This post presents the full text of President Ezer Weizman’s famous speech in a joint session for the two chambers of parliament in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1996. The speech gives an inspiring overview of Jewish history, highlighting the important of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland after thousands of years of exile and persecution. Provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this speech is an excellent resource for Yom Ha’atzmaut education and ceremonies.
Address by Israel President Ezer Weizman to the Bundestag and Bundesrat of the Federal Republic of Germany (January 16, 1996)
It was fate that delivered me and my contemporaries into this great era, when the Jews returned to and re-established their homeland. I am no longer a wandering Jew who migrates from country to country, from exile to exile. But all Jews in every generation must regard themselves as if they had been there, in previous generations, places, and events. Therefore, I am still a wandering Jew, but not along the far-flung paths of the world. Now I migrate through the expanses of time, from generation to generation, down the paths of memory.
Memory shortens distances. Two hundred generations have passed since my people first came into being, and to me they seem like a few days. Only two hundred generations have passed since a man named Abraham rose up and left his country and birthplace for the country that is today mine. Only two hundred generations have elapsed from the day Abraham purchased the Cave of Makhpela in the city of Hebron to the murderous conflicts that have taken place there in my generation. Only one hundred fifty generations have passed from the Pillar of Fire of the Exodus from Egypt to the pillars of smoke from the Holocaust. And I, a descendant of Abraham, born in Abraham’s country, have witnessed them all.
I was a slave in Egypt. I received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Together with Joshua and Elijah, I crossed the Jordan River. I entered Jerusalem with David, was exiled from it with Zedekiah, and did not forget it by the rivers of Babylon. When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, I dreamed among the builders of its ramparts. I fought the Romans and was banished from Spain. I was bound to the stake in Mainz. I studied Torah in Yemen and lost my family in Kishinev. I was incinerated in Treblinka, rebelled in Warsaw, and emigrated to the Land of Israel, the country whence I had been exiled and where I had been born, from which I come and to which I return.
I am a wandering Jew who follows in the footsteps of his forebears, and just as I escorted them there and then, so do my forebears accompany me and stand here with me today. The sharp-sighted among you may be able to discern them: a retinue of prophets and peasants, kings and rabbis, scientists and soldiers, craftsmen and children. Some died of advanced years in their beds. Others went up in flames. Still others fell by the sword.
Just as memory forces us to participate in each day and every event of our past, so does the virtue of hope force us to prepare for each day of our future. After all, in the past century alone we have been suspended between life and death, between hope and despair, between displacement and rootedness. Ours is the terrible century of death, in which the Nazis and their assistants destroyed a large portion of us in the Holocaust, but it is also the mind-boggling century of revival, of independence, and — recently — of a chance for peace.
Never before has a President of the State of Israel spoken in this esteemed place. I wish to thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon us, and I am happy to see familiar and friendly faces here.
Mr. President, Madam and Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chancellor: Israel remembers with exhilaration your visits to us and the sincerity that you expressed, both toward events of the past and in hopes for the future. You were with us, too, at that difficult time when we escorted our Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin of blessed memory, who was murdered on the path of peace, to his final resting place. Yitzhak Rabin, who was one of the leaders on the road to peace. I express my gratitude and blessings for the friendship and cooperation that prevail between Israel and Germany today, as reflected in many diverse spheres of economic, security, and cultural affairs, along with one that is especially close to my heart — scientific research. German and Israeli researchers are sharing their expertise and skills, and German assistance in Israeli scientific research is one of the factors that Israeli citizens appreciate most highly.
