In the founding declaration of Aktion Sühnezeichen (Action Reconciliation) in 1958, Israel was mentioned by name, along with Russia and Poland, to whom the appeal was primarily directed. But it was precisely in these three countries that the beginning turned out to be particularly difficult.
Beginnings in Israel: construction projects
It was only after several years of effort that an Israeli partner agreed to host a group of Aktion Sühnezeichen volunteers in 1961. Kibbutz Urim took in the first generation of Sühnezeichen volunteers in Israel. In the years that followed, it was possible to build on these growing relationships. Practical work on construction sites of other kibbutzim and a home for the blind in Jerusalem required volunteers with vocational training and appropriate manual skills.
At the end of the 1960s, the focus of volunteer work shifted to projects in the social sector: institutions for people with disabilities, children’s and youth projects, hospitals, homes for the elderly, memorials and educational institutions. For recognized conscientious objectors, it became possible from 1968 to do a voluntary service with ASF in Israel instead of civilian service in Germany.
Survivors and combination projects
For decades, ASF’s volunteer program in Israel has been characterized by great continuity. A significant amount of project partners have been working with ASF for more than three or four decades. Since 2010, all volunteers are involved in so-called “combination projects.” All of them spend part of their weekly working time caring for elderly people, often survivors of the Shoah, and the other part working in a socio-political or educational project.
Crises & Conflicts
For more than 60 years, ASF has been moved by intense political (security) debates about Israel and our work in that country.
A traumatic experience for Aktion Sühnezeichen in Israel was the bomb attack by a Palestinian terrorist on a bus carrying ASF volunteers in Nablus. As a result of this terrorist attack on April 26, 1978, two volunteers lost their lives, while others survived seriously injured. Other crises and wars affecting Israel also influenced the work of Aktion Sühnezeichen. During the Gulf War in 1992, for example, the volunteers were withdrawn from Israel, and during the Lebanon War in 2006, the early termination of the service was imminent. The position of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in the field of tension of the numerous conflicts in and around Israel is repeatedly the subject of numerous discussions.
Everyday life in Israel is characterized by the diversity of the country, but also by its contrasts and contradictions. For 60 years, ASF volunteers have worked and lived in the field of tension between poverty and wealth, religious and secular groups, Jewish and Arab population, oriental and occidental culture. Additionally, conflicts and wars of the neighboring Arab states against Israel as well as the role of Israel in the disputed territories deeply influence daily life in the country.
International meeting place Beit Ben – Yehuda
The national headquarter of ASF in Israel is located in the rooms of the international meeting place “Beit Ben-Yehuda” in the Jerusalem district of Talpiot. In October 1970, the then mayor of the city of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, offered Aktion Sühnezeichen to build a meeting place in the former house of the family of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was the driving force behind the revival and renewal of the Hebrew language. He wrote the first dictionary in modern Ivrit and helped establish Hebrew as an everyday language. Until 1970, ASF only had temporary quarters, sometimes in the premises of project partners. In the historic home of the Yehuda family in Jerusalem, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste has found space for the office of the regional representative, and in 2004 opened the guest house “Beit Ben-Yehuda” to further promote dialogue between Germans and Israelis.
From here, volunteer services and international encounter programs are managed and accompanied. Both areas are inconceivable without the active and continuing support of a loyal circle of Israeli friends who have joined together in the association “Jedidej Ot HaKapara WeSchalom” (Friends of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste). We are extremely grateful for the trust of the circle of friends and project partners.
The team of ASF in Israel includes volunteers, the ASF national office and the Beit Ben-Yehuda guest house office.
Every year, around 22 ASF volunteers are working in Israel. They are spread all over the country: From Nahariya in the north to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The national office is the first point of contact for volunteers and friends of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in the country. Judith Kuhne has been working as the country representative for ASF in Israel since March 2023. She is supported by Anett Daffan, the administrative coordinator. In addition to that, two volunteers work in the country office each year. In the same building can be found the office of the guest house “Beit Ben-Yehuda”, where Azmi Rabiah works as a service worker. The team of the guest house is also supported by interns.
Short portraits of the current team at Beit Ben-Yehuda can be found here.
History and outlook
Today’s Israeli Circle of Friends has a long history and has developed and changed its character over the years. In order to explain this, one has to go back in history a little: In 1961, the first volunteer group was received at Kibbutz Urim. But as early as 1962, the first volunteers already worked in Jerusalem to build an institution for children and young people with visual impairments, the “Beit Chinuch LeIvrim” in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. There, they lived in the so-called “House Pax”.
