FRANKFURT, March 9 A pilgrimage to Israel by 27 Roman Catholic bishops from Germany last week was meant to be a historic symbol of reconciliation between Jews and German Catholics.
Instead, after two bishops drew a link between the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, it has become a fresh source of recrimination.
Jewish groups in Germany and Israel’s ambassador to Germany condemned their comments, which were reported in newspapers here, saying they were demagogic and “verging on anti-Semitism.”
“If one uses terms like Warsaw Ghetto or racism in connection with Israeli or Palestinian politics, then one has forgotten everything, or learned nothing,” the Israeli ambassador, Shimon Stein, said in a statement this week.
The Warsaw Ghetto, established by the Nazis in 1940, was used as a holding pen for Polish Jews before they were sent to concentration camps. It has come to epitomize the barbarity of the Holocaust.
Germany’s top Catholic official, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, disavowed the bishops’ remarks in a letter to the director of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that was made public on Wednesday. But the outrage among Jews living here has not yet subsided.
“I made my point; Cardinal Lehmann made his point, unfortunately a bit late,” Mr. Stein said in an interview. “Now we have to find other ways to deal with this. It tells us we have a problem.”
The dispute came after a trip that was, by all initial accounts, successful. The bishops were met by Israel’s deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres. At Yad Vashem, Cardinal Lehmann, the chairman of the Conference of German Bishops, spoke about deepening ties between Jews and Catholics.
The trouble started back home when newspapers published blunt remarks by two southern German bishops: Gregor Maria Hanke, of Eichstätt, and Walter Mixa, of Augsburg.
“In the morning, we see the photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto, and this evening we travel to the ghetto in Ramallah; that makes you angry,” Bishop Hanke was quoted as saying by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s largest newspapers.
Bishop Mixa described the situation in Ramallah as “ghettolike” and said it was “almost racism.”
The bishops said they had been reacting to an emotional meeting with Palestinian Christians and a stop at a children’s hospital in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, where nurses spoke of the hardships mothers faced because of security restrictions imposed by the Israelis.
A third member of the delegation, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, was quoted by the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine as likening the separation barrier in the West Bank to the Berlin Wall. “I never thought I would have to see something like this ever again in my life,” said Cardinal Meisner, who is from the former East Germany.
Jewish leaders in Germany said the bishops either had a shaky grasp of history, or were trying to draw a comparison between the genocide by the Nazis and the policies of the current Israeli government.
Bishop Hanke said in a statement that he had not intended such a comparison. In his letter, Cardinal Lehmann wrote, “It is inappropriate to connect contemporary problems or situations of injustice, in any way, with the National Socialists’ mass murder of the Jews.”
Relations between Catholics and Jews in postwar Germany have often been strained, said Hartmut Zinser, a religious historian at the Free University of Berlin, because the Roman Catholic Church has been less “self-critical” about its wartime role than Protestant churches have about theirs.