The Hebrew University of Jerusalem conferred an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree upon Joachim Gauck, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, at the University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem. The award was presented by the President of the Hebrew University, Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, and the Rector of the Hebrew University, Prof. Asher Cohen.

The award was conferred in recognition of President Gauck’s exemplary public service and his defense of democracy, in particular his devotion to a free and unified Germany along with his dedication to bring justice to the German people; in tribute to his advocacy against global racism, extremism and anti-Semitism and his determination to preserve the memory of the Holocaust; and in appreciation of his support for higher education and his solidarity and friendship with the State of Israel.

The award comes as Israel and Germany mark 50 years of diplomatic relations. Calling the Hebrew University “an intellectual, a philosophical and a cultural home which unites Israel and Germany,” President Gauck said: “When the most important university in Israel bestows this honor on the German Federal President, it also symbolizes the depth of the relations between our two countries.”

Since being elected to the Presidency in 2012, Mr. Gauck has shown an extraordinary willingness to engage with Israel in close bilateral co-operation, and to present a common front against racism, extremism and anti-Semitism.

President Gauck said that, while “the process of moving closer to one another was arduous,” both countries have shown a strong desire to deal with the past in a way that makes a shared present and future possible: “On the one hand it is true to say that the past will not go away. It is something that has not been entirely removed, and that probably never can be entirely removed. On the other hand the past alone can no longer determine the present and the future. It can no longer undermine the trust that has been established. It can no longer prevent dialogue which is now resilient and able to withstand controversy.”

Joachim Gauck is Germany’s first President to hail from the former East Germany. He was born in Rostock in 1940 and grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1965, he pursued theology and became a Lutheran pastor. An active participant in the 1989 revolution to transition the GDR to a parliamentary democracy, he co-founded and served as the spokesman for the opposition movement, the New Forum. In his speech, he talked about the animosity expressed by the former East Germany towards Israel:

“I only got to know Israel personally in these recent times. GDR citizens were as a rule not allowed to travel to non-socialist countries, which of course included Israel. Moreover, in the official GDR propaganda Israel was portrayed as the spearhead of imperialistic interests in the Middle East, as an aggressor whose goal was to destroy the Palestinians. East Berlin allied itself with Arab states against Israel, which was not seldom compared to Nazi Germany, of all things, in a perfidious distortion of the truth. The GDR allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization, not Israel, to open a representation, supplied them with weapons and trained their fighters,” he recalled.

“Only the members of the first and only freely elected parliament of the GDR, to which I belonged, were able to unanimously adopt a declaration on Israel a few days after the constitutive session, which stated: ‘We ask the people in Israel for forgiveness for the hypocrisy and hostility of the official GDR policies towards the State of Israel and for the persecution and abuse of Jewish citizens in our country that also occurred after 1945.’

“It was only during my visits to Israel after the fall of the Wall and reunification that I was able to fully grasp, through meetings and conversations with survivors, the extent to which persecution, extermination and genocide had harmed the souls of the survivors and even their descendants.”

Addressing current events, he said: “Our encounters have also changed in another way. Previously we often just rubbed one another the wrong way, but today we often learn from one another: voluntarily, in order to jointly create new areas of activity, and also out of necessity, in order to be able to confront new threats. I can feel myself that now that terrorism is moving closer to us in Western Europe, I have a better idea of the threat that Israelis have been facing for decades.

“I wish that Jews and Palestinians could finally break out of the vicious circle of violence and find a way to co-exist in peace and self-determination. My wish is that those of you in particular who are sitting in this room and who will steer the fate of your country in the future, will retain your hope and strength so that the longing of people all over the world can become a reality in your country, too: a life in dignity, justice, freedom and security – for everyone, equally.”

Of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, President Gauck said: “I have to admit that it was only during my preparations for this day that I really became aware how strongly the founding of the Hebrew University was shaped by intellectuals who received their academic education in Germany or in German language speaking countries. The academic insights that have been gleaned and taught here, the quality of academic life that has given the Hebrew University an international reputation, all this rests on foundations that Jews from Europe brought with them to Palestine.”