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German Unionist Volunteers in Israel: “Solidarity is Measured by Actions in Difficult Times”

Unionists Tim Ackermann, Alexander King, Martin Strohmeier and Dennis Deka came to Israel to volunteer in agriculture, thanks to a continuous relationship with their colleagues from the Histadrut | They discuss dealing with ignorance and anti-Israel attitudes in Germany and the unions and their admiration for Israeli solidarity in the war and the campaign to bring home the hostages

פעילי האיגודים מגרמניה שבאו להתנדב בישראל: טים אקרמן (מימין), אלכסנדר קינג, דניס דקה ומרטין שטרומאייר (צילום: האגף לקשרים בינלאומיים בהסתדרות)
Union activists from Germany who came to volunteer in Israel: Tim Ackermann, Alexander King, Dennis Deka and Martin Strohmeier. (photo: International Relations Department of the Histadrut)
By Maya Ronen

“We are not the best orange pickers in the world,” Tim Ackermann, 41, from Bochum in West Germany, told Davar. “There is no doubt that agricultural workers from Thailand or other skilled workers would have helped the farmers more than us, but that was not a prerequisite. We came to volunteer and help however we can. We picked and packed oranges, pruned the orchard, and gained new connections and friends. In the last few days I have learned more about agriculture than ever before.”

This is Ackermann’s sixth visit to Israel. His connection to Israel began within his position in the education department of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), which maintains a long-standing relationship with the Histadrut. At the beginning of the month, he came with three of his friends from the labor unions in Germany to pick oranges at Moshav Tzofit near Kfar Saba. These four German visitors know Israel well. Their arrival at this time is a gesture of solidarity and partnership in the aftermath of Oct. 7.

“The decision to come to Israel right now was very easy for me,” Ackermann recalled. “At the beginning of the war we were in contact with our partners in the Histadrut. We have a WhatsApp group with dozens of members from Germany and Israel. We immediately offered our help in whatever was needed.”

When a partner from the international relations department at the Histadrut sent an open invitation to come and volunteer in agriculture, Ackerman immediately knew he was interested.

“There was no date or other details yet, it was not clear who would come or where we would volunteer, but this was an opportunity to help, so I had no doubt. Coming to Israel in good times is easy. Solidarity is something that is nice to talk about, but it is measured by actions in difficult times,” Ackerman said.

Alexander King, a 37-year-old teacher from Hamburg, did not hesitate either.

“For me, there was no question,” he said. “This is the best time to come to Israel. When Gary Kaplan from the Histadrut suggested that we come and volunteer, it was clear to me that I am here for you. Friends help each other even in difficult times. If you need help—I am there. Our work here may not be the most necessary, but we are doing our best. It is important for us to show solidarity.”

Alongside his work as a civics teacher at a vocational school, King volunteers at the German Education Union (GEW), where he is responsible for international relations for the Hamburg branch. This is his fifth visit to Israel. He has been participating for several years in mutual visits of union members with teachers’ unions in Israel and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political party foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party.

Solidarity was also the keyword for Martin Strohmeier, 40, also from Bochum.

“In German we say: ‘You don't know who your friend is when you invite him to a party, but when you're getting ready to move.’” This is his 15th visit to Israel, “but who's counting?”, he laughed.

Strohmeier coordinates the youth education along with the international relations of DGB youth and the trade unions in Germany.When the invitation arrived from Israel, he announced to his office that he would be absent for a week and arrived here at the expense of personal accrued vacation days. For him, coming to Israel in normal times is very nice.

“It's comfortable, it’s a pleasant vacation, good food, great weather. But coming here now is a question of solidarity,” he explained. “This is not a normal time, but this is the time to be here. Friends asked me to take care of myself, and in the same breath to report how it was and what is happening in Israel now. There is a lot of curiosity.”

The initial fear of the war did not prevent Dennis Deka, 33 years old from Berlin, from coming either.

