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Pope's Road to Israel Paved by Past Errors

Pope's Road to Israel Paved by Past Errors

Lee Hockstader
Washington Post
March 12, 2000
Title: Pope's Road to Israel Paved by Past Errors
Author: Lee Hockstader
Publication: Washington Post
Date: March 12, 2000

JERUSALEM, March 11 -- Shortly before his death in 1904, Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was granted an audience with Pope Pius X in Rome. He came right to the point: The Jewish people, scattered across Europe, dreamed of a national home in the Holy Land of Palestine, Herzl said. Could they count on the Vatican's support?

The pope, dispensing with pleasantries, spoke plainly. "The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people," said the Holy Father, according to Herzl's diary account of the meeting. "And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you."

Now, on the cusp of a new century, an extraordinary thing is happening. For the first time, an incumbent pope is to make an official visit to the Jewish state and Palestinian-controlled territory later this month. There, in addition to his personal pilgrimage retracing Christ's steps in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Galilee, John Paul II will pay homage to the Jews in their homeland in a way that would have been unimaginable in Herzl's time, or even a generation ago.

"This event really does embody this amazing historical and ideological transformation," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Anti-Defamation League's Jerusalem office.

Still, as the pope's six-day visit to the Holy Land nears, Israeli Jews are of several minds about the event. Many or most Israelis, particularly secular Jews, are more or less pleased that the pontiff is coming. But others are uneasy, and some, especially the most observant religious Jews, are actively hostile.

By most measures, John Paul has done more--considerably more--than any previous pontiff to make overtures, and amends, to Jews.

Having grown up on friendly terms with Jews in a small town in prewar Poland, he became the first holy father to make a recorded visit to a synagogue--Rome's, in 1986. He condemned the Holocaust as an "indelible stain" on the 20th century and made a pilgrimage to the death camp at Auschwitz in the first year of his papacy.

The pope led the church to apologize, in 1998, for the acquiescence of many Catholics in the liquidation of European Jewry in World War II, and in a special Mass today, he is expected to offer a prayer acknowledging that and other wrongs committed by Catholics. He has nudged church teachings and doctrine into a strikingly friendlier posture toward the Jews, encouraged interfaith dialogue and, in 1993, established full diplomatic relations with Israel.

"He's done more for Catholic-Jewish relations in 20 years than the Catholic Church has done in 2,000," said Father Michael McGarry, rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute near Bethlehem.

The pope's gestures and pronouncements are all the more astonishing considering the glacial pace at which the Vatican usually shifts its views. When a pope last passed through the Holy Land, in 1964, Paul VI never publicly spoke the word "Israel," refused to meet with the country's chief rabbi and made clear that his one-day tour of Christian holy sites did not confer official Vatican recognition on the Jewish state.

Jews are ambivalent about the pope's trip, largely because of the Vatican's public silence during the Holocaust and the bitter historical dispute that swirls around the role and influence of the wartime pope, Pius XII.

The Vatican insists that Pius XII worked quietly and wisely to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and that vocal public intervention by the Vatican may have only brought retribution from the Nazis, against Jews as well as Catholics. But many Jews believe that by keeping quiet, the pope was guilty of complicity in the slaughter, or at the least passivity.

Jewish leaders around the world, noting that standard Catholic liturgy included prayer for the "perfidious Jews" until the mid-1960s, regarded the 1998 apology as partial. They were disappointed, and in some cases angered, that it seemed to absolve the Vatican itself of any role in nurturing antisemitism.

In a Gallup poll conducted last weekend for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, three of five Israelis took a positive view of the pope's trip here. But nearly as many, 52 percent, doubted or rejected outright the church's sincerity in apologizing for the role of Christians in the extermination of Europe's Jews.

Those doubts may only be reinforced by the Vatican's release of a document March 1 dealing with the church's "errors of the past." Although seemingly timed for the pope's trip to Israel, the document contained no apology.

The pope is expected to treat the topic personally today during his "Day of Pardon" Mass. Yet whatever the particulars of his message, it is unlikely to dissolve the doubts of many Jews.

"We don't have a lot of room in our hearts for this man and this religion," said Channa Flam, a Brooklyn-born, devoutly religious Israeli whose father's family was wiped out in the Holocaust. "We don't have a lot of room in our hearts for forgiveness."

To be sure, the government is going all-out to make the pope's trip a success, spending millions in preparations, finessing Saturday Sabbath restrictions on travel, and laying on helicopters, hundreds of buses and a custom-built, armored, tractor-like popemobile to navigate the tortuous, narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City.

Mindful that the pope's March 21-26 visit will pack a powerful symbolic punch, Israeli authorities are determined that it will inaugurate a new era of amity between the world's 1 billion Catholics and 13 million Jews. The police code name for the trip was not chosen at random: "Operation Old Friend."

