How do you undo decades of progress in Christian-Jewish relations in Germany?
Comparing Israel with the Nazis appears to be one way.
Activists are wondering how to repair rifts in those ties after a delegation from the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference that visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February and early March compared Ramallah to the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.
In particular, Gregor Maria Franz Hanke was quoted as saying, “this morning we saw pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto at Yad Vashem, and this evening we are going to the Ramallah ghetto.”
He went on to say “that while Israel has the right to exist, this right cannot be realized in such a brutal manner.”
Hanke said he would include his impressions in his sermons during Easter.
Lost was the fact that the Bishops’ Conference chairman, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, had delivered a sensitive address at Yad Vashem.
“Nobody who wishes to be free of the memory of the Shoah can ever be free,” Lehmann said there.
But Hanke’s words rang louder, even after he told journalists he didn’t intend to compare past and present.
The Bishops’ Conference reportedly will meet with Jewish leaders here. Meanwhile, longtime activists in Jewish-Christian relations are at odds over how to respond.
“You ask yourself, why work on Christian-Jewish cooperation for 50 years when such a comparison can be drawn on an ahistorical basis and out of a false sense of concern?” Eva Schulz-Jander, Catholic president of the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation, asked in a phone interview.
“I don’t understand it and I am sad about it,” she said. “It’s a setback.”
But Johannes Gerster, president of the German Israeli Society, found the critical reactions overblown.
“What is important,” he said in a public statement, “is that the Catholic bishops have corrected their comparisons and their positions, which were justifiably attacked. It should be accepted and not constantly repeated.”
Shimon Stein, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, reacted to Hanke’s comparison with “horror and disgust.” Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, condemned the remarks as “appalling and completely unacceptable.”
Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem’s director, wrote in an open letter that such comparisons “poison the atmosphere and make it even harder to find a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lehmann answered Shalev in an open letter, saying that the bishops shaken by their impressions during their first official visit to Yad Vashem had been further upset by the security fences and walls separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. The barrier, which was built following hundreds of Palestinian terrorist attacks during the intifada, has led to a dramatic drop in attacks.
This led to “a few harsh remarks, some of which were definitely inappropriate,” the letter said.
It went on to say that “even those who spoke scathingly about the situation” understand the threat of terrorism to Israel and “wholeheartedly support the State of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself.”
Ultimately, Lehmann said, “There can be no question of taking situations which are problematic or involve injustices today and making any connection whatsoever with the Nazis’ mass murders of the Jews. As a result, I can perfectly well understand that a comment which made reference to the Warsaw Ghetto in the light of Palestinian suffering aroused feelings of affront and protests.”
Nazi Germany confined some 400,000 Jews to the ghetto before deporting and murdering most of them.
Deidre Berger, head of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, told JTA that it was “unfortunate that the strong statement by Cardinal Lehmann about German responsibility for the Holocaust was lost in the controversy.”
“Still, the large number of comments from the bishops, with invalid historical comparisons, makes one wonder what the discussion is in general within Church circles about Israel and the Mideast,” she said. “You can only speculate and hope that these are indeed isolated incidents. Nonetheless, to ignore them would be a mistake.”
Such comparisons between historical and current events are made frequently by extremists on the right and left. And a recent survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation/TNS Emnid indicated that three out of 10 Germans tend to accuse Israel of doing to the Palestinians “what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich.”
Observers said, however, that one would expect more from Germany’s upper Catholic echelon, which over the decades has been a haven for Jewish-Catholic dialogue.
Jewish and Catholic leaders have come together to tackle such difficult issues as Church behavior during the Holocaust and the notoriously anti-Semitic Passion Plays. The new pope, German-born Benedict XVI, made an extraordinary public gesture of outreach when he visited the Cologne synagogue during his first official trip back to Germany in summer 2005.
Schulz-Jander said Catholic-Jewish ties in Germany require maintenance and care.
“The Church leaders are very anxious to have a good relationship to Jewry, and that requires a sensitivity toward Israel,” she said. “In Germany as in the USA, the question is how to criticize Israel without an anti-Semitic undertone. And comparisons are unacceptable.”
If Henke indeed looks back on the Bishops’ Conference mission in his Easter sermon, as promised, Schulz-Jander said he should keep in mind that the sermon’s goal “is not to open wounds but ! rather t o heal.”