Weizman outburst stuns Germany

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The Independent Online


The President of Israel lashed out at Germany's past crimes against the Jews yesterday, souring a state visit that Bonn had hoped would open a new chapter in relations between the two countries.

"It is not easy for me to be in this land and listen to the memories and the voices screaming to me from the earth," Ezer Weizman told stunned MPs. "As President of the state of Israel, I can grieve for them and commemorate them, but I cannot forgive in their name."

Mr Weizman was addressing a joint session of the two chambers of parliament, the first visiting head of state to be accorded that rare honour since German reunification and only the fourth since the war. But he appeared to be in no mood to pull his punches, reminding Germans of the way that "the Nazis and their helpers murdered a large part of us".

"I can only urge you, ladies and gentlemen deputies of the German parliament, that you look to the future with a knowledge of the past," the Israeli President said. "That you recognise every stirring of racism and smash every stirring of neo-Nazism."

Although Mr Weizman did at one point address the MPs as "friends", his speech made it clear that he harboured little friendly sentiment towards the country responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews. That much he had already made clear just before his departure from Israel on Sunday, when he seemed to criticise Jews who have settled in Germany.

"I, for example, cannot understand how 40,000 Jews can live in Germany," Mr Weizman told Israeli radio.

His gaffe brought furious reactions from German Jews, who rushed to the aid of their adopted country. "I have lived here since 1945 and have met two new generations who simply do not identify with the Nazis," said Ignatz Bubis, the leader of the Jewish community in Germany. "This is a new Germany and it is different from Nazi Germany."

Mr Weizman tried to make amends by visiting both the Sachsenhasen concentration camp, where thousands of Jews died, and Plotzensee prison, where German resistance fighters were held and executed.

But despite rolling out the red carpet, the German government also missed a chance to encourage a mood of forgiveness. As the Israeli President landed in Berlin, 35,000 Jews living in Israel and the US were still waiting for the first instalment of the war compensation first mooted in 1989.

The pensions to Jews from Latvia and Romania who had so far received no money from Bonn, are delayed as MPs on the government side argue about which part of the state budget ought to pay them. The government promises that the bureaucratic wrangle, described by a leading opposition politician as a "foreign policy idiocy", will be resolved within the next two weeks, too late for Mr Weizman's visit.

In a final blow to this journey of reconciliation, the Israeli President cancelled at short notice a visit to Bonn's Museum of History. Although the exhibition is brutally frank about the Second World War, some foreign visitors have been put off by its triumphant portrayal of Germany's rise from the ashes.

Mr Weizman claims his programme was too crowded. A more likely explanation is that 50 years after the war there are still a few things about Germany that Jews find hard to accept.