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Op-Ed

The German Pope and the Jewish People

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on February 26, 2013

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, which officially takes effect on February 28, brings to a sudden and unexpected close a remarkable eight-year period of very positive relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people.

Pope Benedict was the only German Pope in history who was an eyewitness to the Holocaust. He may be the last Catholic leader of that generation to serve as the spiritual leader of more than one billion Catholics around the world.

His was a memorable papacy of mostly positive relations with the Jews. During his tenure Benedict made a series of important, defining statements on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

These are remarkable statements coming from a German native who had been unwillingly drafted to serve the Nazi war machine, first in Hitler's Youth as a teen and later in the German anti-aircraft corps.
In assessing Pope Benedict's record with the Jewish people, one must take into account the symbolic gestures as well as his statements and actions.

In October 2011, the pope hosted an extraordinary delegation of world religious leaders for a day of dialogue and reflection in Assisi, Italy.

It was a strikingly colorful scene. Hindu swamis in flowing orange garb mingled with Orthodox Christian clerics in black hoods. Daoist priests in ceremonial vestments chatted with bearded turbaned Sikhs and bald Buddhist monks in saffron robes.

But one of the most striking images was the special attention that Pope Benedict gave to the small delegation of Jewish representatives. At the closing ceremony, Benedict singled out the Jewish participants, "who are particularly close to us."

And when he visited Washington, D.C. in 2008, holding an interfaith meeting with American religious leaders, Benedict arranged for a special private meeting with the Jewish delegation in order to wish us a happy Passover.

The official record of Pope Benedict's relationship with Jews and Israel is formidable.

First, it is important to remember that Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, worked closely for 26 years with his predecessor Pope John Paul II in developing a historic new relationship between Catholic and Jews as "loving brothers and sisters" after centuries of tragedy.

Shortly after being elected in 2005, Pope Benedict arranged meetings with ADL and other world Jewish leaders. Four months later he visited a synagogue in Cologne. He would visit several other synagogues, most notably in Rome, and become the first pope to visit a synagogue in the United States.

He clearly condemned anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. His visit to Israel solidified the Vatican's relationship with the Jewish State, and his church's commitment to its security and survival. In Israel, he honored the memory of the "six million Jewish victims of the Shoah," and said that "every effort must be made to fight anti-Semitism wherever it is found." By going to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, he helped institutionalize a precedent set by Pope John Paul II.

To be sure, there were also missteps, starting with his 2005 speech at Auschwitz, when he failed to acknowledge the legacy of Christian anti-Jewish teachings -- the soil in which Nazi ideology was planted.

His decision to rewrite the old Latin version of the Good Friday prayer (still) titled "For the Conversion of the Jews" -- and his lifting of the excommunication of four bishops from an anti-Semitic schismatic -- were a profound disappointment. He also moved wartime Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood, even as the Vatican's Secret World War II archives remained closed to scholars and Holocaust survivors.

Yet at the same time, Benedict issued historic positive theological and historical statements about Judaism.

He said that the Catholic Church should not try and convert Jews. In his trilogy on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict re-interpreted problematic passages in the Gospels of Matthew and John, dismissing negative images and false charges against the Jewish people which prompted millennia of persecution and death.

So what is Benedict's legacy with the Jewish people?

Holocaust issues are still a cloud looming over us. The archives are not open, but Pius XII has not been beatified - yet.

One measurement is whether his positive teachings about Jews become embedded in Catholic education around the world -- particularly the fast-growing regions in South America, Africa and Asia - where knowledge of Judaism is stuck in the problematic past.

Pope Benedict clearly demonstrated his closeness to the Jewish people, symbolically, and in word and deed. He listened to our concerns, and tried to address them.

That demonstrates the trust and respect that has evolved between our two faith communities, and how much more work we need to do together, Catholics and Jews, to help repair a broken world.

 

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