The commencement of the work of the ASF volunteers in Israel in 1961, even before the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel in 1965, would not have been possible without the support of Israeli friends. Among them were many who had fled from Europe to escape the Nazis or had survived in concentration camps. They accompanied the ASF work on site and built a bridge between the German volunteers and Israeli society that was particularly suspicious of them in the first decades after the Shoah. These friends included Jehuda Riemer, Shalom Ben-Chorin and his wife Avital, Alfred Jutkowsky, Walter Grab, Joseph Walk, Elieser Feiler, Gabriel Stern, Yehuda Bacon, Israel and Hannah Loewenstein.
Teddy Kollek, longtime mayor of the city of Jerusalem, was impressed by the idea of an “Aktion Sühnezeichen” from the country that had brought so much suffering upon the world. He cooperated with the Alyn Children’s Hospital to provide housing for the volunteers in Ein Kerem. In 1971, when ASF was looking for a new headquarter, Kollek made it possible for them to move into the beautiful historic Ben-Yehuda House on Ein Gedi Street. This house had been built by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, in 1922 and had become the property of the Jerusalem municipality in 1965. ASF undertook to maintain the house and to develop it into a center for German-Israeli encounters. For nostalgic reasons, the name “Haus Pax” was taken from the old ASF headquarters and from then on the house was called “Beit Ben-Yehuda – Haus Pax”.
When it came to signing a formal lease in 1991, there was one difficulty: the city could not sign a contract with a foreign association. So an Israeli body had to be created. And here begins the story of the Association of Friends of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in Israel! At the end of 1990 the Israeli association “Jedidej Ot Hakapara VeHaSchalom” was founded. Now, finally, the lease contract for the house could be signed. The contract runs until 2016.
In the first years, the Circle of Friends was not very active. Individually, however, there were many contacts between volunteers and Circle of Friends members. From 2000, the association became more active and new members were recruited. This brought new life to the association’s activities. Initially, important decisions were made jointly with the Berlin headquarters and the State Commissioner (LBA) in Israel. The latter were in the course of these years successively Heribert Krane, Martin Lempp, Sabine Lohmann, Katharina von Münster, Guy Band and today Judith Kuhne.
Addtionally, the Association of the Circle of Friends is actively involved in making the work of the ASF volunteers better known in Israel. This includes, for example, the school visits by volunteers, which were initiated by the Circle of Friends. The ASF volunteers present their work to Israeli schoolchildren and discuss the importance of social commitment with them.
Besides the rather dull administrative work, the Circle of Friends is above all a source of warmth and security for the volunteers. Today, the Circle of Friends has about 60 members. The majority of the members are German-speaking, older people, for whom meeting the young volunteers is a big pleasure – just as vice-versa. These 60 people have different biographical backgrounds. Some have suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, and are yet willing to dedicate themselves to the young descendants of the perpetrators of that time.
“The Circle of Friends sees its role primarily as being a contact and host family for the young and sometimes older volunteers in Israel. For many of them, it´s the first time being away from their parental home, and a little help in settling in can often become the beginning of a friendly relationship.”
– Marianne Karmon, Honorary Chairwoman of the Friends of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste in Israel
The remembrance of the National Socialist crimes, the realization of their consequences and the everyday encounter with survivors of the Shoah form the linchpin of volunteer work in Israel. This field of project work has not become weaker in recent decades, but stronger. At the same time, ASF involvement goes beyond encounters with survivors of Nazi persecution and is directed at Israeli society as a whole.
For ASF volunteers, living and working in Israel gives the opportunity for intense encounters with impressive people and organizations, new cultures, religions and languages as well as the confrontation with social and political conflicts. These encounters and learning processes are supported and encouraged by an educational program that accompanies the voluntary service.
In addition to the volunteer programs, through the Jerusalem meeting place Beit Ben-Yehuda (BBY), Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste is strongly involved in German-Israeli as well as international educational and encounter programs in Israel. The Beit Ben-Yehuda serves both as a meeting place for various individuals and groups visiting Israel and as a guest house for friends of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste. The structures of ASF’s volunteer work in 13 countries, which have grown over decades, facilitate international networking of the programs. The programs at BBY are designed to provide access to Israeli society, to everyday life, and to Israel’s domestic and foreign policy situation. They address current events and debates and thus almost inevitably deal with controversial aspects of Israel and the Middle East.
If you want to visit us or get more information, you will find them on the homepage of the Beit Ben-Yehuda. We are looking forward to seeing you!
Our project partners and workplaces in Israel
ASF’s commitment is only possible thanks to our partner organizations. With many of our partner organizations we´ve already been working for many years – on the basis of equal cooperation exchanging information regularly. The international cooperation enriches us a lot. Our volunteers have fixed workplaces and contact persons at their posts.