Acceptance Speech on being awarded the Prize ‘Mutual Understanding and Tolerance’

Madam Chancellor,
Mr von Weizsäcker,
Michael Blumenthal,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

To be awarded the prize ‘Mutual Understanding and Tolerance’ and to receive it here, in the Jewish Museum of Berlin, is a profoundly moving experience. That I am so deeply moved has something to do with the people who have bestowed this high honour on me. It has something to do with you, dear Mr von Weizsäcker, you, who have followed my path in Germany with so much interest and affection – I still vividly remember those moving moments of that trip to Israel when, thanks to your patronage, an orchestra of the former GDR was able for the first time to perform in Israel.

May I offer my warmest thanks for your eulogy today, the exquisite beauty of which has almost embarrassed me.

Many thanks also go to you, dear Michael Blumenthal, for making it possible for me to receive this great honour at this very special place, to receive it here, in the Jewish Museum, which – as is rightly mentioned in the award document – encompasses the whole 2000 years of German-Jewish history. Here we are reminded of the powerful impact of a Moses Mendelssohn as well as of the devastating consequences of intolerance, which remind us of the necessity of mutual human understanding in a modern society.

To engage with the spiritual values and their endangerment, at this particular location offers the chance for lifelong learning, to Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. However, in order to learn from one another, it is essential that we have cultural institutions such as museums, theatres, orchestras, and opera houses. All establishments of this kind are in lively artistic competition here in Berlin, and that is why day by day they have to earn the support of their audiences anew, through the highest artistic standards and convincing artistic ethos.

I would now like to return again to the award document. There it is said that the raison d’etre of the Jewish Museum is to actively engage with the past and thus to learn from it and gain the tools to deal with the problems of society, the problems of the present and those of the future. This compassionate learning process is what the Jewish Museum stands for with utmost determination. It is this determination, this single-mindedness, that has ensured the Jewish Museum’s high degree of institutional independence and that has entitled it to the full support of the German Federal Government.

This successful interplay of federal and regional authorities at the Jewish Museum ought to have led to a learning process of its own in the Berlin cultural landscape long ago, a learning process that is still absent as far as the Staatsoper is concerned. And it is precisely this refusal to engage in this learning process that worries me so much.

Culture and remembrance are closely linked. If in our cultural institutions we want to pass on our innermost values in such a way that the people who come to us innerly understand them in the best sense of the word, so much so that they remember them in their everyday lives, then we have achieved a lot, in particular with regard to tolerance. Having said that, a wise warning by Goethe comes to mind. In his ‘Maxims and Reflections’ Goethe says, ‘Tolerance should only ever be transitional: it must lead to acceptance, to merely tolerate is to insult.’

Where better to promote this form of human recognition than in our concert halls, our theatres, and our opera houses?

In order to do so, full artistic freedom is imperative. But we also need economic independence so that we can achieve what is rightly demanded of us. How to better guarantee this in the future could be a worthwhile subject for reflection tonight. In this institution, here, we should learn never to give up hope – especially for understanding and reason.

And from this house here I take the liberty – like my highly esteemed friend David Grossman did on the occasion of his speech in memory of Itzhak Rabin – to appeal to the Government of Israel. We have had the historic chance to become a nation after 20 centuries of existence as minorities all over the world. We must not forget the values that have been respected throughout the whole of Jewish history, namely dignity, generosity, and intelligence. We must acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people. That will not make us weaker. We must remember that on being founded, Israel promised equality to all her citizens, to Jews and non-Jews alike. The only capital asset that we, the Jewish people, have, is of a moral nature. We have no right to occupy the land of others, and we must find the intelligence and strength to fight for peace. And do so with at least twice the intensity as that with which we have waged war. This is our Jewish heritage.

In order to encourage exactly this I will now sit down to play the piano where I still feel more comfortable than speaking. Together with our Egyptian solo bass player of the West-East Divan Orchestra, who, as it were, is in his second job also solo bass player of the Berlin Philharmonic, in other words, together with the Arab Nabil Shehata I am now going to play, at this very special place, the Jewish lament ‘Kol Nidrei’, written by the German composer Max Bruch.

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