Jonas Heidebrecht, a trainee teacher in art and philosophy, is a founding member of the Young Forum – Ruhr. As part of the German-Israeli Association (Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft, DIG), it is committed to strengthening relations between both countries. Jonas took part in two professional seminars of our “Living Diversity” project. We spoke with him for our “Diversity Network” about the activities of the Young Forum – Ruhr, future ideas for a more diverse image of Israel, and how this relates to our project’s aims.
What are the main issues and objectives of the activities of the Young Forum – Ruhr?
Brief background information: Members of the German-Israeli Association (Deutsch-Israelische Gesellschaft, DIG) who are under 35 years-of-age are also active in the so-called Young Forum (Junges Forum). There are currently 23 regional and university-based groups – primarily in larger university cities such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Bremen, Leipzig and Freiburg. We founded the DIG Young Forum – Ruhr almost a year ago together with other students at the University of Duisburg-Essen who are also active in university politics. In fact, we are now celebrating our first anniversary!
The members have generally already had some contact with Israel, such as a student exchange visit, summer schools or internships in Israel. What is common to the involvement of all members – no matter how varied their personal motivation might be – is a desire to change the one-sided image of Israel that exists in German society and in the German media, which focuses mainly on conflicts and does not reflect the entire spectrum of Israeli society. In addition, we promote German-Israeli relations and campaign against anti-Semitism.
We accomplish this by means of public events that are held in various cities in the Ruhr region and have proved very popular so far. To reflect our strong focus on social sciences and pedagogy, we invited Jörg Rensmann (political scientist, Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin) to give a presentation on “The image of Israel presented in German schoolbooks (Israelbild in deutschen Schulbüchern)” that was targeted primarily at trainee teachers at the University of Essen-Duisburg. Our regional group participated in the one-day seminar “Bildungsbaustein Israel (Educational building block on Israel)” held by the Mideast Freedom Forum Berlin to help us acquire the tools necessary to counteract anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli prejudices and sentiments. Around the time of the 2017 federal elections in Germany, we organized a discussion in Oberhausen on “The image of Israel and anti-Semitism in the AfD and FPÖ parties”. We also focus on Israeli and/or Jewish popular culture. For example, we hosted a visit by the Israeli artist Amit Shimoni, the creator of the Hipstory portraits (www.hipstoryart.com), and organized a reading with the cultural studies commentator Jonas Engelmann from his book “Wurzellose Kosmopoliten. Von Luftmenschen, Golems und jüdischer Popkultur (Approximate translation of title: Rootless cosmopolitans. On dreamers, golems and Jewish pop culture)”. (Mainz 2016)
What was your motivation for participating in two seminars in our “Living Diversity in Germany and Israel” project?
On the one hand, this was a consequence of my training as a teacher, and on the other hand, it also followed on from my voluntary involvement in the DIG Young Forum – Ruhr. The events held as part of your “Living Diversity in Germany and Israel” project on educational approaches that are conscious of diversity and critical of discrimination, and the exchange program on intercultural interaction and plural identities in Haifa combined two of my main interests: diversity issues in education processes and German-Israeli relations. Alongside the new knowledge I acquired about these issues, there was also an opportunity to establish contacts with other specialists who work in similar areas.
What role does the issue of diversity play for the Young Forum – Ruhr with regard to its promotion of German-Israeli relations? (including: cultural, religious, ethnic, social, sexual, physical and mental diversity)
As I have already stated, the critical issue in our work is to highlight a range of inner-Israeli perspectives and to project a heterogeneous image of Israeli society. We wish to create an environment for information and discussion that avoids focussing only on issues relating to the Middle-East conflict. In order to consider diversity in Israeli society, we look at the make-up of the state that has emerged over history and also at the lines of conflict between various groups in society (e.g. strong religious and secular movements within Jewish and Israeli society, as well as the Christian, Muslim and Druze minorities).
