Speech Delivered by the Chair of the ‘Association for Israelis of Central European Origin’, Reuven Merhav, at the 75th Anniversary Event
to Commemorate the Fifth Aliyah and
the Establishment of the Organization
Herzliya Performing Arts Center
October 29th 2007, 17 Cheshvan 5768
Your Excellency, President of the State of Israel, Mr. Shimon Peres; Your Excellency, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Dr. Harald Kindermann; Your Honour, Mayor of Herzliya, Ms Yael German; Your Honour former Honorable Supreme Court Justice, Gabriel Bach and Your Honour, the Honorable Supreme Court Justice, Dr. Yoram Danziger; Director of the Austrian Forum, Dr. Benko; Chair of the 75th Anniversary Committee, Mr. Adi Cohen; members and friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Our organization was founded in 1932, the decisive year for Germany and Central Europ
e, in which the fate of the Weimar Republic was sealed and in which Germany embarked on the road to the Second World War. It was the year in which the fate of the Jewish People was also sealed and was the beginning of the path of suffering that lead to the most terrible of all its tragedies ─ the Holocaust, whose sights and terrors are burned forever in our memory.
The story of the Jews of Central-European origin in general, and of Germany in particular is the quintessence of the Zionist narrative and the revival of Israel; the trailblazing vision and dream of a new society and a national haven, integrated with the denunciation, and eviction from the beloved, yet estranged native land. Approximately two thousand immigrants, imbued with Zionist awareness, mainly from Germany, arrived in Eretz Yisrael during the 1920s. Some had already foreseen the future. The stream of immigrants continued to increase, as the political and economic crises in their native land grew steadily worse. These immigrants included thousands of members of the Zionist movement, who had prepared themselves for immigration, but they were not the majority. The immigrants who arrived in the Eretz Yisrael from Central-European countries up until 1939 numbered only a tenth of those communities. Most came with no preparation due to the forcible expulsion from Europe coupled with the draw from the necessary haven. Most were forced to perform hard physical labor in a burning hot climate, while exposed to feelings of alienation and strangeness, mingled with intense yearnings for their country of origin and for the families they had left behind. They were frustrated by the sharp deterioration in their economic and social status and by mostly failed attempts to implement uncompromising norms. However, the vast majority was absorbed here, whether out of choice or from the lack of other options, and while they were often the subject of popular jokes, they were able to laugh at themselves. They were labeled as "Jeckes," a name that, over the years, was transformed from a derogatory and disparaging term to one of honour, which received its final seal of approval in the constitutive court ruling by Supreme Court Justice, Haim Cohen, in which he stated that the term "Jecke" was not an insult, but a hallmark of which to be proud.
The Jeckes' part in the reinforcement of the Jewish Yishuv is molded into the foundations of the State of Israel, in laying the infrastructure of its establishment and in strengthening all its areas. Their continuous pioneering influence is engraved upon it; in culture and education, journalism, science, medicine and academia, in law and economics ─ in agriculture and industry, in shipping and the economy, in public administration and in social advancement; also in the continuous effort to defend the State ─ in the armed forces and in the intelligence – and to reinforce its status around the world forever, in the foreign services prior to the establishment of the State and in the years to come. Many were outstanding in their efforts to understand the other ─ the inhabitants of the country and the surrounding area, through learning and respecting their culture and expressing disgust at any display of racism or intolerance.
The Israeli political scene was not to their liking, and they had difficulty in adapting to its style. When they reached the most senior positions it was thanks to their qualifications or due to their positions of leadership in satellite parties. Their leading figures remained unconcerned by this, and it seems that they did not wish to change, or were incapable of altering their ways and becoming more flexible.
After arriving in Eretz Yisrael, the Central-European immigrants continued their cherished tradition of communal activity, and in light of their special needs, they rapidly learned to do what was necessary to help themselves. In 1932, they founded the ‘Association of Immigrants from Germany’, as a response to the immigrants' needs. It is this organization whose anniversary we are marking today. Initially, the organization ran on the basis of mutual assistance in all areas ─ learning the language, career change and professional training, helping establish employment and providing financial and social assistance. The characteristic Israeli attitude, "magia li," which translates as "I deserve" was alien to our founding ancestors and to those who followed in their footsteps.
In spite of all the derogatory jokes and disparaging nicknames, the Jeckes made no effort to demand public apologies, neither from the ruling establishment, nor from others who had made them a laughing stock, even when this practice became fashionable among other cultural groups.
We are entitled to look back with satisfaction that we are the oldest active Zionist body of our kind, and the only one that knew how to adapt to the changing conditions, while retaining our original targets and values and our integrity. We continue to care for the many hundreds of elderly members in the community and in senior citizens' homes, to ensure their comfort and security. We are operating in the laudable partnership with our senior brother Steff Wertheimer at the ‘Museum of the German Speaking Jewry – The Jeckes Heritage Center’ at Tefen, to conserve our heritage and its role in the establishment of the State of Israel; to memorialize both the brighter and darker aspects of the immigrants' integration into the country, within our community and while interacting with prevailing realities, without it being perceived as merely fake nostalgia. We accomplish this through emphasizing that our roots are there, whereas our future and we are here. We are striving to bequeath our heritage to the community and the education system, and are assisting in the absorption of hundreds of young Central-European immigrants. We run a magnificent mutual assistance enterprise, mainly from independent resources; we are also partner to the exalted enterprise of the Jewish People through the Claims Conference, in that we consented, together with other representatives of German Jewry, that proceeds of sale of heirless property in the former East Germany, should be allocated for vital assistance to victims of Nazi persecution in the FSU and Israel and for Holocaust related commemoration and education projects. In this manner, we constitute a notable exception to other organizations, which first and foremost, took care of themselves. All these activities are faithfully reflected in our upgraded periodical, MB – Yakinton, and on our website, while continuing to run all our activities through a tradition of volunteerism, which includes the second generation, in a transparent and democratic manner, and with integrity. I take this opportunity, on your behalf, and on behalf of the Association’s Presidium, to thank the past and present volunteers, activists and employees, and wish to recognize with thanks the labors of my predecessors, Michael Kol Nesher and Michal Katznelson who are with us today, and also those who are no longer with us – Professor Alsberg (z"l), who passed away during the last year, as well as those who preceded him.
But this is not enough. Let us not rest on our laurels. We will keep the association and its aligned entities, as long as there is social and ethical justification for it, while guarding against moral corruption and against real-estate sharks' and political go-getters' attempts to gain control of public property. Alongside this, we have a general public obligation. Having been educated toward values of work and creativity, excellence and civilized society, truth, law and charity, we are obliged, as an organization and as individuals, to do all in our power to keep our civil society faithful to the basic principles of Zionism and the State of Israel, in the spirit of its founders, and to place this high on our personal on our public agenda.
Reuven Merhav was born in Israel as a second-generation German immigrant. He grew up in Haifa, and following his military service and university studies (Middle Eastern Studies and Languages), he joined the Israeli Intelligence Community, where he spent many years in senior positions. He subsequently served as Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Director-General of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. Since his retirement, he has been active in various public capacities and research institutions in his field. For the last three years, he has held the position of Chair of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin. In 2006, he was elected Chair of the Executive Committee of the Claims Conference.
The Association of Israelis of Central European Origin (NPO) – National Organization
157 Yigal Alon st. Tel Aviv 6744365
Tel: 03-5164461, Fax: 03-5164435