Commentary Magazine


Israel and the German Bishops

“In the morning at Yad Vashem, photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto; in the afternoon, we go to the ghetto in Ramallah. It’s enough to make you blow your top.” This outburst in Bethlehem by Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt was only one of several provocative comments made during a much-heralded pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian terroritories by all 27 German Catholic bishops last week.

The Bishop of Augsburg, Walter Mixa, accused the Israelis of “racism,” while the most senior member of the delegation, the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, compared Israel’s security fence to the Berlin Wall and predicted that it, too, would be torn down. “This is something that is done to animals, not people,” Cardinal Meisner declared.

While in Israel, the bishops were given VIP treatment by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and other senior officials. At the Yad Vashem memorial, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, gave a respectful speech. But the tone changed dramatically after the bishops left Israel and entered Palestinian-controlled territory.

Despite sharp reactions from Shimon Stein, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, and from German Jewish leaders (described by the Iranian news agency as “German Zionist lobbyists”), the bishops seem unrepentant. They issued a statement vehemently denying that they had “demonized” Israel, adding that the “emotional consternation” of their visit to Bethlehem had evoked some “very personal remarks” that had already been “self-critically corrected.” In fact, however, Bishop Hanke merely said that “comparisons between the Holocaust and the present situation in Palestine are unacceptable and were not intended.” Neither he nor Cardinal Meisner and Bishop Mixa offered any apology.

I do not know what to make of this lamentable tale. Do the German bishops really need to be reminded of the collaboration with the Nazis of many of their predecessors during the Third Reich? Do they need to be reminded of what the Germans actually did in the Warsaw Ghetto? Does an East German like Cardinal Meisner need to be reminded of the difference between the Berlin Wall, built to stop people fleeing from Communist tyranny, and Israel’s fence, built to protect its people from Palestinian terrorists? Do the German bishops still know so little of the tragic struggle for survival of the Jewish people that they need to be reminded of their own unique responsibility, as Germans and as Christians, to counter the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe?

I hope that Pope Benedict XVI will summon the offending bishops to Rome and discipline them. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he encouraged John Paul II to make unprecedented gestures toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. As the first German pope for a thousand years, he declared his intention to continue to lead the Church down the path of reconciliation. As a man who knows the Third Reich from personal experience—he was a member of the Hitler Youth and served in an anti-aircraft unit during the last months of the war—Pope Benedict has a special duty to distance the Catholic Church from comparisons between Israel and the Nazis. Such comparisons, though commonplace in the Islamic world, are not a Muslim monopoly.

This incident has a particular resonance for me, as a philo-Semitic Catholic, a friend both of Israel and of Germany. Quite simply, I feel ashamed of these bishops. Nobody wants the Germans to be perpetually beating their breasts to atone for the crimes of the Nazis. Like anybody else, they are entitled to criticize the Israeli government. After all, Israelis themselves criticize their own government all the time. But I am angry that German bishops, of all people, should come out with extremist propaganda that delegitimizes Israel, a state that is threatened with a second Holocaust at the hands of a nuclear-armed Iran.

These campaigns of vilification against Israel have done terrible harm. A new BBC poll conducted in 27 countries finds that Israel has the most negative image of all, ahead of Iran, the United States, and North Korea. This grotesque attitude to the beleaguered Jewish state is fuelled by comments like those of the German bishops, and reinforced by their failure to apologize.

In medieval times, Christians knew how to do penance for their sins. The German Emperor Henry IV went to Canossa, in Tuscany, to beg Pope Gregory VII to lift a sentence of excommunication. The monarch stood in the snow outside the castle for three days, wearing only a hairshirt, before the pope forgave him.

To repair the damage they have done to German-Israeli and Catholic-Jewish relations, these three German bishops must make their own journey to Canossa. They don’t have to wear hairshirts, but they do need to show that they have grasped the magnitude of their folly. They owe that much to the younger generation of Germans—some of whom last week destroyed a medieval Jewish cemetery in Bavaria.

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