Germany's Jewish community has criticized Catholic bishops for comparing Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank to the Nazi confinement of Jews in ghettoes. But the bishops say they were expressing their shock.
The bishops were visibly moved by their visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem
The Israeli ambassador in Berlin has said he was shocked and disappointed by comments from a German bishop in which the cleric compared the situation of the Palestinians to Jews in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
"One can have differing opinions on Israeli policies, one can criticize them, but it depends on the choice of words, the terms and the historical comparisons one uses," said Ambassador Shimon Stein in a statement.
German media quoted the bishop of the southern city of Eichstätt, Gregor Maria Hanke, earlier this week as deploring the conditions imposed on Palestinians in the occupied territories after a visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Hanke was part of a group of 26 German Roman Catholic bishops traveling through Israel for one week.
"In the morning we saw photographs from the inhumane Warsaw ghetto, in the evening we drove through the ghetto in Ramallah," Hanke said. "It is infuriating."
Stein questioned Hanke's choice of words.
The Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was the largest set up by the Nazis
"When terms such as 'Warsaw ghetto' or 'racism' are used in connection with Israeli or Palestinian policies, one has forgotten everything or never learned a thing and failed morally," Stein said.
The German Council of Jews called Hanke's remarks "horrifying and utterly unacceptable."
"With friends like them, who needs enemies?" said Dieter Graumann, the Council's vice-president, in Wednesday's edition of the daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger. "Anyone who compares the condition of the Palestinians with the sufferings of the Jews in the ghettoes under the Nazis has learned nothing from history."
Graumann called the remarks "anti-Semitic in character."
Bishop simply wanted to express his personal grief
The German news agency DPA asked Hanke if he had been correctly quoted.
"I just wanted to express my personal grief," Hanke said. He added that the immediate impression of the concrete barrier in the West Bank had been shocking to him.
"A comparison between the events of the Holocaust and the contemporary situation in Palestine is not acceptable and was not intended," Hanke told DPA.
In 1940, months after invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazis forced some 500,000 Jews into the Warsaw ghetto, surrounding it with a high wall. About 100,000 died inside from hunger and disease, and over 300,000 were sent to death camps. The ghetto was destroyed in 1943.
"This wall will fall like the Berlin Wall before it."
Cologne's Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner and other bishops were quoted as comparing Israel's controversial separation barrier to the Berlin Wall.
Israel's separation barrier reminded some bishops of the Berlin Wall
"I never thought I would have to see something like this ever again in my life," Meisner said according to the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "This wall will fall like the Berlin Wall before it."
Stein said the bishops had "demonized" Israel in the conflict and used double standards to attack its policies.
"A fence or a wall built by people as a security measure can, when the political conditions change, be dismantled," Stein said. "The victims of terrorists cannot be brought back to life."
The Conference of German Catholic Bishops has rejected Stein's remarks. It said in a statement that Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the conference chairman, had repeatedly endorsed Israel's right to exist and denounced terrorism against its people.
The conference secretary, Hans Langendörfer, said the bishops' few "very personal expressions of shock" had since been corrected by them in a self-critical fashion.