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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 The million or so unpublished documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958) will be available only in about four year’s time, according to the Vatican’s most recent estimate.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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Thank you, Jon Stewart

The most trusted man in America

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of the “Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.

Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.

 

 

Letter from Israel: Chowing down on plants

I was a vegetarian wannabe for most of my life, and when we made aliyah in August 2007, I grabbed the opportunity to take the plunge. Introducing myself as a vegetarian from the get-go would ease the dietary transition, I reasoned.

And I was right. Our new friends didn’t bat an eye; a fair number of them also eschewed meat. Dining out was never a problem, thanks to bountiful kosher dairy and fish restaurants in Israel. My husband supported my decision with the caveat that we continue serving poultry at our Shabbat table for those like himself who prefer it. So far, so good.

A couple of years ago, after doing extensive reading and video viewing about the cruelty and environmental damage involved in the dairy, egg, and fish industries — not to mention mounting scientific evidence of the dubious nutritional value of animal foods as they are produced today — I began a gradual shift toward veganism.

 

 

‘Ah no, Jews cannot be judges’

In November, United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told a conference group that her Jewish identity was the one thing that didn’t come up during her confirmation process. At the same conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the most remarkable thing about the fact that there are three Jews among the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices was how unremarkable it is in America today.

Apparently, there’s a huge disconnect between what’s acceptable in the highest echelons of the federal justice system and what passes muster in student government on America’s college campuses.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Penning our stories

“The last time I got a fountain pen was for my bar mitzvah.”

That line was uttered during the two-part season finale of the ABC television network’s popular series “Once Upon a Time,” which aired on May 10. It was a little inside joke inserted by series creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who co-wrote the episode; both of them may well have received fountain pens as gifts for their own bar mitzvahs. There was a time when a fancy fountain pen was as commonplace a gift as savings bonds for bar mitzvah boys, so much so that an often repeated bar mitzvah joke was, “Today I am a fountain pen.” (This was a play on the cliché declaration “Today I am a man,” this being a time before the bat mitzvah was fully instituted as an egalitarian religious practice.) Michael Hilton, in his book “Bar Mitzvah: A History,” reports that “in July 1946, Barry Vine of New Haven Connecticut, received sixteen fountain pens as gifts”! Now that’s the write stuff!

“Once Upon a Time’s” bar mitzvah boy was played by the actor Patrick Fischler, who perhaps is best known for his role as the Jewish comedian Jimmy Barrett on the recently concluded AMC series “Mad Men,” and who also appeared on the series “Lost,” a series that Kitsis and Horowitz previously had worked on as writers. Fischler’s character was introduced in March, during the final story arc of the series’ fourth season, first through references to a mysterious “Author” whose writings set the course of the series’ storybook characters, such as Snow White, Prince Charming, Rumpelstiltskin, Captain Hook, Robin Hood, Maleficent, and Regina (aka the Evil Queen, Snow White’s nemesis); as “The Author” he also had the power to rewrite their stories, and change their fate.

 

 

Taking inspiration from Norpac’s mission to Washington

Family vacations certainly provide more relaxing interactions. Family missions provide more meaningful, long-lasting experiences.

Our family traveled together to Washington, D.C., for the Norpac mission last week. Being part of a record-breaking 1500-person mission made the effort seem all the more important. And for our two teenagers, we provided a fascinating and awe-inspiring experience in current events, political science, history, economics, foreign policy, public speaking, and the democratic system, all in one single (and very long) day!

The Norpac mission mobilizes a cross-section of our broad community. We come from various political backgrounds but we are united in agreement on the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and we are committed to ensuring bipartisan support for that relationship.

Imagine the logistics of a fully immersive one-day experience, providing transportation, food, briefings, and meaningful experiences for each participant. The Norpac leadership team, with dedicated volunteer support, ensured impressive and flawless execution.

 

 

Update on Nostra Aetate

After our story “Nostra Aetate 50 years later” was published in last week’s Jewish Standard, the Vatican issued two statements that we would have recognized there had they come out even days earlier.

The first was the church’s announcement that it is about to sign a treaty that will recognize the “state of Palestine.” Although the decision to recognize the state was not new, the move to do so officially was.

Our story focused on Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. Like much of the rest of the organized Jewish world, the AJC has responded to the church’s decision with sadness and dismay. Its formal response came from its executive director, David Harris.

 

 
 
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