However, ladies and gentlemen, this is not an easy visit. Only fifty years, a mere moment in the lengthy history of my people, have passed since the end of that terrible war. It was not easy for me to visit the Sachsenhausen concentration camp today. It is not easy for me to travel around this country and hear the memories and voices crying out to me from the ground. It is not easy for me to stand here and speak with you, my friends in this house. Jews have lived in Germany for a thousand years or more. German Jewry was the oldest Jewish community in Europe until the Nazis destroyed it. From the first traders who came here in the footsteps of the Romans to the scientists of the twentieth century, from Kalonymos to Mendelssohn, from the blood libel of Fulda to the horrors of Kristallnacht; from the badge of shame to the yellow patch; from Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic missives to the Nuremberg Laws, from the commentaries of Rashi to the poems of Heinrich Heine; Rabbeinu Gershom, the Light of the Exile; Walther Rathenau; Martin Buber; Franz Rosenzweig; Albert Einstein — these are only some of the names that this country has known. Among the millions of my people’s children whom the Nazis led to their deaths, there were other names that we might have uttered here today with the same degree of esteem and admiration. But we do not know their names. How many unwritten books died with them? How many uncomposed symphonies suffocated in their throats? How many scientific discoveries did not mature in their intellects? Every one of them was killed twice: once as a child led by the Nazis to the camps, and again as the adult he or she might have been. The Nazis stole them not only from their families and their people, but from the whole of humankind. I, as President of the State of Israel, can grieve for them and commemorate them, but I cannot forgive in their name. I can only demand that you, members of the Bundestag and Bundesrat, with full cognizance of the past, set your minds to the future. It is yours to discern any manifestation of racism, quash every expression of neo-Nazism, know how to identify these phenomena courageously, and expunge them from your midst, lest they grow and spread.
I imagine that for you, too, ladies and gentlemen, a visit by the President of Israel includes several difficult moments. However, we meet here not as private individuals but as the envoys of sovereign states. We must find common ground so that we may advance toward the goals we have set for ourselves.
I am a wandering Jew. With the cloak of memory around my shoulders and the staff of hope in my hand, I stand at this great crossroads in time, the end of the twentieth century. I know whence I have come, and with hope and apprehension I attempt to find out where I am heading. The State of Israel is in the midst of a process that is encouraging and exciting, but at the same time worrying and frightening. It has already claimed the lives of the architects of peace, the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in cold blood by an enemy of peace, and before him, the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. The peace process is the most important process that has surfaced since the establishment of the Jewish state. And we are now in its very midst.
Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen: for more than a century of Zionist endeavor, we have hoped for this peace and struggled to achieve it. We did not return to our borders in warships; we did not march home waving spears. We returned in convoys of dreamers and in boats of oppressed refugees. We returned, and, like our forefather King David who purchased the Temple Mount, and our patriarch Abraham who bought the Cave of Makhpela, we bought land, we sowed fields, we planted vineyards, we built houses, and even before we achieved statehood, we were already bearing weapons to protect our lives.
Time and again we stretched out our hands, and time and again we were rejected. Time and again we went to war; time and again we killed and were killed. Time and again we left our homes, offices, universities, and orchards for the battlefields. Time and again we discovered that beyond even the greatest victories, only crises and losses lurked.
We yearn for this peace; we dream of it and pray for it. It appears at every juncture of Jewish thought: in the Torah, the Psalms, the Talmud, the commentaries, liturgy, and homiletics. But for these very reasons — our infinite longing for peace, our penchant for recalling our history, especially in its most terrible episodes, those written in this country — we must be cautious and practical.
We deal with this fragile, delicate process of peace suffused with hope and, I am sure, with sang-froid and wisdom. Terrorist organizations and extremist Islamic states wish to sabotage the process, as do extremist elements in our midst. The atmosphere is charged; things are not easy — not only because murderous extremism is striving to destroy this peace, but also because even those who love peace are apprehensive, and both camps still have unhealed wounds and fresh memories. The blood still cries out to us.
Many peace treaties have been signed in the course of history. They speak of economic relations and security arrangements, compensation and borders. When I was Defense Minister in the Government of Israel, I took part in the peace negotiations with Egypt, and I can tell you that in peace treaties in the Middle East, we are strict about these matters but not only about them. In our case, there is also the question of holy land, holy graves, and holy wars. Memories from the time of Joshua, the Templar knights, Pontius Pilate, and Saladin hover over the negotiating table.
Our most recent agreement with the Palestinians includes a clause about educating both peoples for a life of peace. In the Middle East, where ancient fundamentals of vengeance and settling of scores millennia old intermingle, extra caution is required. The mind strives to be practical and judicious; it wishes to build the future. The feet, however, tread on the residues of those generations, and the hands are the hands that built the ramparts of Jerusalem at the time of the Return of Zion. The work was done with only one hand, for the other hand clutched a weapon.
