Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Israel is a historic and positive step forward for Vatican-Israel relations and the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. This important trip reaffirms Pope Benedict’s commitment to continue to strengthen relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, begun under his predecessor Pope John Paul II.
Benedict XVI’s visit – nine years since the last one by Pope John Paul II – is being hailed both as a reconfirmation of the Vatican’s commitment to meaningful and respectful dialogue and relations with the Jewish people, but also as a missed opportunity to deliver more unambiguous and emotive messages of a German pope’s remorse for the church’s past persecution of Jews. The Pope was criticized by some leaders in Holocaust remembrance, other commentators and Holocaust survivors for not having cited at Yad Vashem the number “six million,” for having used the term “killed” instead of “murdered,” and for not having specifically affirmed remorse for Germans’ or Christians’ actions.
The Importance of the Pope’s Visit to Israel
by Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
When his plane touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport, Pope Benedict XVI became only the second pope in the history of the Catholic Church to officially visit the State of Israel.
Israeli, Jewish and Vatican leaders expressed high hopes for a smooth visit that would enhance the Catholic-Jewish and Israel-Vatican relationships.
Yet almost from the minute he got off the plane, Benedict’s actions and words have been severely scrutinized, dissected and criticized from all sides. This extraordinary level of public and media scrutiny has led to a series of controversies, expressions of dismay and failed expectations by some Israeli leaders.
It must be recognized that Benedict is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the beloved Pope John Paul II, whose groundbreaking pilgrimage in March 2000 hit all the right notes and captured the hearts and minds of Jews and Catholics around the world. From the get-go it was always going to be unfair to measure Benedict’s trip by John Paul’s, especially since Benedict has stepped into a roiling political, religious and social climate that is vastly changed from the more hopeful regional environment just nine years ago.
It is not only the region that is different. The two popes have vastly different personalities and public personas. Where the Polish-born John Paul II was a grand communicator able to project his charm and personal story to a wide audience, Benedict, a native of Germany, is a reserved theologian who conveys a professorial tone.
Beyond style, there are the words themselves. In this there is room for debate.
Prominent officials have sharply criticized Benedict’s much-anticipated speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for failing to live up to expectations.
When Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem he referenced the Nazis by name, condemned the murder of millions of victims and mourned the loss of his Jewish friends. He met at length with 30 Polish Jewish survivors.
By contrast, Benedict failed to mention Nazis or Germany, as well as his own personal history in Germany during the war. He did not use the word murder and ignored the issue of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. A historic opportunity was squandered.
Yet a close examination of Benedict’s text and actions shows that he did deliver an appropriate speech focusing on the concepts of remembrance. He also met briefly with Holocaust survivors. It must be noted also that in recent months, Benedict has made strong statements repudiating Holocaust denial. And in the past, Benedict has talked about his personal experiences as a member of Hitler Youth and the Germany Army.
Therefore, it would do us well to keep things in perspective and recognize what this pope has said and done.
By coming to Israel at this time, the 82-year-old pontiff is solidifying the Vatican’s formal relationship with the State of Israel, launched when a historic diplomatic agreement was signed in 1993. His trip demonstrates the Church’s commitment to the security and survival of Israel as a Jewish state.
Benedict is also establishing a track record for future popes. No longer will Pope John Paul’s journey be able to be portrayed as an aberration or a personal mission. Indeed, Benedict’s trip will institutionalize that every pope visit Israel and commit the billion-member Roman Catholic Church to the importance of Israel as the Jewish state.
Benedict’s voyage also demonstrates the continuity of the Church’s commitment to enhance relations with the Jewish people. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was Pope John Paul’s chief theologian and, therefore, the many positive improvements in Jewish-Catholic relations over the past three decades were done in consultation with him.
To be sure, there are a series of outstanding serious issues challenging the Vatican-Jewish dialogue, including the recent troubling regressions in Catholic theology and liturgy about Judaism. Israel and the Vatican also have complicated property and tax issues to resolve.
However, the focus on this trip should be in recognizing the positive contributions of the current pope. Benedict has pledged to keep strengthening Catholic-Jewish relations and reaffirmed the Church’s unqualified repudiation of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. He has taught that Christians should gain a new respect for the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. And he has asserted that God’s Covenant and promises to the people of Israel are alive and irrevocable, further demonstrating his belief that the Jewish people “are beloved brothers and sisters.”
While we believe that Jews must remember and honor the past, we cannot change it. What we can do is create a future where Catholics and Jews deepen and expand our dialogue and work together with mutual respect and understanding in the interests of tikkun olam (i.e. Restoration of the World).
About the author: Born in Poland in 1940, Abraham Foxman was saved from the Holocaust as an infant by his Polish Catholic nanny who baptized and raised him as a Catholic during the war years. His parents survived the war, but 14 members of his family were lost.
After he arrived in America in 1950 with his parents, Mr. Foxman graduated from the Yeshiva of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, NY, and earned his B.A. in political science from the City College of the City University of New York, graduating with honors in history. Mr. Foxman holds a law degree from New York University School of Law, and did graduate work in Jewish studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in international economics at New York’s New School for Social Research.
On October 16, 2006 Foxman was awarded as Knight of the Legion of Honor by Jacques Chirac, the President of France at the time. This award is France’s highest civilian honor.
Abraham Foxman is also author of the bestseller The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.