Another Perspective

Dinner at the Pope’s Place

Germans and Israelis commingle in Jerusalem.

By 10.27.03

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The pope's place at Jerusalem might seem an unlikely venue for a barbecue, but on Thursday night it was the site of an illuminating dinner conversation between a group of 12 Germans, 12 Israelis, and one American.

The occasion was the first night of the second half of the Bertelsmann Foundation's German-Israeli Young Leaders Exchange, which I was invited to as something of an international observer. In a session in Germany in July, the group had covered the ground of the Holocaust and German abandonment of Israel. This week and last week serve as the time for a pilgrimage to the land of terror.

The fourth-floor terrace of the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, directly owned by the Vatican and recently host to Pope John Paul II on the occasion of his jubilee, looked out over the Old City. I write on a bus to Nazareth from Jerusalem and on the condition of vagueness, to protect participants, if not anonymity.

It did not take long over appetizers of humus, olives, and pita bread for the topic to turn to terrorism. A German radio correspondent, who had arrived a day earlier, described his dilemma the night before. "I had drinks with a friend from Tel Aviv, but I wanted to make it quick, just one drink," German Radio said. "But then they made the second drink free."

"You do something I would not do," an Israeli television anchor, a great big ham of a man who lives in Tel Aviv, said.

"So, you do not go out?" asked a female Ha'aretz reporter who also lives in Tel Aviv.

"I'm already married and have a little girl," Israeli Television said.

"So, what, you're saying is, my life is cheap?" Ha'aretz shot back, mostly kidding.

"It is my wife, she keeps me home," Israeli Television joked. "It's the Intifada in my living room. Hamas just gives me an excuse."

Despite the laughter, there was despair around the table -- on the Israeli side at least.

"There cannot be peace in my lifetime," Ha'aretz said. "There is so much hatred on both sides."

The Germans were more hopeful, but the feeling seemed to fade with every breath of the warm Jerusalem night air.

The buses? How does anyone take a bus here? So asked a German newspaperman of Iraqi-Jewish extraction. And if you must take the buses, how come there cannot be better security on them?

"If they can't blow up a bus, they'll blow up a movie theater. And if not that, a restaurant. And if not that, something else," Israeli Television said.

The Germans asked the Israelis what they thought of the fence, or the wall -- or, well, what should they call it?

"The terms are not so loaded here," Israeli Television explained. "It will help, but some will still get through."

The questioning then turned back on the Germans. An Israeli asked how the United Nations could vote to condemn even the building of a security barrier as Israelis died daily. The Germans had no answer.

"You know, there are only three countries that vote with Israel at the U.N.," Israeli Television said. "America, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands."

"I did a documentary about it," he said. "I looked at who the f--- is Micronesia? The F-word featured prominently."

A night later, the group was treated to a dinner talk by a senior lecturer in history and law at Haifa University, Fania Oz-Salzberger. What Israel needs to do, she argued, is talk to America less and to Europe more. America can't be an honest broker, she said, so Europe must take the lead and talk tough to Israel.

The Israeli reaction to this was chilly at my table, and even the Germans did not warm to the notion. Our Iraqi-Jewish German newspaperman was in agreement with others that Europe would be of no use -- or worse -- in the Middle East. "Not just Germany, of course," he said. "France, too, with the new anti-Semitism."

Perhaps more Europeans need to be asked why it would be desirable to maintain neutrality between terrorist murderers and a democracy seeking peace. It is a different type of tough talk than Ms. Oz-Salzberger had in mind, but the Germans here seem receptive.

During dinner on Thursday, noises would pop out of the night that sounded like gunfire or small bombs. Most of the Israelis did not even flinch, but each German's (and this American's) head would jerk up.

"Do not ask me," Israeli Television said. "I don't live here.

"I wondered," he said, "how many of the Germans would chicken out and not come to Israel?" None had.

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About the Author

Ryan H. Sager is editorial features editor of the New York Sun, where his column appears Mondays. Email: rhsager@nysun.com