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Comparing Ghettos

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 09, 2007

Well, here’s something I have an opinion on. Recent news stories have highlighted the criticism by German bishops of Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Some bishops have made reference to their own country's history in voicing their concerns.

The uproar among Jewish leaders has been so great that the president of the German bishops’ conference has apologized on behalf of his brothers. It is wrong, he said, to compare the treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi treatment of Jews. (Incidentally, the varied reactions to this story on our Catholic World News site are very interesting.)

By now you are saying, “Yes, yes, Jeff, but we’re so excited we can hardly breathe. What about your astonishingly important opinion?” Fair enough. My opinion has two parts:

  1. The Nature of the Comparison: By its very nature a comparison is not an equation. The Nazi treatment of the Jews was a complex phenomenon in the 1930’s and 1940’s which proceeded by degrees. Part of it involved the separation of Jews from all other Germans by restricting them to ghettos. This is seared into the memory of every German; indeed, the rest of the world will tolerate neither forgetfulness nor the transfer of moral energy to any more contemporary issue.

    Fast forward to 2007 and consider a group of German bishops who are on a week-long visit to Israeli and Palestinian territory. In this context, the three critical remarks I have seen were not unreasonable. Thus, Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt was at Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial outside Jerusalem) viewing photos of the Warsaw ghetto, and he remarked that “in the evening we are traveling to the ghetto in Ramallah” (a Palestinian town) and that the treatment of the Palestinians made him “mad as hell.”

    Similarly, commenting on the construction of the Israeli security wall through Palestinian territory (see Christmas in the Prison that is Bethlehem), Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne noted that this was “something done to animals, not humans” and said: “I never in my life thought to see something like this again.” And Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg argued that Israeli policies were causing the “ghetto-ization” of the Palestinians, making the policy seem “almost racist.”

    None of these bishops alluded to mass killings, human experimentation, or any other Holocaust horrors. In fact, none of them used the term “Holocaust”. They were, in fact, commenting on the increasing forced creation of ethnic ghettos, a painful memory in their own history which was the beginning of far worse things. In this context, Cardinal Karl Lehmann’s apology on behalf of his confreres was not warranted.

  2. The Context of the Comparison: Nonetheless, this context is not the whole context. The rest of the context is that the Palestinians are a physical threat to Israel, operating out of their own territorial base, in a way that German Jews were not a threat to their fellow citizens during the Nazi era. This makes the Israeli situation in 2007 very much different from the German situation two generations ago.

    In this more complete context, fair-minded people on all sides must acknowledge—as they had no need to acknowledge in 1940—that the Israelis and the Palestinians both find themselves in a dangerous security situation, about which it is extremely difficult to determine what best to do. There is much to be angry about in the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, but this anger must be tempered by a certain amount of head-scratching. Which of us knows a good solution to these problems?

You can stop holding your breath now. This is not, as they say, rocket science. It is not even strenuous reflection. And besides, we are your personal enlightenment resource.

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