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Jewish World Review March 15, 2000 /8 Adar II, 5760 , 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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The Pope, the apology, and the Jews --
POPE JOHN PAUL II, physically weak and trembling, demonstrated the continuing vitality of his mind and spirit last week as he celebrated an extraordinary Mass to ask divine forgiveness for sins committed by Catholics over the past 2000 years.

To offer a reckoning for the sins of two millennia is a tall order -- one that might seem excessively so were it not for the obvious sincerity John Paul exudes. Apologies are tricky things, fraught with pitfalls, and some were immediately evident in the response to the Pope's action.

Though a number of Jewish leaders praised the Pope's statement, news reports stressed the disappointment of Israel's chief rabbi, Meir Lau, who expressed his "deep frustration" with the Pope's failure to mention the Holocaust specifically.

Since the start of his papacy, John Paul has been moving the Church toward a warmer relationship with the Jews. He is the first Pope to establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel and the first to visit a synagogue in Rome, and he will, next month, become the first Pope to visit Israel. Though he is not the first pontiff to recognize the spiritual connection between Christians and Jews, he has pushed the envelope, and he speaks of the "brotherhood" and "kinship" between the two peoples. In his comments touching on the Jews, the Pope makes clear his belief in the continuing validity of G-d's covenant with the people of Abraham. (John Paul has also been keen to repair relations with Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians.)

But two thousand years of mutual enmity (this is, after all, a family quarrel, the bitterest kind) do not yield easily to reconciliation. Since the end of World War II, the Vatican and the world Jewish community have been engaged in a lengthy discussion about the Christian role in the Holocaust. The Church has issued several documents, most recently "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" in 1998, and Jewish leaders have in each case expressed some satisfaction and some disappointment.

The satisfaction arises from the Church's sincere effort to come to grips with its own culpability in the catastrophe that befell the Jews on a Christian continent. The disappointment arises from the fact that Catholics have not yet acknowledged that Christian anti-Semitism, while qualitatively different from Nazi anti-Semitism, laid the groundwork for it.

While some Jews have explicitly blamed Christians or Catholics for the atrocities of the Nazi regime, few Jewish scholars share that simplistic view. Christian Europe was anti-Jewish for 19 centuries, and this contempt and hatred often flared into violence, theft of Jewish property, expulsion and massacres. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council required humiliating clothing for Jews, and it was the Church itself that first confined Jews within ghettoes in Italy. The antipathy was bipartisan, embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike. After an initial flirtation with the Jews, Martin Luther condemned them brutally after he saw that they would no more follow him than bow to the Church in Rome.

Abhorrent as it was, Christian anti-Semitism was never genocidal. As Professor Ascheim of Hebrew University in Jerusalem put it: "The aim of the Christian was to convert the Jew. This was the worst nightmare of the Nazi." Nazism, with its specious racial theories and pagan worship of nation and blood, was something new, transgressive and different. Nazism loathed the Jews but also disdained Christianity with its "effeminate pity-ethics."

What then, should Catholics and other Christians acknowledge about the crimes committed by baptized Christians who became something else? Is it fair to say that among ordinary Christians there were too few heroes willing to risk their own lives and those of their families to save strangers? No.

It is important only that Christians recognize this: That when the Nazis went searching for a class of victims, there was a ready-made category available. Centuries of anti-Jewish teaching had numbed too many Europeans to Jewish suffering, and a terrible literature of Jew-hatred was available for the Nazis to exploit.

John Paul II may not have said this explicitly yet. But he is heading in that direction. And Jewish critics would do well to give him the benefit of the doubt.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate