Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 27, 2014

Two Righteous Men Among the Nations

The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

Read More

The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

The role that John Paul II played in the struggle against Communism is well known. The first Polish pope was a symbol of the fight for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If Stalin famously and satirically asked “how many divisions” did the pope have about one of John Paul’s predecessors, then the Soviet tsar’s successors found how just how powerful a man of faith could be. If in the medieval era and specifically in the 19th century, the church was viewed by many as an ally of the established order in Europe against the cause of liberty, John Paul II made it clear that in the 20th century, Catholics were on the front lines in the battle for individual liberty against the toxic influence of totalitarianism.

That stand by itself would have secured John Paul’s place in history. But he also deserves enormous credit for transforming Catholic-Jewish relations. While some in the media took a cynical view of Pope Francis’s effort to highlight the similarities between John XXIII, who is viewed as the hero of church liberals, and John Paul II, who is depicted as the champion of conservatives, there is no question that they shared a common agenda when it came to revolutionizing relations between Catholics and Jews.

John XXIII is best remembered for his convening of the Second Vatican Council that led to changes in Church doctrine and practices. Most importantly for Jews, it ended the teaching of the deicide myth, effectively acquitting the Jewish people of a role in the killing of Jesus. He also ended the use of the word “perfidious” with respect to Jews in Catholic prayers. But even long before this important work, John XXIII earned the gratitude of the Jewish people for his role in saving many Jews from the Holocaust while serving as papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece. After the Shoah, while serving in the same capacity in France he refused orders not to return baptized Jewish children to their surviving parents. He is also believed to have helped influence Pope Pius XII to remain silent about the question of partition of Palestine thus making it easier for Catholic countries to vote for the creation of a Jewish state.

Pope John Paul II built on the good work of Pope John XXIII with regard to interfaith relations. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue as well as the one who finally recognized the State of Israel. His advocacy for treating Jews as brothers in faith rather than rivals or enemies marked a turning point for the relationship between the two faiths and in the way Catholics were educated by their church. Under his leadership, the church became a bulwark in the struggle against anti-Semitism in a manner that it had never before assumed. Just as important, his personal example of friendship with Jews with whom he had grown up in Poland and suffered under Nazi rule ended forever the notion of a natural antagonism between Catholics and Jews.

No person, even a saint, is perfect, and it is possible to construct a critique of John Paul II’s papacy in terms of its slow reaction to the pedophile scandal that rocked Catholicism on his watch. But that is a problem that predated his papacy and cannot be ascribed to the Vatican as it can to specific individuals or institutions. Whatever we may think about the church’s past failures in that regard, it does not erase his or any other pope’s good work.

Thus, while I cannot venture an opinion as to the qualifications of either man (or anyone else for that matter) for Catholic sainthood, I can say that both John XXIII and John Paul II stand as two of the most important positive figures in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. They are richly deserving of the title of Righteous Among the Nations, the name of the honor given by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. May the memories of both these popes be for a blessing. 

Read Less

Abbas and the Trouble with Holocaust Commemoration

Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

Read More

Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

Remembering the Holocaust is a sacred obligation and it is especially important to keep alive the memory of the six million who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators at a time when the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year. But the point of these memorials is not merely to shed tears over the Jews who died seven decades ago. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism. The Nazi crime was unique in terms of its scale and the embrace by one of the world’s most civilized and powerful nations of a racist eliminationist creed. But it was neither the first nor the last attack on the existence of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism has outlived the Nazis just as it did other host organisms to which this vile virus attached itself. Today, the major source of anti-Semitic invective and hate speech is the Arab and Muslim world. This contemporary incarnation uses resentment against the existence of one lone Jewish state on this planet to mobilize not only Arab anger against Israel but to reawaken traditional Jew-hatred in Europe.

The trend toward universalizing the Holocaust so as to have its commemoration become a surrogate for every expression of intolerance or ill-feeling on any subject has done nothing to wipe out hate while diluting the specific historic lesson of this event. Yet to also condemn that attack on Jewish existence and the silence and inaction of the rest of the world outside of the context of contemporary anti-Semitism is similarly unhelpful. At a time when there’s a vicious anti-Semitic regime in Iran whose leaders have promoted Holocaust denial while at the same time plotting to achieve the means to achieve a second such slaughter, the tears shed for the six million are meaningless if they are not also accompanied by a determination to thwart rather than to appease Tehran.

The sad truth is that the popularity of Holocaust commemoration—even on the part of many who are hostile to contemporary Jewish life—as well as the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials seems to reflect a preference for dead Jews over live ones. The irony is that the movement to promote Holocaust remembrance was largely born out of an effort to teach both Jews and non-Jews the perils of silence about anti-Semitism. The boom in Holocaust memorials started in the 1960s as the movements to promote freedom for Soviet Jewry and to protect the embattled State of Israel gained greater traction in the West. It was widely understood that the clichéd refrain of Holocaust memorial—“never again”—was not merely an expression of ex post facto outrage about the conduct of the Nazis but a pledge to fight for the freedom and the lives of the descendants of the survivors.

Yet as the dustup about Abbas’s words illustrates, Holocaust commemoration has now taken on a life of its own that is utterly disconnected from any actual concern about defending Jewish lives, let alone history. It is a good thing that Palestinian Arabs understand and respect Jewish history rather than deny it, as their media routinely does with respect to Jerusalem and other issues. A degree of honesty from Abbas about the way the Palestinian Arab leadership embraced Hitler might also be in order. But courtesies about the events of the 1940s do not outweigh efforts to deny legitimacy to Jewish rights let alone justify the embrace of those who shed Jewish blood in our own time. If Holocaust commemoration has evolved to a point where these factors are unimportant, then perhaps it is time for those of us who have worked so hard to make it part of the fabric of Western culture to rethink the impact of what we have accomplished. 

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.