(photo credit: Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
It was supposed to be a historic visit of reconciliation between German Catholics and the Jews.
Instead, a recent visit to the Holy Land by a delegation of 27 senior German bishops only served to reopen old wounds and turned into a PR fiasco when two of the bishops compared the conditions of the Palestinians in the West Bank to that of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.
The remarks, which were first published in the German press after the delegation returned to Germany, sparked outrage in Israel and among aging Holocaust survivors, with Yad Vashem denouncing the comments as "political exploitation and demagoguery."
Following that harsh condemnation, Germany's top Roman Catholic churchman, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who had led the delegation, called the comparison "not appropriate."
This was viewed as a half-baked response that fell far short of a full apology.
The contentious remarks added drama to what was, on the whole, an otherwise uneventful trip, and opened a whole new chapter of recriminations and charges of anti-Semitism.
Indeed, the German bishops' comparison stunned the usually placid Yad Vashem officials, who had hosted the senior Christian leaders just hours earlier on a tour of the Holocaust Museum, during which they had talked about guilt, joint liability and enduring shame.
"Photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto at Yad Vashem in the morning; in the evening we go to the ghetto in Ramallah - that blows your lid off," Eichstaett Bishop Gregor Maria Franz Hanke was quoted as saying by the S ddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's largest newspapers.
Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg described the situation in Ramallah as "ghettolike."
The two bishops, both from eastern Germany, made the remarks to German journalists traveling with their delegation during a visit to Bethlehem, where they had been told of the hardships facing local residents as a result of Israeli security measures, and specifically the barrier which separates the town from nearby Jerusalem.
"The remarks illustrate a woeful ignorance of history and a distorted sense of perspective," Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev wrote to the head of the German delegation. "These unwarranted and offensive comparisons serve to diminish the memory of victims of the Holocaust and mollify the consciences of those who seek to lessen European responsibility for Nazi crimes."
"I urge all people to keep the Holocaust out of cheap political exploitation and demagoguery," he concluded.
BY COMPARISON, the response by Lehmann in a letter to Shalev was seen as tepid at best.
"Completely independent of the situation, one cannot connect in any way current problems or situations of injustice with the national socialist mass murder of the Jews," he wrote. "For this reason, I can well comprehend that a statement which referred to the Warsaw Ghetto in the face of Palestinian suffering caused irritation and objection."
As the furor spread, Hanke later told the German media that he had not meant to make such a comparison. But the damage was done.
"Such extraordinarily insensitive comments by the bishops point to a much deeper problem of the ongoing and continuing erosion of Israel's moral status, even in Germany," said Dr. Zvi Shtauber, director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former ambassador to the UK. "What especially bothered me was that a German bishop - a spiritual leader - knows so little about the Warsaw Ghetto and apparently even less about the Palestinian cities."
"This is not an isolated incident," he added.
Avi Primor, a former ambassador to Germany who heads the Center for European Studies at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said that he was "surprised like everyone else" by the comparison, but noted that the two bishops who made the remarks came from eastern Germany and so did not have the sensitivity toward the Holocaust and the Jews that their counterparts in western Germany have.
"These are people who grew up with communist education in which everybody is righteous in East Germany and all the criminals are in West Germany," Primor said.
Ambassador to Germany Shimon Stein said that anyone who made such comparisons had "either forgotten everything, learned nothing or failed morally."