Israel began a somber day of tribute to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust at sundown tonight amid sharp criticism of President Reagan's decision to visit a World War II German military cemetery during his trip to West Germany next month.
The critics, including the speaker of Israel's parliament, Shlomo Hillel, said the announcement yesterday of Reagan's subsequent decision also to visit the site of a concentration camp in Germany was not an acceptable compromise in the controversy that has erupted over the president's itinerary.
"There is no room for symmetry, especially in the era of forgetfulness that has broken out in the world now," Hillel said in a statement at the opening of a special session of parliament, or Knesset, called to deal with economic legislation.
Other parliament members echoed this theme in a series of statements critical of Reagan, who originally said he had decided not a visit Dachau, then anounced yesterday that he would visit a concentration camp to be selected later.
One member of parliament, Haike Grossman, herself a Holocaust survivor, later told an interviewer that if Reagan intended his visit to a concentration camp as a way to "balance" his participation in a wreath-laying ceremony at the German military cemetery, which includes the graves of members of the elite Nazi SS unit, Israel should tell him, "don't go to Dachau because there is no balance."
"How can he make a balance between the soldiers of the SS and the victims?" Grossman said. "It's not the same story."
Asked if she thought Reagan was seeking to "give absolution" for the Nazi war crimes against millions of Jews and others, Grossman replied, "Yes, I'm sure."
The controversy, which has received heavy news coverage and critical editorial comments in the Israeli press, coincided with Israel's annual observance of Heroes and Martyrs Memorial Day, a tribute to the Holocaust victims. Following the Jewish tradition, the observance began at sundown tonight and will conclude at sundown on Thursday.
The main ceremony was held tonight at Yad Vashem, the memorial center to the Holocaust at the western edge of Jerusalem. It was attended by a number of public officials, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres and President Chaim Herzog.
An aide to Peres said today that the prime minister had made no comment on the Reagan trip controversy. In his remarks at Yad Vashem tonight the prime minister did not refer to it directly. But Peres, in an indirect reference to the White House handling of Reagan's trip plans, recalled that few people sought to aid the Jews during the Holocaust, and added: "These harsh things must be said, especially today when the cultured peoples of the world commemorate the 40th year since the defeat of fascism and Nazism. For they are trying to remember the war but to bury the memory of the Holocaust.
"Reconciliation in the present is fine between British and Germans, French and Italians, Americans and Japanese. But we should not make peace with the past, with the wickedness, with Satan. There is no room for salving the conscience."