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Promoting Pius XII

 
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Exactly 10 years ago, on a cold winter morning in New York City, the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, established to investigate Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust, met for the first time to discuss its future work. I was the only Israeli historian among the six scholars (three Catholics and three Jews) designated by the Vatican and leading Jewish organizations to study this hotly contested issue. A little under two years later, the project was abandoned as a result of the Holy See’s unwillingness to release materials from its own archives that could help clarify issues that our team of scholars raised in our provisional report. Already at that time, in the last years of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, there were moves afoot to place Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood, but they were probably slowed down by Israeli and Jewish protests and a desire by church authorities to prevent a serious rupture in Catholic-Jewish relations.

At issue was the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust and his indirect complicity in the Nazi mass murder of Jews. These allegations, which first emerged around 1964, had prompted the Vatican to publish 11 volumes of its own documents (edited by four trusted Jesuit scholars), most of them appearing in the 1970s. It was these documents in Italian, German, French, Latin, and English that we were originally asked to review. The million or so unpublished documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958) will be available only in about four year’s time, according to the Vatican’s most recent estimate.

It is in this context that we need to see the recent decree on the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, just signed by Pope Benedict XVI. Most Jews have interpreted this act as yet another signal that the Vatican is determined to beatify the controversial wartime pope — whom some even consider to have been anti-Semitic — regardless of what the historical evidence may indicate. The sharp response of Jewish leaders to Benedict’s decree prompted the Vatican’s press office director, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., to release a conciliatory note distinguishing between the historical judgment of Pius XII’s actions (still an open question) and the saintly Christian life he apparently led. In particular, Father Lombardi was concerned to disclaim any notion that this decree was “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” or an obstacle to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In the light of the pope’s forthcoming visit to the Synagogue of Rome, this was a politically astute and welcome reassurance.

Nevertheless, the decree on Pius XII still raises concern not only about the continuing drive to beatify the wartime pontiff but also about the present pope and the state of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

Regarding Pius XII, I personally have never seen him either as “Hitler’s pope” (the theory of British historian John Cornwell — a lapsed Catholic), or as the “righteous gentile” evoked by Rabbi David Dallin. My own provisional conclusion drawn from the study of thousands of documents is that the mass murder of Jews was fairly low on his list of priorities. Of course, much the same could be said of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but they did not claim to be the “Vicar of Christ” or to represent the Christian conscience.

Pius XII strikes me as a polished diplomat far more worried about the Allied bombing of Rome than about the thousand Roman Jews who were being deported by the Germans to their deaths in Auschwitz, virtually under the windows of the Holy See. True, other Roman Jews were discreetly given sanctuary in ecclesiastical establishments in and around Rome after October 1943, but it remains unclear if this was the result of a direct papal instruction. In some instances we know that Pius XII did try to intervene against Nazi or racist anti-Semitic legislation, but in general this was almost always on behalf of baptized Jews since they were protected by the church as Catholics. Pius’ rare references to the mass murder of the Jews were invariably veiled and very abstract, as if he found it difficult to utter the word itself. Was it fear of further German reprisals? A latent anti-Semitism? Was it his visceral anti-Communism that also led him to hope for a Nazi victory in the East? Or perhaps the desire to spare German Catholics a conflict of conscience between their loyalty to Hitler, the fatherland, or their church? Whatever the reasons, this was hardly heroic conduct.

So why has Benedict XVI chosen to take this step now? Why risk unnecessary damage to Catholic-Jewish relations? My own inclination is to think that the present pope regards Pius XII as a soulmate — both theologically and politically. He shares with the wartime pontiff an authoritarian centralist world-view and a deep distrust of liberalism, modernity, and the ravages of moral relativism. He was 31 years old when Pius XII died in 1958, and already regarded him as a venerated role model. Moreover, the German-born Joseph Ratzinger (today Benedict XVI) certainly knew that Pius XII (an aristocratic Roman) was also a passionate Germanophile, surrounded by German aides during and after the war, fluent in the German language, and a great admirer of the German Catholic Church. Not only that, but Ratzinger probably knows that Pius XII personally intervened after 1945 to commute the sentences of convicted German war criminals. This solicitude for Nazi criminals contrasts sharply with Pius XII ignoring all entreaties to make a public statement against anti-Semitism even after the full horrors of the death camps had been revealed in 1945.

