Abraham H. Foxman Speech: International Leadership Award to Mathias Dopfner

  • September 19, 2014

As Consul General Wagener noted, there was a major demonstration in Berlin on Sunday against anti-Semitism.  A serious response was needed to the serious incidents over the summer, when synagogues were attacked and shouts of “Jews to the gas” were witnessed at anti-Israel demonstrations.

President Gauck, Chancellor Merkel and the top German political leadership attended.  Chancellor Merkel rightly said, “Anyone who verbally abuses or hits someone wearing a kippa or a Star of David … is hitting and injuring us all. … Anyone who makes synagogues a target of hate and violence shakes the very foundations of our free society.”

There was an impressive solidarity shown by political and religious leaders, and while thousands showed up tens of thousands more should have.

When you witness injustice, you can choose to be a bystander or to be an ally.  On Sunday in Berlin, there were many allies.  Many more should have joined this public rejection of anti-Semitism.

However, there is something even greater than just being an ally.  That is using your talents, your time and your influence to urge others to choose to be an ally.  We call that leadership.

Mathias Döpfner and the company he leads, Axel Springer, are more than allies in the fight against anti-Semitism, on behalf of German-Jewish reconciliation, and for maintaining a strong German alliance with Israel.  They are leaders.

As the largest media company in Europe, Axel Springer wields enormous influence in the public square.  As Chief Executive Officer, Mathias Döpfner wields that influence well and where it is needed.

Bild is Axel Springer’s flagship publication, the largest circulation newspaper in Germany.  It’s known for its popular, catchy, and sometimes provocative content.  But after a series of anti-Semitic incidents, Bild was deadly serious.  The paper collected over 70 statements against anti-Semitism from leaders in all segments of German society.  Yes, the Chancellor and the President and the head of the opposition gave quotes.  But so did athletes, actors, celebrities, business leaders, media personalities, and many others.  And Bild put as many as they could fit on the front page and included the rest prominently on the inside.

That Friday morning, Bild’s readers may have been expecting celebrity news and the latest fashion model.  Instead, they got a powerful message about anti-Semitism which reached every corner of Germany.  That is leadership.

And when much of the world focused on the great numbers of Palestinian casualties compared to Israeli dead during the war this summer, Bild published the photos and profiles of every Israeli killed.   These men, women, and children were either victims of terrorism or killed in a war more just in its reasons and in its execution than any other conflict going on.  Bringing those faces and those stories to the German public brought the very personal reality of Israel into the debate over numbers, a debate usually far removed from any understanding of the conflict. 

Even though the justice of Israel’s actions should seem entirely obvious, there are those who reflexively condemn Israel.

A couple of years ago, Gunter Grass, a German Nobel laureate in poetry, published a poem in which he accused Israel of wanting to destroy the Iranian people.  He described Israel’s nuclear deterrent as a project to decimate Iran.  Soon after, I wrote that it was important for German leaders to speak out against this kind of rhetoric, which went beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism.

The German people needed to hear a response from someone of stature and eloquence and not from Israel nor from the Jewish community.  And Mathias Döpfner provided that leadership.  With a deft turn of phrase, he aptly described Gunter Grass’s poem as “politically correct anti-Semitism.”

Mathias Döpfner and Axel Springer have also demonstrated unparalleled leadership in the business community to forge stronger and broader relations between Germany and Israel.  And they have leveraged Germany’s influence at the core of Europe to raise these efforts throughout the continent. 

For many years, Axel Springer has co-hosted the European-Israeli Dialogue, where Israeli and European leaders in defense, intelligence and strategy can exchange opinions on common threats. A similar concept, the EU-Israel Business Dialogue, brings together dozens of business leaders for discussions on enhancing relationships in the commercial sphere.

Axel Springer has also sponsored for over a decade an exchange program for promising German and Israeli journalists, the Ernst Cramer Fellowship.

These Axel Springer programs are all examples of going beyond being an ally and demonstrating leadership, of trying to influence others to make the right decision when faced with injustice — whether that injustice is a call to stop sending arms to Israel, or to boycott Israeli products and businesses, or to report in a manner that may be popular but also biased against Israel.

In fact, on that last point, Axel Springer has distinguished itself from its peers by requiring its journalists to agree in their employment contracts – and I quote -- “to promote the reconciliation of Jews and Germans and support the vital rights of the people of Israel.”

Imagine, long before it had been fashionable for media to criticize the State of Israel, making the most invidious comparisons, here was a company, a German company that required its employees to take an oath to support Israel’s right to exist.  It would be derided by both the Right and the Left, but Springer was unremitting in maintaining that commitment.

Through his newspapers, personal diplomacy, monetary contributions, and many other initiatives, founder Axel Springer fought an uphill battle to orient German public opinion in favor of Israel, a legacy passed on to his successors and media companies.

Mathias Döpfner carries on that legacy with honor, conviction, and passion through his writings, speeches, and actions.  And it is why we are proud and honored to bestow upon him the ADL International Leadership Award.

Our award is a very special paper cut made in Israel which speaks to what we at ADL are all about. It says in Hebrew and in English V’ahavta l’reakha kamokha --“thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” which is one of the most sacred admonitions of the Torah, which is our bible.  The expression goes on to ask that we love and respect one another. 

That is the essence of ADL and it is the lasting obligation for us all—mutual respect.  Mathias, you have shown in word and deed that you, too, value this biblical expression and we hope that when you look at this beautiful work of art you will be reminded of the esteem in which we hold you.