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Western Press Review: The Pope In Israel

  • Joel Blocker



Prague, 24 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul's emotional remarks yesterday in Jerusalem about the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry have evoked a host of comments in the Western press. Most commentators see the Pope's homage to Jews murdered by the Nazis as a historic turning point, and believe his trip to Israel will mark the start of a new era in relations between Roman Catholicism and Judaism. A few suggest, however, that John Paul did not go far enough in his expressed "sadness" about Christianity's responsibility in the persecution of Jews.

NEW YORK TIMES: John Paul has done more than any modern pope to end the estrangement between Catholics and Jews

The New York Times speaks in an editorial of what it calls the Pope's "eloquent homage" to the six million murdered Jews in his visit to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. In the editorial's words, "John Paul has done more than any modern pope to end the estrangement between Catholics and Jews. He was the first pope to pray in a synagogue, the first to acknowledge the failure of individual Catholics to deter the Holocaust and the first to call anti-Semitism a sin 'against God and man.'"

The editorial goes on to say that the Pope's remarks "echoed the [Roman Catholic] church's recent apology for past errors, saying he deplored 'the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and any place.' These steps," it adds "seemed to bring John Paul to a point where he could address Pope Pius the Twelfth's failure to galvanize the church against the Holocaust [during World War Two]." But his failure to do so, the paper argues, means it now seems likely that he will leave the matter to his successors.

The New York Time finds what it calls "a valedictory quality" to the Pope's actions and travels as the church approaches its third millennium. "He seems determined," it says, "to trace the birth of Christianity in this epochal year, to right the wrongs of the church and to bring a spirit of conciliation to the Middle East."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: John Paul remains the best Pope the Jews have had so far

Thorsten Schmitz, in a commentary for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, calls the Pope's remarks at Yad Vashem the high point of his Middle East tour. But, writing from Jerusalem, he also says: "The Pope disappointed the Jewish people. Although John Paul condemned the horrors committed by the Nazis and said that only a 'godless ideology' could have planned and carried out the Holocaust, he was silent on the guilt of the Catholic church and the complicity of its members -- who were not 'godless' at all -- in the Hitler regime."

The commentary continues: "It would have been desirable for the Pope to have been as open and vehement in his remarks at Yad Vashem as he was to the Palestinians [the day before about their aspirations for statehood]." Schmitz concludes with this, "There still has never been a Pope who spoke out more clearly than John Paul against anti-Semitism. That is why he remains the best Pope the Jews have had so far."

GUARDIAN: The Pope also sees the compelling claims of the Palestinian people

Two commentaries in Britain's Guardian newspaper discuss different aspects of the Pope's Mid-Eastern visit. Columnist Martin Woollacott says that John Paul's expressed views on the Palestinians are stirring up conflict in Israel. He writes: "The first leader of the Catholic church to embrace full reconciliation with the Jews is also a leader who sees with bitter clarity how compelling are the claims of the Palestinian people. Only a few weeks before his Israeli visit," Woollacott recalls, "The Vatican signed an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization which affirmed the 'inalienable national legitimate rights' of Palestinians. That led to hostile comment in Israel."

The commentator then asks: "But what else could be expected from a Polish priest of the Pope's generation and mentality?" He replies: "Poland, after all, suffered from the creation of 'facts on the ground' aimed at truncating and even destroying its national existence. [And] Poland survived and reversed some, though not all, of those once so solid 'facts' that Russian and German power had seemed to set on such firm foundations."

GUARDIAN: John Paul has clearly been reluctant to acknowledge the abysmal record of the Vatican towards the Jews during the Nazi era

In the second Guardian commentary, Jewish historian David Cesarani both praises and criticizes the Pope: "John Paul has done more to improve relations between Jews and the Roman Catholic church than any of his predecessors, but this only throws into relief his reluctance to acknowledge the abysmal record of the Vatican towards the Jews during the Nazi era."

Cesarani says that "once Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the church was effectively on his side. Catholic regimes, notably in Slovakia and Croatia, enthusiastically joined the crusade against 'Jewish-Bolshevism.' The Vatican received excellent intelligence from these countries, and from its diplomatic network throughout Europe, about the massacre of Jews in Russia and the Balkans."

He adds: "[Pope] Pius the Twelfth said nothing. He declined to support his bishops in France and Holland who protested against the deportation of Jews to the death camps in 1942. [Pius] broadcast a Christmas message [that year] which merely referred to 'those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.' To Jews it was incomprehensible that he failed to cite them specifically.

IRISH TIMES: The Pope did not seek to ignore the Church's failings

In the Irish Times, David Horowitz also analyses Jewish feelings about the Pope's visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. He writes: "John Paul emotional visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem will surely stand as the most dramatic and significant event of his pilgrimage [to Holy Land sites]." But he adds: "There are Israelis for whom he said too little yesterday. [Some] lamented that to blame a 'godless' ideology for the Holocaust is to ignore the role that the Catholic Church played in creating the conditions for it, and the active participation of hundreds of thousands of devout Catholics in the mass murder."

Horowitz says that the Pope "did not seek to ignore the Church's failings nor, as some other Israeli critics charged, to somehow exonerate his 'silent' war-time predecessor, Pius the Twelfth. [John Paul] made crystal clear that there was no place for complicity with evil in the Church he now heads, no hiding place for such evil in God's law as he interprets it."

ECONOMIST: John Pauls comportment in the Jewish state seemed to signify more than just an expedient accommodation

In its current issue (dated March 25), the British weekly Economist says this about the Pope's Mid-Eastern visit: "To the Israelis he offered the [formal] courtesies that the Vatican had withheld from the Jewish state for so long, as well as historical sorrow over the Holocaust. To the Palestinians he brought warm public support for their political aspirations and demonstrative sympathy for the unending misery of the refugees. To the Christian community, a dwindling minority on both sides of the political divide, the pope brought words of faith and encouragement."

The magazine's editorial compares John Paul's visit with that of the only other Pope to travel to the Holy Land, Paul the Sixth, in 1964. Paul's 12-hour visit, it says, was "cold and stiff [and] still rankles as a national humiliation [in Israel]." The editorial goes on: "All that is gone, Pope John Paul was saying. In part, no doubt, the change reflects the cynical fact that the Curia, ancient master of realpolitik, has at last recognized regional realities and has shifted its position accordingly."

"But," the magazine concludes, "John Pauls comportment in the Jewish state seemed to signify more than just an expedient accommodation. To Jews, it was as though Christianity, with its two millennia of borrowed vocabulary -- Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, and so forth -- was confronting the fact that those words are no longer spiritual metaphors alone but have re-acquired a separate political, geographical (and perhaps even religious) reality."

JERUSALEM POST: The visit of Pope John Paul marks a sincere attempt to open a new era of friendship between estranged brothers

In Israel itself, the English-language Jerusalem Post comments today: "There are few moments when a circle 2,000 years in the making closes. The visit of Pope John Paul to Yad Vashem does not close the chapter of Christian 'co-responsibility' for the Holocaust, but it does mark a sincere attempt to open a new era of friendship between estranged brothers, Christianity and Judaism."

The paper's editorial also says that the Pope's " repeated references to Jews as 'people of the Covenant' is particularly moving, because it is a direct negation of the [kind of] theology that has been the source of much anti-Semitism. This Church is extending its hand in brotherhood; that hand should be warmly grasped by the Jewish people."

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