically back it. There has to be a special bond between nations to prompt support. Such alliances are usually forged around common interests and values. As the Mideast's most vibrant democracy, Israel should qualify for a truly "special relationship."

But unlike Americans, Germans rarely argue that Israel deserves solidarity as a Western ally. Americans generally see Israel as a fellow democracy under attack. But in Germany and much of Europe, Israel is often seen as a human-rights violator.

What explains this difference in perceptions? The U.S. media are not that much better in presenting a balanced view of the Middle East than their European counterparts. More likely, Americans are simply less disposed to believe the worst of Israel.

A key factor is Americans' appreciation of their Judeo-Christian heritage. While this is a common term in the U.S., it is a novel concept in Europe. Only recently has it found its way into the vocabulary of a few conservative Germans. Ms. Merkel and colleagues from Poland and Italy wanted to add a reference to the Continent's Judeo-Christian heritage to Europe's proposed constitution. The idea was rejected as too divisive.

But the term does not just cover the moral standards shared by Judaism and Christianity. Its meaning goes beyond matters of faith. It describes the fact that next to the Greco-Roman heritage, the Judeo-Christian tradition is the other main pillar of Western civilization. Acknowledging this fact helps Americans view Jews as part of that civilization and the Jewish state as part of the broader Western alliance.

In post-Christian Europe and Germany, this realization is largely missing. Moses's law, the foundation for Western legal codes and moral values, is hardly acknowledged on the Continent. Jews are more often seen as having contributed to Western civilization, rather than being an integral part of it, thanks to the role they played as a nation. Jews – often viewed as some kind of guest contributors – thus remain strangers in Europe, as does the Jewish state. And one can be inclined to believe bad things about strangers.

Given the similar threats Europe and Israel face from Islamic terror and a nuclear Iran, an alliance between them would seem natural. But as long as Europe's public considers Israel more as part of the problem than as part of the solution, any alliance will suffer. It's time for German and European officials to make the real case for Israel – that of solidarity with an embattled ally.

Mr. Schwammenthal is an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

Write to Daniel Schwammenthal at daniel.schwammenthal@dowjones.com