U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell grew up near Grand Rapids, Mich., looking up to Israel daily — literally. Even until today, a special sign hangs over his mother’s kitchen sink.
“It says ‘Pray for the Peace of Israel,’ and I can guarantee you that my mother prays for the peace of Israel every day,” Grenell told Jüdische Rundschau in an interview at his office overlooking the Quadriga atop Brandenburg Gate. His manner is cheerful, friendly and down-to-earth—qualities that come through in his Instagram feed.
“I have six evangelical Christian ministers in my immediate family (I did not go into the family business), so I have a natural organic upbringing and education to not only respect Israel, but to really pray for its peace and regard it as a biblical mandate.”
Even before stepping into Germany, Grenell became an ambassador to watch. It was clear that he’d be a diplomat who thinks out of the box and challenges stereotypes, especially those about his boss, U.S. President Donald Trump. Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian and staunch Israel supporter, swore him in, while Grenell’s partner of 15 years, Matt Lashey, held the Bible, their families looking on with pride. Lashey’s two brothers are Christian ministers. Grenell never viewed his homosexuality as a rebellion from his Christian upbringing, but as part and parcel of God’s will.
His swearing-in ceremony was already an inadvertent statement: Trump is not the “homophobe” the mainstream media, including German media, have made him out to be. And what about those ridiculous charges (by the likes of Der Spiegel and Stern magazine) that Trump sympathizes with neo-Nazis, or worse, is the second-coming of Hitler? Among Grenell’s most recent crowning accomplishments was the deportation of New York’s last living Nazi, Jakiw Palij, from the United States.
“President Trump was very specific before I came that he wanted the Nazi out of New York,” said Grenell. “It’s something that I immediately went to work on day one and brought it up in every single meeting that I had. Some government officials had not heard of the case, but every single person was willing to hear me out and promised to look into the matter—and they clearly did.”
A social-media maven
Grenell’s Instagram feed might lead the casual follower to believe that he’s one of those mere ceremonial ambassadors networking with the elites and enjoying the high life afforded to high-ranking diplomats. He met German superstar Helene Fischer backstage and partied at Britney Spears’s Berlin concert. Right after this interview, he went Greek-island hopping as part of a weekend getaway, evincing the “carpe diem” lifestyle of a proud cancer survivor. The embassy had a colorful presence at the Christopher Day Street gay pride parade in July, where Grenell hobnobbed with participants, a rainbow-colored Israeli flag hanging out of his back pocket.
But his active, informative Twitter feed is that of an ambassador who, first and foremost, means business and hard work, even if his words and deeds won’t always make him the most popular guy at some Berlin parties.
Among his first (controversial) tweets as ambassador was a call to German businesses to disengage from Iran — a tweet that put him publicly at odds with the German government’s favorable stance on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Even today, the German government is pulling stops to stay in the deal, going so far as to seek ways to bypass the U.S.-dependent international payment system. German firms, however, seemed to have taken his call seriously.
Daimler, Siemens, Bayer, Deutsche Bahn and Telekom are among major German companies that have scaled back or terminated Iran operations, favoring instead to hold onto the vast U.S. market.
Even the Russian and the Chinese voted against Iran
His salvos against Germany’s engagement with Iran continue with two other pressing, unresolved issues.
“The evidence shows that Iran is trying to take 300 million euros [$345 million] out of Germany. They’re desperate to have this cash, and we think it’s a very bad idea.”
He has also asked Germany to halt the weekly flights from Mahan Air to Dusseldorf and Munich.
“They are the regime’s airline, and we just don’t think they should be flying into Germany. We don’t think they should be flying any place. So we’re asking our allies and other countries to take a look at Mahan Air and deny them landing rights.” He has yet to receive a response.
Contrary to conventional German diplomatic wisdom, he does not believe that the Iran deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) would prevent the Iranians from becoming a nuclear power. His experience working as spokesperson for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for eight years and sitting in on U.N. Security Council sessions has convinced him as such.
“I saw the Iranians lie,” said Grenell. “You have to remember that the Russians and the Chinese were so convinced that the Iranians were lying and hiding that they voted multiple times for sanctions on Iran. The Russians and the Chinese. Think about it. They raised their hands for sanctions on the Iranians multiple times because the evidence was very clear that they were lying and hiding and not working with the idea.”
He defines the deal as a White House initiative as opposed to a treaty, which would have doubtfully achieved Senate approval.
“And so no one should be surprised that something that is not a treaty gets changed in the next administration. We just don’t feel like that tactic is going to work. That tactic doesn’t get us to the goal, and we all agree the goal is to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.”
Anti-Semitism: Talking is not enough
Grenell was keener on discussing another problem close to this newspaper’s heart: tackling antisemitism, which he believes is a “human problem.”
“It’s really bothersome to me that someone would wear a religious symbol, like a kipah, or by the way, I wear this every day.” He pulled out from inside his white button down a long silver chain with a cross pendant. “It’s my cross. And this is what I wear every single day of my life. (I mean, I don’t wear it on the outside; it’s always inside.) And so the idea that someone couldn’t wear a religious symbol is really troublesome to me, that somehow we make a person wearing the religious symbol the problem because someone else has a really bad reaction.
