Germany’s president told Israeli lawmakers Wednesday he bows his head “in shame and humility” before the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and he promised that Germany would wage a determined battle against anti-Semitism.
The president, Horst Koehler, also denounced Palestinian suicide bombings as indefensible acts of terror and said Germany would always stand by Israel and its people. Germany is encouraged by recent Mideast peace moves and would try to help Israel and the Palestinians resume their negotiations, he said.
Koehler, marking 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, began his speech in heavily accented Hebrew — a gesture that prompted his hosts to smile — before switching to German. Before the address, several Cabinet ministers and legislators said they could not bear the thought of hearing German spoken in parliament and would stay away.
Koehler is the second German president to address Israel’s parliament, following a speech by then-President Johannes Rau in 2000. Koehler arrived in Israel on Tuesday, visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav.
“I bow my head in shame and humility before the victims (of the Holocaust), and before those who came to their help, at risk to their own lives,” Koehler said.
Addressing growing Israeli concerns about anti-Semitism in Europe, including Germany, Koehler said: “Every open society has its enemies. Hostility toward foreigners and anti-Semitism have not disappeared from Germany.”
He said Germans need to “seek the political debate with right-wing extremists and anti-Semites, and we must do it in a determined fashion.”
Israel wants groups outlawed
However, Koehler’s remarks appeared to fall short of Israel’s demands, raised again Wednesday in parliament, that Germany outlaw certain far-right groups.
Those addressing parliament included former Israeli Justice Minister Joseph Lapid, who recalled his liberation from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, Hungary, in 1945. Lapid said he was rescued by Soviet soldiers two weeks after he marked his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage to adulthood at age 13, in a crowded basement.
“I was freezing with cold and with fear. I asked a Russian soldier for a piece of bread. If someone had told me then that 60 years later I would stand in the parliament of the state of the Jews to welcome the visit of the German president, I would not have believed him,” said Lapid, whose father and grandfather were killed by the Nazis.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel’s great success in the areas of science, technology, medicine and the arts “is proof of what we could have been with the help of the talents that were destroyed” in the Holocaust.
“The assistance that the German government gave us ... is one of the things that allowed us to achieve these successes, and we know how to appreciate this,” Sharon said.
European leaders’ acceptance of moral responsibility for the sins of the past “doesn’t free them from the responsibility to prevent a recurrence of crimes against the Jewish people,” Sharon said, calling for “an unending war against all manifestations of anti-Semitism and racism that have grown in the past few years.”