In this context it is profoundly unsettling to think that the ultraconservative Benedict XVI and his entourage can identify so completely with Pius XII as a man of “heroic virtue.” The present pope, no doubt, deplores anti-Semitism, though his statements on the subject have been noticeably less robust than those of his predecessor, John Paul II. At Yad Vashem last summer he expressed no personal regret as a German for the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah, even though he had once been a member of the Hitler Youth. True, he had little choice in that matter. However, he was disturbingly vague about the truly monstrous German role in the Holocaust. Earlier this year Benedict also showed remarkably poor judgment (to put it charitably) in reinstating an unrepentant Holocaust-denying British bishop into the mainstream Catholic Church, an action he only retracted after worldwide Jewish and Catholic protests.

These serious mistakes appear to follow a pattern and may even indicate a regression from the real progress in Catholic-Jewish relations under Benedict’s predecessor. One can only hope they are not irreversible, since the stakes are high and no sane person can be interested in undermining the bridges across the abyss that have been so painstakingly constructed.

Robert S. Wistrich is the director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House, January 2010).
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Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

Holy water

Two weeks ago I visited a place in Israel that I had never seen before.

Shafdan, as the place is called, is a high-tech water reclamation plant just a few kilometers outside of Rishon Letzion. It looked a little like Area 51 in Nevada and it smelled a bit like the New Jersey Meadowlands. But what is happening there is amazing.

In the simplest of terms, Shafdan takes more than 90 percent of waste water — that’s water from kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, drains, and toilets — from a large region in northwestern Israel. Shafdan repurifies the water, and then it can be reused.

 

 

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Doing it ourselves

In September of 1972, an armed group of guerrilla fighters calling themselves Black September stormed the dormitory of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. After killing two of the eleven athletes in particularly gruesome ways, they demanded the release of more than 250 prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

The world was glued to its television sets while the standoff continued. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, mobilized an elite commando team to go to Germany and rescue their brothers. The German government and the International Olympic Committee denied the Israelis any jurisdiction to free the hostages. The IOC wanted these games to be peaceful. Bloodshed would tarnish the games — the first in Germany since before World War II — and the IOC and German government were committed to peaceful means to end the standoff.

 

 

A resurgence of anti-Semitism in a different world

This year, Passover was met with two terrible reminders that the dangers posed by anti-Semitism continue to haunt us.

First, a white supremacist in Kansas went on a shooting rampage at a Jewish community center and an assisted living facility, killing three people. Then, worshippers leaving synagogue services in Donetsk, Ukraine, were accosted by masked men who handed out pamphlets ordering all Jews to report to a state registry or prepare to be denationalized.

These two shocking outbreaks put a pale over the celebration of Passover. It was reminiscent of Passovers of old, when the Jews would fear Easter-time anti-Jewish violence. And yet there are differences, new aspects to these current events that mark our times as distinct and more blessed than those that came before.

The violence in Kansas was recognized by everyone, from the president of the United States down to the local authorities, as no “mere” triple murder. The seriousness of the hate crime charges that the alleged shooter will face are a symbol of the zero tolerance that our society has for anti-Semitic violence. I know this on a smaller scale. As the local rabbi, I have been called from time to time by local authorities regarding an anti-Semitic incident. Usually graffiti, usually teenage perpetrators acting out their own complex issues of identity. What has connected each unrelated incident was not only the “traditions” of anti-Semitism but also the priority with which the crime was handled by the authority of that jurisdiction. Responsible government and society no longer tolerate what all too often was accepted in the past.

 

 

Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 
 
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