Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been embroiled in a series of controversies over the role of religion in Israel in the last week, risked another confrontation with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners when he took part Saturday in the memorial service for former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, an almost unheard of public display by an Israeli leader on Shabbat.
Netanyahu joined dozens of world leaders paying respects to Kohl, taking part in the memorial ceremony at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Due to the sensitivity of Israeli leaders publicly desecrating the Sabbath, his office on Saturday evening released a statement that took pains to emphasize that Netanyahu had not violated Shabbat.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu walked on foot from his hotel to the European Parliament building. The prime minister was invited to speak, but chose not to because of the Shabbat and also did not sign the guest book,” the statement said.
In photos from the event Netanyahu can be seen wearing translation headphones as he listened to the speeches.
Israel is a secular state, and most of its leaders are not religious. Yet it has long been an unwritten law that senior representatives of the government may not be seen desecrating the Shabbat or Jewish holidays. When German chancellor Konrad Adenauer was buried on a Saturday in 1967, prime minister David Ben-Gurion famously walked behind the motorcade transporting the coffin.
Netanyahu’s office stressed that there was precedent for such an event.
“Helmut Kohl was a great friend of the State of Israel and Israel owes him a great debt for strengthening its security,” the statement said, noting that “there are precedents for the participation of Prime Ministers at similar events [on Shabbat]. Menachem Begin participated in the funeral of Anwar Sadat and Shimon Peres participated in the opening of the Olympic games in Beijing.”
Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties have frequently threatened to topple coalitions over public Shabbat desecrations that are not deemed life-saving.
Last year, ultra-Orthodox politicians threatened to bring down the government if Shabbat work continued on rail lines, causing an uproar among commuters suffering from massive traffic delays and cancellations after Netanyahu succumbed to the pressure and ordered the work stopped.
Netanyahu’s failure to stand up to ultra-Orthodox pressure has seen him embroiled in two major crises in the last week with the Israeli government’s decisions to renege on a plan for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and to advance a controversial bill that would make the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the only body authorized to convert people to Judaism in Israel. On Friday, the conversion bill was frozen for six months.
Both crises came amid pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties that make up a key component off his coalition and caused outrage, particularly among the US Jewish community. (On Sunday, in its first ever such move, the Jewish Agency called on the government to rescind its decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise.)
Major Jewish groups have implored Netanyahu to resolve the crisis, warning of erosion of support for Israel. Some groups have intimated the decisions might impact financial contributions to Israel.
Netanyahu addressed the issue as he boarded the plane for Strasbourg.
“Domestic peace among the Jewish People is important to me. It is important to me both as Prime Minister of Israel and as a son of the Jewish People,” Netanyahu said, announcing that he would postpone the conversion legislation for six months while seeking to find a compromise.
No concrete progress has been announced toward resolving the impasse on the so-called Western Wall compromise deal.
In his remarks Friday, Netanyahu also paid tribute to Kohl, who he called “a great leader, a great friend of the State of Israel and my personal friend.”
“He did much for the diplomatic and security interests of the State of Israel; all citizens of Israel owe him their deep gratitude. I will say this in Strasbourg, among European and world leaders.”
Germany bid farewell Saturday to Kohl, the former chancellor who steered his country toward reunification in 1990 and whose tireless efforts to ensure peace and stability in Europe shape the continent to this day.
Hundreds of dignitaries attended a requiem Mass at Speyer Cathedral in Kohl’s home region of Rhineland-Palatinate in southwest Germany.
Earlier in the day, past and present leaders from around the world — including Netanyahu — paid tribute to Kohl at the European Parliament’s seat in the French city of Strasbourg.
Kohl, who died June 16 at the age of 87, is the first person to be honored with an official memorial event by the European Union.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the ceremony in Strasbourg, close to the border with Germany, was Kohl’s own choice.
“Helmut Kohl was a German patriot but at the same time a European patriot,” said Juncker, recalling how Kohl had wept tears of joy when the bloc agreed in December 1997 to begin accepting members from the formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe.
During his 16-year term as Germany’s leader, stretching from 1982 to 1998, not only did Kohl oversee his country’s reunification but also spearheaded the creation of the euro currency, which is now used by 19 nations.
“Helmut Kohl gave us the chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves,” said former US president Bill Clinton, citing Kohl’s willingness to put international cooperation before national interests at key moments in history.
Kohl is widely regarded as having skillfully overcome the fears of Germany’s neighbors when an end to the country’s decades-long division into a communist east and a democratic west first became a realistic possibility in the late 1980s.
Drawing on his friendships with several world leaders, often forged over hearty meals, Kohl assured the Allied nations that since the end of World War II his country no longer aspired to dominate others.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Kohl’s vision and persistence had paid a historic dividend.
“Without Helmut Kohl, the lives of millions of people who lived behind the (Berlin) Wall until 1990 would have taken a completely different course, including mine,” said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany. “Thank you for the opportunities you gave me.”
EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani said Kohl deserved “a place of honor in the European pantheon” for unhesitatingly extending the hand of friendship to fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
French President Emmanuel Macron noted that it was one of his predecessors, Francois Mitterrand, and Kohl — two men who had experienced the suffering of World War II on opposing sides — who were able to “overcome the terrible memories of their generation.” Macron pledged to continue their work in forging a united Europe, working together with Merkel.
Several speakers recalled the poignant gesture of reconciliation in 1984, when Mitterrand and Kohl held hands during a ceremony at a World War I cemetery in Verdun, France.
Following Saturday’s ceremony in Strasbourg, Kohl’s coffin was transported by helicopter to Germany and then taken down the Rhine River to Speyer, with thousands of people lining the roads and riverbanks to bid their farewell.
The requiem Mass in Speyer ended with a rare funeral toll from the Cathedral’s Emperor Bell — named after the eight Holy Roman Emperors buried in the city — after which his flag-draped coffin was carried out into the open for military honors.
Kohl was to be laid to rest in a private ceremony at a cemetery in Speyer.