“I just had another meeting on this internally, and I said I just don’t feel like we’re doing enough here in Germany to help the situation,” he said. “I keep hearing of more incidents, and frankly, we keep hearing from the German government that they’re willing to help. So we’ve got to figure out what we can do better. I’m not satisfied that just calling out publicly about the incidents after they occur is enough for me.”
He did not refer to any specific incident, but a few recent high-profile cases come to mind. In April, just before Grenell took office, an Israeli-Arab wore a kipah as an experiment to test antisemitic behavior in Germany. As if on cue, he was belted by a Syrian asylum-seeker shouting Yahud (“Jew”). Subsequently, a “Wear a kipah” rally in Berlin had German politicians showing solidarity by donning the Jewish skullcap. The 19-year-old Syrian who identifies as a “Palestinian” was convicted in a German court.
Two months later, several Syrians and German nationals were reportedly detained for attacking a Syrian Jew in Tiergarten Park because he wore a Star of David pendant.
Grenell and his team are evaluating effective methods on how to tackle antisemitism, including outreach to Muslim communities.
“Clearly, it’s an education thing, but sometimes education takes so long that I don’t want to pour money into programs and wait for the day for people to get educated. That’s just not sufficient to me. So we’ve got to have an urgent, as well as an educational and long-term, component to this. But we’re constantly struggling with how to deal with this.”
Another high-profile anti-Semitic incident took place right outside Brandenburg Gate, near Grenell’s current office, in response to American policy. Last December, immediately after Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the move of the American Embassy, protesters, mostly of Arabic and Turkish origin, burned Israeli flags. Governing politicians came out strongly against the antisemitic display.
“We don’t accept it when Jews or the State of Israel are disgraced in this way,” Thomas de Maziere, former interior minister, told the German tabloid Bild. Then foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel told Bild that despite understandable criticism of the American decision, “there is no right and also no justification to burn Israeli flags, incite hatred against Jews or question the right of Israel to exist.”
Trump’s stance on Jerusalem has been another point of contention between the Uniteds States and Germany. Germany was among the 128 U.N. member states that voted in favor of a resolution that declared Trump’s Jerusalem decision “null and void.”
Trump did what his predecessors only promised
“A lot of this is just politics,” said Grenell.
“Every single U.S. president in recent memory has campaigned that the American Embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. Every single one. It’s frightening to me that society and the media allow politicians to say things in campaigns and then kind of allow it to be a broken promise because, well, that’s what you say in campaigns. So I think the overreaction for a president actually following through on a campaign promise is really more indicative of how people never really held politicians to their promises in the campaign.”
Grenell has been a long-time supporter of the move, for practical reasons, too. He believes that countries should be able to choose where they would like their embassy. “I know a lot of people, State Department workers, who worked at the embassy in Tel Aviv and who constantly had to travel to Jerusalem because that’s where the action is.”
He himself has traveled to Israel more times than he can count and calls Jerusalem “one of the most fascinating cities in the world.” But he has also enjoyed Israel for its less controversial claims to fame: its food.
“So we have this joke,” Grenell said, referring to himself and his partner, Lashey, “because he’s a foodie, and he loves all types of food and restaurants, and I’ve kind of been so busy and multitasking all the time that he teases me that I view food as sustenance only. He jokes that when we were in Israel, I became a foodie because Israelis eat the way I eat, which is little dips and little things, and it’s smaller, constant grazing, so to speak. If I’m home and I’m by myself, I eat hummus and tabouli, and cheese and pita bread and vegetables and olives.”
Even though he’s sometimes at loggerheads with the German government over foreign-policy matters, he specifically chose to serve in Germany in large part over what unites them, as friends.
“I think it’s a substantive place to problem-solve,” he said. “Germany is also an incredible partner. It’s the largest economy in Europe, and I know Donald Trump thinks in terms of trade and jobs and budgets. I’ve been very clear with German officials that we could have the most special relationship because Germany is the largest economy in Europe, and he respects that incredibly and wants to have a very close relationship with the largest economy.”
He’s found Germany to be a “gorgeous” country.
“We’re having a blast. It’s so dog-friendly, which is amazing. I’m surprised by how green it is.” Their beloved dog, Lola, a Texas Blue Lacy, features prominently in his Instagram feed.
He’s confident that Germans, who have the image of being inimical to Trump, will warm up to the American president. He points to America’s economic success, which also holds promise for German businesses; German CEOs regularly express to him enthusiasm for the strength of the U.S. market.
“I saw through the campaign some of the same criticisms, but I saw the crowds grow, and the people really like the policies, so I’m very confident that people will get used to the style and embrace the policies pretty wholeheartedly.”
And his mother’s prayers are always overhead.
“I think I work for peace.”
This article originally ran in Jüdische Rundschau.