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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Like so many of my Israeli friends, I too have been disappointed with the pope's visit to Jerusalem this week, and not just because of the road closures and traffic snarls.
No, the big disappointment is over the message delivered by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Yad Vashem - the most important leg of his Holy Land pilgrimage, from a Jewish perspective. His background as a conscript in the Hitler Youth and German army in World War II demanded something more personal and contrite from this particular pontiff. It was not enough to just say he was grateful to be able to "come to stand in silence" on this revered site. As both a German of the Nazi generation and as head of a Catholic Church that for centuries taught Europeans to detest Jews, Benedict bore a double burden to express remorse and humbly ask for forgiveness, so as to truly honor the memories of the six million victims of the Holocaust.
But it was not to be. This has left room for some of the nagging questions about him to linger. For instance, even though he eventually deserted his artillery unit and fled into the service of God, why did this occur only at the end of the war? And why, just a few months ago, did he lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, who openly denies the Holocaust? It seems highly improbable that the pope knew nothing about this. The official line was, "He doesn't do Internet!" But I remain skeptical.
NEVERTHELESS, THE POPE is welcome here, as is any other Christian pilgrim, and Israelis can take solace in the fact that Jewish relations with the Vatican are much more cordial today than during the long hostile eras of the past.
Still, it was a lost opportunity to make amends for this past, and not just for the unique Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust. For example, no pope at any time - not even Pope John Paul II - has articulated that the Catholic Church takes full and direct responsibility for the vicious anti-Semitism down through the centuries in which, by the instrument of the Inquisition, hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, tortured and expelled from Europe. The stories are well documented and cannot be denied. As with the Holocaust, papal admissions have spoken only of the "sins of the sons and daughters of the Church," but not of the Church itself.
Therefore, it is indeed a strange twist in history that Pope Benedict was very graciously received at Yad Vashem. It was good that he asserted that Holocaust denial should not be tolerated. But the question we ask of a man of God is, "Why is it so hard to embrace humility and repent?" After all, these are the great hallmarks of the Christian faith.
Indeed, it would fulfill prophecy, just as Isaiah foresaw that "the sons of those who afflicted you shall come bowing to you, and all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet" (Isaiah 60:14). Yet oddly, it has been Evangelical Christians - today the fastest-growing stream of Christianity worldwide - who have sought to fill that prophetic role by facing up to the Church's tragic legacy head-on. From our ranks, clergy and laymen alike have journeyed to Yad Vashem to profess the Christian world's corporate guilt for the church's dark history of anti-Semitism, including the Catholic Church, and to repent for these great moral failings.
This repentance has been honest, sincere and without condition. We have stood in humility, accepted the shame, and said "sorry", even though there is no history in our 400 year-old movement of Evangelical involvement in the sad chronicle of inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions and convert-or-die scenarios that repeatedly took aim at the Jewish people.
More than that, Evangelicals have set out to show forth the "fruits meet for repentance" by making restitution through the many acts of love and kindness we have carried out in Israel. "Sorry" is cheap without acts of contrition. Our experience is that this especially rings true for the Evangelical Christian communities of Europe. They may be smaller in number than American Evangelicals, but they know their own continent's history well and are often more motivated to undertake "Zionist acts" as a result. They not only plant trees in Israel, but they sponsor aliya flights, help build hospitals, feed needy families, support Holocaust education and so much more.
Though these acts of contrition can never restore the precious lives of Jews who were murdered in Christ's name, they can restore friendship and hope. And hope is what Yad Vashem is all about!
The writer is executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which has partnered with Yad Vashem to open a special desk for "Christian Friends of Yad Vashem."