“When it comes to a friend, you come, even when it’s not nice and comfortable. Sometimes you have to put your concerns aside and remember what a relationship is.” Deka is Jewish, and has visited Israel many times in the past. This time he felt a great obligation to be with Israel. “I’m happy to be here. For everyone who loves the place and the people, now is the time to be here,” he said.

Deka is a member of the German United Services Trade Union ‘ver.di’, which encompasses more than 2 million employees, self-employed, civil servants and apprentices. In his role in the Civil Aviation Workers Union, he represents the ground workers, pilots and flight attendants, and is involved in international organizations of transport workers.

Davar interviewed the four unionists about their visit to Israel and the way the war is understood abroad.

What has changed in Israel since Oct. 7?

Ackermann: When we arrived in Tel Aviv, I noticed that the smiles had disappeared. You usually cannot miss the smiles on the faces of the beautiful people in Tel Aviv. Even in the pictures of the abductees that hang everywhere, everyone is smiling. Now it is very noticeable that that smile has disappeared. You can see and feel the tension.

Strohmeier: Yesterday evening we went to Dizengoff Square. People went out, sat in cafes and bars. Everything seemed normal, except that in the center of the square hangs the pictures of the abducted and the memorial posters with the yellow ribbons. The connection between the mourning on the one hand and the attempt to live, perhaps also to escape from the emotions, on the other hand, is crazy. A kind of attempt to be normal when it’s clear that nothing is normal in this reality. I was amazed that Israelis manage to be like this during a war.

How did your friends and family react to your decision to come to Israel?

King: Most of the responses started with ‘Are you crazy?’ or ‘Why?’. The decision raised a lot of concerns among the people close to me. They didn't understand why I would go to a country that is at war. I definitely had to explain why it was important for me to come. My girlfriend said, you always fight antisemitism and that’s in your heart, I know you should go. She doesn’t like it but she understands. Colleagues at school said it might not be the smartest idea. On the other hand, one of them asked me to bring her a necklace and shirt from the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, so that she could stand with the people she supports and show solidarity with the demand to return the abductees. I think it's wonderful.

Deka: The responses were a bit funny. I usually host a big party on Dec. 31. This year I wrote in the group of friends that I will not have a party, because I am going to Israel to work in agriculture. I received 15 likes on the message, two asked: ‘Are you sure?’ And one asked if she could help.

As a Jew, Deka feels safer in Israel than in Germany, even during war.

“Perhaps there is no feeling of security when there is a siren, but the general feeling here is one of security,” he explained. “Even if someone tried to stop me, I would come.”

Have you experienced anti-Israel or antisemitic attitudes in recent months?

Deka: I live in the south of Berlin, in the Treptow district. The feeling in certain parts of the city has changed since Oct. 7. I definitely plan to travel in the city by alternative routes. I wear a necklace with a Star of David pendant, always visible, by choice. I have been spat on, cursed, people shouted ‘child killer’ at me. I see the rallies, the Palestinian flags and the graffiti. It’s a very serious combination of severe antisemitism and nationalism. It reminds me of the situation in the 1940s. The eyes fixed on me when I walked the streets of my city. That’s the big difference I've felt since Oct. 7. I don’t always feel safe in my city, where I grew up.

Are there other perspectives being heard?

Ackermann: The statement published by the DGB was unequivocal and very clear against terrorism. Hundreds of colleagues from trade unions around the world were concerned about the safety of our partners in Israel and immediately showered them with messages. The WhatsApp groups we set up in recent years for exchanging delegations were also resurrected. People asked: “What's going on In Israel? How is everyone? How can we help?”

The concern expressed by the union members personally is no less important than the declaration of solidarity of the union leaders and the official position of the DGB.

“These are people who were here, saw the situation and know that it is not simple. When you meet the people themselves, the prejudices disintegrate,” Ackermann said.

Strohmeier testified that support for Israel crosses groups, similar to opposition to Israel and antisemitism.

“The rally for solidarity with Israel in Bochum was attended by various groups and organizations, including immigrants and children of immigrants, people of Kurdish background, and Muslims,” he said. “One of the immigrants gave a speech about solidarity with Israel and against Islamist groups such as Hamas.”

Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Miriam Elster/Flash 90)
Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Miriam Elster/Flash 90)

Ackermann added that there is a need for reliable information about the situation in Israel.

“On the one hand, the city I live in decided in November to find a twin city in Israel, in order to strengthen the relationship,” he said. “On the other hand, I see a huge lack of knowledge in Germany. As part of my duties, I organize and guide workshops for local and regional workers’ committees and organizations. Many people contacted us and asked about the situation, so in recent months we have been holding online meetings on the subject. We have been helped by friends from the international wing of the Histadrut.”

The ignorance is significant, according to Ackermann. A question that came up in an online meeting demonstrates just how much: “I was asked when we would organize such an informational meeting with the trade union representatives from Gaza. I really had to explain that when Hamas came to power in the Gaza Strip, one of the first things they did was kill the trade unionists, which is one of the things that demonstrates how their rule is bad for the Palestinians.”

Is there tension around this between the German and the international unions?

Deka: I represent workers from the civil aviation industry and come into contact with representatives of the global transportation industry, with the International Transport Workers’ Federation and with the European Federation. As a German union, we have a very clear position regarding our solidarity with Israel and we have very clear decisions of the organization's institutions.

According to Deka, more problematic and poorly informed opinions appear in the international scene.

“The head of the International Transport Workers’ Federation recently published a firm and unequivocal statement against Israel,” Deka said. “We had a very broad discussion, right before the very biased statement was sent to a mailing list of 900,000 people. It was a terrible letter based only on false narratives. It was pure antisemitism, but unfortunately, the letter won the support of the majority.

What were the reactions of people in Israel to your arrival?

Strohmeier: Every time I talk to people, they thank us for coming. It’s gratifying, but on the other hand it expresses how lonely people here feel at the international level. The response of many governments to demonstrations in the countries of the world is lacking at best. People here hear about the situation of Jews in Germany, You read about it in the news, you see the rallies and marches against Israel. There is a feeling of isolation at the international level. This is the same problem we have with the international unions.

What is the main thing you are taking away from this trip?

Deka: Our mission is to return home and spread everything that happened and is happening here. To bring it to the front of the stage at every opportunity. The deep reason that brought us here is international solidarity, solidarity with all the workers who are fighting for their rights.

Deka told about a campaign led by the ITF to establish a fund for the welfare of the residents of Gaza.

“It’s fine that they collect donations to help people, as long as they can guarantee that this money will be used for the needs of the Gazan public and not for arms to Hamas,” he said. “But when you read their statement, you realize that one word is missing: Israel. As if Israel does not exist. In this aspect, we must tip the scale and restore sanity in the international field.”

King: I feel very lucky in this regard. The head of my union asked me to write an article about the situation of the people and the hardship of the evacuees, for the Hamburg teachers’ newspaper, when I return.

What will be the hardest thing to explain to people at home?

Ackermann: The most difficult question for me to answer so far is what will happen in the future. Who will take responsibility for the Gaza Strip?

King: People in Germany are living in the same situation they lived in before Oct. 7. They don’t feel, don’t see, and don’t understand the terrible rift and can’t imagine what it means. They have no idea what has changed. There are those who don’t choose to get into the subject, and it will be difficult to discuss the significance of this change with them. This is the thing that will be the most challenging to bring to people at home.

Deka: A colleague from Ukraine pointed out to me the huge difference between the war in Israel and the war in Ukraine is the fact that every person here is seen and considered. Many citizens fled Ukraine, while people returned to Israel from all over the world to join the effort. Every soldier who falls in the war is mentioned by name, he is mentioned in the news. It’s something that doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s very simplistic, but it's a huge difference.

Can the relationship between the trade unions help?

King: Prejudices must be overcome in order to see the situation for the better. The meeting between union members from the different countries may not be the only answer, but it helps a lot. Just before the war, I brought a delegation of young people from my teachers’ union to Israel, and we visited the Gaza Strip. On Oct. 7, everyone was shocked by what happened there, and that’s only because they were there and could relate the place to the faces of the people.

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