pope fence bethlehem 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Every speech by a pope at Yad Vashem is a significant occasion for the leader of the Catholic Church to directly address issues of concern relating to the Holocaust.
In that context, the optimal expectations from Pope Benedict XVI were that he would relate to four important subjects: sympathy for the fate of the victims, the role of the church and especially its wartime leader Pius XII before and during the Shoah, the criminality of the perpetrators, and the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and distortion.
These issues can be divided into two categories. While the fate of the victims and the guilt of the perpetrators are timeless and will be dealt with in more or less the same manner even 100 years from now, the role of the church and Pius, and the ongoing battle against all forms of contemporary anti-Semitism - among them Holocaust denial - continue to be of contemporary significance.
Thus the hope was that on this visit, Benedict would bring the Catholic Church forward on these two important issues - and clearly Yad Vashem would have been the perfect venue for such a historic speech.
Alas, that was not the case this past Monday. While the pope spoke with great empathy about the fate of the victims of the Holocaust and specifically expressed the hope that "their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten," there were two critical elements that were totally missing from his remarks.
The first was any reference to the perpetrators and their guilt. Given that the pope grew up in Nazi Germany and even served briefly in the Wehrmacht, it was unthinkable that he did not even mention the Nazi war criminals, among them numerous Catholics, who committed the crimes of the Holocaust. And while there is absolutely no basis for any allegations against him for war crimes, we expect him, as a major spiritual leader, to directly address the issue of culpability. One of the central lessons of the Shoah is that it was not a natural disaster like an earthquake, tsunami or volcano, but the doing of human beings - among them many members of his own flock.
In that respect, Benedict's failure to express any regret or apology for centuries of anti-Semitic teachings that paved the way for the Holocaust, or for the failure of the Catholic Church and Pius to do more to unequivocally condemn Nazi atrocities and to save Jews from death during the Shoah, is also extremely unfortunate. There is no doubt that a more courageous stance by church leaders, both in the Vatican as well as locally, could have had a strong impact. This is especially true for Catholic countries like Lithuania, Croatia, Slovakia (whose President Josef Tiso was a Catholic priest), Poland and others where the church had considerable moral authority and local Catholics were among the mass murderers - not to mention in Germany and Austria.
In summation, while Benedict's words of empathy were appropriate and welcome, an important opportunity for significant progress in true reconciliation was squandered during this visit.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, www.operationlastchance.org.