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The controversy about the visit of Pope Benedict XVI is indicative both of the general political tension in our area, and of the loaded Catholic-Jewish relationship. Among its many paradoxes is the fact that this is a relationship between a small people of some 13 million, an ethno-religious group the majority of whom do not follow the religion of their ancestors anymore in any meaningful way but rather maintain a culture based on an ancient tradition in which that religion played a central role, and a worldwide religious body of some 1.5 billion members. We are talking about the relations between a gnat and an elephant, but the elephant, amazingly, developed from the gnat, and the gnat is a rare insect of tremendous importance.
The visit of John Paul II was an act that was hard to follow, and the present pope did his best in accordance with his personality and the tremendous pressures to which he is constantly subjected. It was not good enough. In his speech at Yad Vashem he used the term "compassion," which was mistranslated into the Hebrew hemla (pity). Compassion means an effort to take part in someone else's (harsh) experience, and is much more than top-down pity. It has a theological resonance in Christian thought and reflects Christian beliefs about the attitude of Jesus to human suffering.
THE POPE MEANT WELL, and tried to walk the tightrope between Arab-Palestinian-Muslim and Palestinian-Christian enmity to Israel and the Jews on the one hand, and the collective trauma of Jews in Israel and elsewhere regarding the Holocaust on the other. He did not quite fall off the rope, but he stumbled. No wonder: John Paul came not only as the pope, but also as Karol Wojtyla, a pro-Jewish Polish survivor of the German occupation in Poland - a truly compassionate personality with close Jewish friends who, in his Western Wall note, asked for forgiveness for his own sins - and he had never sinned against the Jews. If he had, at that point, become a candidate for Israeli prime minister, he would have been elected by an overwhelming majority.
Benedict missed his opportunity. As a boy, he had been forced to join the Hitler Jugend, and as a teenager he was forced into the German army, from which he deserted. He bears neither guilt nor responsibility, and he could have used the pronoun "I" without any hesitation. He could have made his point as Josef Ratzinger, a German who opposes Holocaust denial and, despite the Williamson episode, as a friend of the Jews - and he clearly sees himself as one - and as someone who identifies with the demand to deal with the Holocaust. Instead, he used remote theological terminology which few people are trained to understand.
He is not responsible for the hate-filled - and in effect genocidal - sermon by Sheikh Tamimi at what was billed as an interreligious dialogue, which of course it was not. The pope left the proceedings, a proper and dignified response. But he himself invited the incident: After all, he had had the same experience with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who also used the meeting with the pope to send a poisonous message to the Jews and Israel. Tamimi, obviously, could do no less.
Both John Paul and Benedict were/are right-wing conservatives in Catholic terms. There will be no women priests. AIDS cannot be fought by condoms, and abortion is a cardinal sin. Liberalism is suspect; the pope reached out to the Society of Friends of St. Pius X, and accepted three bishops out of the four (after the Williamson scandal) back into fold. That society abhors Vatican II, and is clearly anti-Semitic. The pope wants to be catholic, i.e. universal, and extend the membership of the Church to all who accept Jesus as the Son of God and the bishop of Rome as His vicar on Earth; he wanted to heal a schism.
He managed to increase the opposition to him from many quarters; he did not reach out to liberal Muslims - and there are many such people - and to the nonreligious community everywhere. This is by no means ill will; it is a series of mistakes. He is no doubt a brilliant theologian (and he has some pro-Jewish writings to his credit) - and as such he was a close collaborator with his predecessor - but, so far at least, a much less successful political head of the Church.
BEYOND ALL this there are serious issues between the Church and the Jewish people (and not only the religious among them), and they are not limited to the personality and message of Jesus of Nazareth. During the previous papacy, an effort was made to limit the story of Church anti-Semitism to anti-Judaic attitudes of "some" or "many" Christian men and women. This is a distortion of history: The Church, as such, actively persecuted Jews, not only Judaism; it never planned a genocide of the Jews, but since the time of the Church Fathers it permitted, and very often encouraged, beatings, torture, humiliation, dispossession, exile and forced conversions, and occasionally massacres. Its princes then often had to try and defend the Jews from their own incitement against them.
It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism was different from the Christian variety, and that Nazism opposed the Christian churches, often violently. But Christian anti-Semitism was a necessary, though not a sufficient source of the Nazi ideology. All Nazi ideas about Jews have their source in Christianity; even Nazi racism has a precedent in the racism of the Spanish Church after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. To deny that can be interpreted as a "soft" form of Holocaust denial.
And then, of course, there is the unresolved problem of Pius XII. Pius did not publicly oppose the Nazi genocide of the Jews (or even the murder of Polish Catholics), and the Vatican intervened diplomatically only three times - twice in Slovakia, in 1942, and once in Hungary, after the liberation of Rome. The present pope is reliably reported to have given instructions to hasten the opening of the Vatican archives, which is a very positive step. It is possible, but by no means certain, that materials there might throw more light on the actions or lack of them by Pius XII - and may also inform us better about the activities of Catholic clergy throughout Europe, some of whom collaborated actively or passively with the murderers, while others actively opposed them. Some sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.
The Jews of Europe were murdered, not "killed," as the pope said. That expression shows that he still has not "got it right." And, were the Jews murdered by unknowns? He never mentioned Nazi Germany. Not, as I said, ill will. A brilliant intellectual, a truly compassionate man, an archconservative Catholic immersed in a tradition that was, since its beginning, deeply anti-Jewish, and yet a man who sees himself - and not without good reason - as a friend.
What a pity.
The writer is a historian.