Yet it will take more than official goodwill to overcome centuries of suspicion, hatred and bloodshed. Even among Israelis who wish the pope well, or who favor closer ties to promote the welfare of Jews living in predominantly Christian countries, it often doesn't take long for a conversation about the Catholic Church to veer off into the minefield of historical memory.

In a recent interview, Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, an Israeli member of parliament from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, said he appreciated the pope's overtures to the Jewish people. Yet in the space of a 90-minute interview, he managed without prompting to make mention not only of the Holocaust, but also of the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms against Jews in czarist Russia and the Crusades, among other blood-stained milestones in the grim history of Christian treatment of Jews.

For centuries, Ravitz said, the Roman Catholic Church taught contempt for the Jewish people--a teaching that Pope John XXIII resolved to eliminate only in the early 1960s.

"If you are a human being with normal feelings, you can't just wipe it away," he said. "Just because the pope says something new, will the Christian world accept it?"

The lingering suspicions and long memories, if held most strongly by only a minority of Israelis, have found expression in grumblings among religious Jews in advance of the pope's visit.

In some of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, graffiti and posters have appeared on walls condemning the pope as "wicked" and an "idolater." Religious militants of the Kach movement, which Israel has outlawed for its extremist views, spray-painted warnings on the walls of the chief rabbinate's offices in Jerusalem protesting the pontiff's visit and warning Israeli officials not to meet with him.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a prominent American rabbi, recently told an international convention of Jewish veterans that as a young parish priest, the pope was passive during the Holocaust, and that Israelis should not receive him with celebration.

And a large group of rabbis and laymen, representing rabbinical councils across Israel, signed a petition calling on the pope to cancel a Saturday Mass in Nazareth. Although Nazareth is populated entirely by Arabs, the 2,137 signers of the petition were concerned that Israeli security arrangements for the Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation would entail a "massive desecration" of the Jewish Sabbath.

These stirrings of discontent, although they do not represent the mainstream of Israeli opinion, have alarmed some officials and threatened to obscure what most analysts agree is a remarkable journey by a pope who has made reconciliation with Jews a hallmark of his papacy. Last week, Haim Ramon, the Israeli cabinet minister in charge of arrangements for the trip, had to fly to Rome to discuss with Vatican officials how to control the fallout from the pope's plans to say Mass and travel on the Jewish Sabbath.

"Everything is being reduced here instead of seeing this as a wonderful opportunity for celebrating this man who represents Jewish-Christian reconciliation," said Yossi Klein Halevy, a respected Israeli author and journalist. "We're trivializing it and dredging up grudges."

Klein Halevy, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and '70s, underwent his own transformation of attitudes toward Christianity and the Catholic Church, much of it under John Paul's papacy. For him, as for some other religious Jews, the Christian cross itself represented a kind of menace.

"Jews see it as a visceral threat, and that's how I grew up," he said. "Growing up in Brooklyn I'd be afraid to walk past the church. I'd cross the street to avoid it. The question was, do you cross the street or walk past it and surreptitiously spit?

"I had to actively train myself to first of all not fear the cross, and then learn to respect and then learn to appreciate it as a symbol of devotion. But that was a conscious act of training."

Other Jews have not reexamined their attitudes toward the church. And in recent years and months, many have detected enough new irritants in Catholic-Jewish relations to justify their resentments.

In 1998, for instance, the Vatican touched a nerve with many Jews by canonizing Edith Stein, a brilliant Jewish intellectual who became a Carmelite nun and was killed at Auschwitz. The Vatican regards Stein as a Christian martyr of the Holocaust. But many Jews believed that by singling out for sainthood a Jewish convert who died at Auschwitz, the church was attempting to expropriate Jews' overwhelming suffering.

That suspicion flared when Carmelite nuns opened a convent near Auschwitz in 1984, and again in 1998 when Polish Catholics erected more than 100 crosses just beneath the death camp's barbed-wire-topped walls.

Some Israelis also have long resented the Vatican's diplomatic support for the Palestinians' national aspirations, and there are concerns the pope will reinforce that position when he meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during his trip to the Holy Land.

Just last month, the Vatican signed an agreement with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization recognizing the "inalienable national legitimate rights of the Palestinian people"--in effect, a call for statehood. And in a thinly veiled swipe at Israel, whose annexation and declared sovereignty over all of Jerusalem the Vatican rejects, the agreement states that "unilateral decisions" affecting the city's status are "morally and legally unacceptable."

"Catholic-Jewish history is not just about tears," said Father Thomas Stransky, a Catholic scholar who has done ecumenical work in Israel for many years. "But there've been a lot of tears."

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