BERLIN - German President Horst KÃ¶hler issued on Thursday the Federal Cross of Merit, first class - the country's most prestigious award - to Israeli attorney Felicia Langer, a vociferous critic of Israel who lives in TÃ¼bingen, Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg. Langer, 79, who left Israel in 1990, frequently compares Israel with apartheid in South Africa, and praised the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Durban II UN conference on racism in Geneva in April. When asked about the award and the parallels she has drawn between Israel and South African apartheid, she told The Jerusalem Post that the Federal Cross of Merit was a "recognition of my work," and "what Israel is practicing in the occupied territories is apartheid." In an interview with the junge Welt, a Berlin-based Stalinist daily, she termed Israel "the apartheid of the present" and "the Israeli regime." Asked about her interview with the Muslim Markt Web site, in which she argued that Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as other leading Israeli politicians and generals, should be convicted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Langer told the Post that she considered Israeli officials "war criminals" and stood by her comments. She also said the "official translation" of Ahmadinejad's threat to "wipe Israel off the map" did not contain a statement advocating the obliteration of Israel. When asked why KÃ¶hler had awarded Langer with Germany's highest distinction, his press spokesman, Stefan Schulze, declined to comment and deferred the matter to the State Ministry in Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg. In an e-mail to the Post, Uwe KÃ¶hn, a spokesman for the state of Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg, wrote, "The honor bestowed on Felicia Langer recognizes her humanitarian service, independent of political, ideological or religious motivation. Most important is her dedication to people in need, regardless of nationality or religion, given her own background as massively affected by the Holocaust. The decision to present the Order of Merit was made on the recommendation of the lord mayor of TÃ¼bingen, where Ms. Langer lives, with confirmation from all the usual departments involved in bestowing such honors, including the Foreign Ministry. The honor will be conferred by President KÃ¶hler and presented by Undersecretary [Hubert] Wicker." A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry told the Post that the ministry's involvement in the award process was being reviewed and he could not issue an immediate comment. Mayor Boris Palmer could not be reached for a response. According to Langer, the Christian Democratic Union's governor of Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg, GÃ¼nther Oettinger, praised her work in a letter and congratulated her on receiving the Federal Cross of Merit. Dr. Dieter Graumann, vice president of the 120,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany, could not fathom the government's decision to honor Langer. She was a "militant and fanatical hater of Israel," Graumann said. "An aggressive verbal attack on the Jewish state is rewarded for the first time by the German state. Is that really the intention?" Graumann wrote in an e-mail to the Post. "Fact-based critique of concrete Israeli policies is of course always legitimate - and one hears it most loudly in Israel itself. But Ms. Langer is known particularly for entertaining a mean-spirited, militant hatred of Israel, which only succeeds in getting such effective public attention because she does this as a Jewish person - as she herself stresses. "And Ms. Langer just a few months ago called the German chancellor's positive attitude toward Israel 'scandalous.' Now Langer is suddenly getting a Federal Cross of Merit - that's a fatal signal, recognizing and legitimizing her fully one-sided agitation against Israel," he continued. "The reasoning provided by the state government is that Ms. Langer's political engagement is linked with her past and with the Holocaust, a connection that is decidedly insensitive, unwise and unfortunate, to put it mildly. Is this the introduction of a new fashion? Whoever criticizes Israel the loudest - especially if they are Jewish - is first in line for the Federal Cross of Merit?" Graumann asked. Responding to Graumann's criticism, Langer told the Post that "the Central Council of Jews in Germany is a branch of the Israeli Embassy. The council is doing nothing good for Israel and the peace movement." He was "denigrating" her because he "does not have an argument," she said. Peter Weidner, Upper Austrian chairman of the Association of Social Democratic Freedom Fighters and Victims of Fascism, told the Post that Langer agreed with Ahmadinejad's speech in Geneva. Weidner had reported on an event at the Linz city hall, in which Langer ignored the Iranian president's anti-Semitism, compared Israel with apartheid South Africa and described Hamas election win in 2006 "as the freest democratic elections to have taken place in the Middle East." The Vienna-based online Jewish magazine Die JÃ¼dische (www.juedische.at) and its chief editor, Samuel Laster posted Weidner's report covering the Linz city hall event in late April. According to Weidner, Langer described "Israel's politics as racist." Critics in Austria and Germany assert that Langer's efforts to delegitimize Israel meet the criteria outlined in the European Union's working definition of anti-Semitism. President KÃ¶hler's office and the state secretary declined further comment on Weidner's report and allegations against Langer.