Do not take this lightly. We are trying to achieve a peace that will propel us into the twenty-first century. But ancient Crusader maps hang on the wall, and ancient Biblical memories hover in the atmosphere, and primeval prophecies strive to fulfill themselves. Seated with us at the discussion table, watching us carefully, are guests from time immemorial, representatives of bygone eras: Joshua and David, the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ. Sometimes the burden is too heavy to bear. However, despite the difficulty and pain, it may also be the source of our strength and hope. Let us bear in mind that this holy land is composed not only of holy places but also of homes and fields, factories, schools, and workshops. There are not only cemeteries and dead bones, but also live people whose fate is in our hands.
In 1977, the late President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, and the late Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, met in Jerusalem. A peace treaty was signed in Egypt, a treaty with which I am personally familiar. Since then, we have concluded a peace treaty with Jordan, signed the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians, created a dialogue and economic relations with other Arab countries, and embarked on initial peace contacts with Syria — contacts that are by no means easy. There is a scent of hope in the air, but we must not submit to delusions. The two peoples are still alien to each other. A bridge of understanding is being built, but we still have to complete it and make sure that its structure is firm.
We respect our neighboring countries and the culture that surrounds us, and we wish to take up our position among them, but in our own way and with allegiance to our values and culture. You, ladies and gentlemen, who have made such an important contribution to the strength of the State of Israel and the peace process, know that the two are intertwined — that only because of its strength can the State of Israel undertake the peace process.
I speak not only of military prowess and material assets. In the last century, since we returned to our country, we have built more than villages and towns, factories and barns, shops and army bases. We have also installed democratic governance and built a massive cultural and educational system: schools, research institutes, libraries, museums, conservatories, and universities. But transcending all of these — which exist in any civilized state — we have wrought a unique cultural miracle: the revival of our language, the Hebrew language. It is the language in which I am speaking to you now, the language which, more than anything else, symbolizes and attests to our revival.
We and our language are alive. We who have arisen from the ashes, and the language that waited in the shrouds of Torah scrolls and between the pages of the prayerbooks, are alive. The language that was whispered in prayer only, that was read only in synagogues, that was sung only in liturgy, that was shrieked in the gas chambers — in the prayer “Shma Yisrael” — has been revived. I know that German is richer than Hebrew in many ways, but I do not lack the words to express my feelings, nor have Jews ever lacked words to express their faith, love, dreams, yearnings, and hopes.
We have developed a suitable vocabulary for our special needs. We await, we yearn, we desire, we anticipate, we long for, we hope, we thirst, we crave, we imagine…. I stop here in order to apologize to the interpreters in case they find it hard to select the right words.
These two cadavers, revived after so many years — the Jewish state and the Hebrew language — are the very essence of our lives in this century. In this of all centuries, which observed us devastated and dead, we have risen again. And we now use this language, which in exile we used to speak to God only, to speak to each other.
We still pray in Hebrew, but now we also use it to speak, to write, to work and study, to argue, to court each other, and to sing. And the miracle is all the greater because if Isaiah, Solomon, and Jesus were here today, they would understand what I am saying just as I and my daughter and grandchildren understand their words, spoken and written and preserved in the same language thousands of years ago.
Mr. President, Madam and Mr. Speaker, dignitaries: I thank you again for your hospitality to my wife and myself and to our staff. With your permission, I would like to end with a Biblical verse of hope and peace. My forebears described peace with a Hebrew expression that every farmer in the Middle East has experienced first-hand: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree.” This is a handsome expression, but it is no longer sufficient to rest in the shade of one’s vine or under the branches of one’s fig tree. Peace has to be dynamic, not quiescent. It must propel us into the fifth millennium of our history, into the twenty-first century, where new cultural, educational, technological, scientific, and agricultural challenges await us.
Today’s Israel, with its large influx of immigrants, its economic momentum, the peace accords, should and can reclaim its position as the predominant cultural center of the Jewish people.
We have invested too much time, resources, and physical and psychological effort in the battlefield. Now we have work to do in our schools, research institutes, workshops, and laboratories. Our true aspirations reside there, not in the battlefield. Our very essence is anchored in study and education. Jewish ethics has always preferred the pen to the sword, and as a former soldier, believe me, it is not easy for me to say such a thing.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are a people of memory and prayer. We are a people of words and hope. We have neither established empires nor built castles and palaces. We have only placed words on top of each other. We have fashioned ideas; we have built memorials. We have dreamed towers of yearnings — of Jerusalem rebuilt, of Jerusalem united, of a peace that will be swiftly and speedily established in our days. Amen.
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