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 The million or so unpublished documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958) will be available only in about four year’s time, according to the Vatican’s most recent estimate.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

The death of Leonard Nimoy on Friday, February 27, at 83, marked the passing of an American icon — indeed, a star of global renown, and a Jewish hero as well.

Nimoy’s accomplishments were many. He was an author, poet, musician, photographer, philanthropist, educator, and director, and of course an actor who played many roles on stage and screen. But he is best known for his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, the television series that first aired in 1966. It is a role he reprised in the various sequels, spinoffs, and remakes that appeared after the original series went off the air in 1969.

Nimoy was a Boston native, fluent in Yiddish, whose parents were Orthodox Jews who escaped from the Soviet Union. As he related in various interviews, his background informed his portrayal of the sole alien being on the Starship Enterprise. Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan but was also half-human, making him an alien on Vulcan as well. His status reflects that of immigrants and their children, first-generation Americans who, like Nimoy, grow up in a household, community, and culture that still has one foot in the old world.

 

 

Je suis Charlie?

It says much about the age that we live in that so many of us first learned of the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 7th through Twitter, and that the slogan that came to represent much of the international response to the massacre originated as an image tweeted by French artist and music journalist Joachim Roncin, and soon morphed into a hashtag that rose to the top of the day’s trending topics, and has become one of the most popular hashtags in the history of that social network.

I am referring, of course, to Je suis Charlie, or in hashtag form, #jesuischarlie, and its English version, #iamcharlie.

Some followed up on this formula with the variations Je suis Ahmed or Je suis Ahmed Rabet, to acknowledge the Muslim police officer who was so brutally murdered in the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and as a subtle reminder that the terrorists are not representative of Muslims in general. Others added Je suis Juif, meaning I am Jewish, to recall the fact that four hostages were murdered in a kosher supermarket, in addition to the 12 killed at the offices of the Parisian periodical. (Several of them also were Jewish.) Members of the Jewish community in France and abroad were encouraged by the appearance of Je suis Juif signs and hashtags, especially as the slogan was displayed by some French Muslims, although there has also been some criticism that it was not shared widely enough.

 

 

To end terrorism, start with moral clarity

The most often asked question I hear today is “How do we stop radical Islamic terrorism?”

Of course there are no quick, easy solutions but any attempt must start with an absolute commitment to speaking and acting with moral clarity.

How can it be that there are leaders today, including the president of the United States, who simply refuse to use the words “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic jihad”? I am not an expert on Islam, and I have no true sense whether Islam is or is not a religion of peace.

 

 

RECENTLYADDED

Israel, not Netanyahu, is the ultimate target

There is no world leader more hated by well-meaning liberals in America and Europe than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Whereas once the bile was directed at former U.S. president George W. Bush — for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, for identifying radical Islam in both its Shiite and Sunni variations as an existential threat, and for backing Israel — it’s now largely focused on Netanyahu, an alleged “racist” and “war criminal” who just happens to have won a resounding vote of confidence from the Israeli electorate on March 17.

Two New York Times editorials speak to my point rather elegantly. The first, published on March 13, asked whether Turkey could still be considered a reliable NATO ally — concluding, based on the Ankara government’s stance toward international crises from the Islamic State insurgency to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that it can’t. But while the substance of the editorial was basically correct, the lack of any ad hominem attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was notable. “Increasingly authoritarian” was the best the New York Times could manage when it came to describing this boorish thug, who rejoices in conspiracy theories, baits his country’s declining Jewish population even as he assures them that they are safe, and imprisons journalists with the devil-may-care attitude only a dictator can enjoy.

 

 

Dirty dancing

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, please come to your senses

Benjamin Netanyahu is the winner of the most recent election in Israel.

The odds are that he will be asked to build a coalition and continue his premiership. I wish him well. But many are still gargling to get the yucky taste out of their mouth.

Every match-up will have a winner and a loser, whether pitcher versus batter or presidential hopefuls. But if a win is achieved through sneaky tactics or cheap moves, it salts the wound of the loser and mitigates the validity of the winner. That is what happened when the incumbent prime minister made some political statements on the eve of last week’s election.

 

 

Universities punish bigotry — but not anti-Jewish bigotry

A few weeks ago, the University of Oklahoma appropriately responded swiftly and strongly when members of a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, sang anti-black chants that included the “n” word and references to lynching.

The university expelled two students and shut down the entire fraternity chapter, even though not all its members were involved in the incident. Similarly, colleges and universities are cracking down on hostile actions against women. For example, after members of Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted “No means yes” on campus, Yale University banned the fraternity for five years.

Yes, these responses were tough, but they sent an important message not only to the wrongdoers and the university community, but also to society at large: that bigotry against African-Americans and women is repugnant and intolerable, and there will be harsh consequences for those who engage in it.

 

 
 
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