As a result of the anchoring of the DIG Young Forum – Ruhr in the area of education, it is important to me to also present Israel as a country where pedagogical methods are developed. After all, the tensions that are always present in Israeli society as a result of its plurality have also provided an impetus for new resolution strategies and communication methods. Examples of these include the Betzavta method of the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace and approaches used in trauma research.
Diversity is also a topic of consideration among our members, as we are all politically active and, at the same time, work together even with our different political backgrounds with a shared interest in Israel. One possible task for the future would be to look beyond our own primarily academic environment to get more people involved in the Young Forum – Ruhr and to awaken an interest in the subject of diversity-conscious educational work.
What challenges can you identify for your work and for the Young Forum with regard to diversity-conscious and discrimination-critical educational work in Germany in the future?
In my opinion, the subject of right-wing populism and the ‘Neue Rechte’ (New Right) and its relationship with Israel will be something we will have to deal with for the next few years. This situation is already particularly convoluted when we see people at demonstrations by Pegida and similar organizations who have Israeli flags and suddenly want to project an image of “solidarity with Israel”. On the one hand, this appears to be an attempt to make themselves more acceptable to society. On the other hand, this “solidarity with Israel” in large quotation marks is being used to project an image of Israeli society that is defending itself against the supposed process of Islamisation that groups like Pegida wish to highlight. From my encounters with Israelis, I can report here that they are very surprised that seemingly every planned new mosque in any city in Germany causes major controversy, whereas Israeli society generally reacts differently to this issue and has a different concept of diversity.
This situation is particularly worrying to us as politically active persons, as we aim to promote German-Israeli relations and German-Israeli friendship and are thus possibly suddenly faced with other parties who wish to instrumentalize our work as a vehicle for right-wing populism.
What was the highlight for you in the programs you took part in? And what experience and/or ideas did you gain from your participation in our project that will serve as input for your future work with the Young Forum – Ruhr?
Definitely the contacts that resulted from the events, who one can keep in touch with through your project’s Facebook group. I have met specialists involved in educational work who are interested in similar issues and have similar professional backgrounds. Even with our different individual outlooks, it was still possible to examine and discuss topics such as diversity, discrimination, migration and gender issues from a perspective formed in Germany and from the perspective of Israeli society. The network has already helped us to set up contacts, and we have increased our visibility as a point-of-contact – particularly for young people. There are also ideas for initiating exchange projects with Israel again.
Another aim is to draw attention to alternative conflict solutions – Betzavta is just one example here – that are closely linked with Israeli society and that are also necessary in Germany in my opinion: how can we develop a common consensus in a society with very different social positions and very different needs? I find the ideas of Community Building very exciting, such as those we got to know during the specialist program in Haifa as part of the “Hand in Hand. Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel” project or from the School for Refugees in Greece. In the first project in particular, the multilingual nature of Israel is an advantage in a bilingual school that also wishes to strengthen a community. I would welcome the intertwining of formal and non-formal education in our area in the future – e.g. the holding of joint workshops and training on methods with teachers, as schools as a learning environment naturally have their own particular parameters.
I think that there is not yet a sufficient awareness in Germany of everything that has been described here. And I think that Israel is often one or two steps ahead of Germany in this regard. If we generally focus only on stories relating to the Middle-East conflict, we lose sight of all of this. For the Young Forum – Ruhr, this also means increasing the profile of these pedagogical approaches or of the Community Building approach in the future.
 “Neue Rechte (New Right) is the designation for a right-wing political movement in Germany. It was founded in opposition to the New Left generation of the 1960s. Its intellectually oriented proponents distance themselves from ‚Old Right‘ Nazi traditions and emphasize similarities between the far-right and the conservative spectrum. A common denominator of the Neue Rechte is a sceptical or negative stance towards the basic values of the German constitution, often in the sense of an ethnic (völkisch) nationalism.” More information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neue_Rechte [accessed on: July 30, 2018]
 “Pegida is an abbreviation of ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Occident)’. It is a German nationalist, anti-Islam, right-wing political movement. It was founded in Dresden in October 2014. Pegida believes that Germany is being increasingly Islamicised […].” More information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pegida [accessed on; July 30, 2018]