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From Cross to Swastika: The Theology of Hate.

In 1950, when the raw footage of Nazi atrocities during World War II was shown for the first time by the Zionist Organization of America in Madison Square Garden, my father was among the viewers. That same night, at 48, he experienced a stroke. It left him semi-paralyzed for the rest of his life. He had lost his father, six brothers and sisters, and their families at Auschwitz. John Paul II, the present father of the Roman Catholic Church, was in his early twenties at the time.

During the war, like Jacob, my father, the present pope undoubtedly knew something of the sins against humanity that the Nazis were committing, but, young and undistinguished, he was in no position to stop them. My father and his sister Fanny, who, like him, had settled in America before the war, sent money through the Zionist agency to try to save their family and others of the oppressed. Perhaps the young John-Paul-II-to-be did what he could and, like my father and Fanny, helped to rescue a few people. One of my aunts, Sheindl, and her family, managed to survive the German insanity of the 1930s and '40s, and at least one survivor in Israel claims that the young John Paul II helped her.

Those who owe apologies for the past are individuals (and institutions) of economic, popular, political, or religious weight who at the time either abetted or did not oppose the Nazis forcefully enough. In America, were they alive, Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy, and Charles Lindbergh would do well to apologize. As undeniably accomplished a man as Franklin Roosevelt, were he alive, would owe apologies. Untold numbers here and in England, France, Germany, and the surrounding countries of Europe should express contrition.

Christian leaders from the very beginning earned guilt for spreading lies or committing crimes that made the Nazi madness conceivable. Crusaders, in warped fealty to a savior who preached love, mercy, and self-abnegation, committed murder and mayhem. Like the Nazis, but on a pre-industrial scale, both Crusaders and the judges of the Inquisition, who pillaged Jewish villages in order to fill the coffers of monarchs and the Catholic Church and sated their appetites for human suffering with innocent blood, are much too guilty for penitence to be an option. The initiators and executors of pogroms were similarly depraved, and the Nazis, with the benefit of industrial techniques and German efficiency, outdistanced them all. Our behavioral blindness to this history is concisely evinced by the use of the sullied term crusade to bring attention to such worthy charitable causes as the attempt to cure cancer. There should be apologies even for that probably unintentional insult.

Certainly Pope Pius XII, whose behavior was intentional, owed the Jews an apology. Early in his pontificate, he suppressed the condemnation of Nazism that Pope Pius XI had intended to deliver before his death. With one unspecific expression of concern as an exception, Pius XII, from the relative safety of his high office, rode out the war in silence, even when the Nazis attempted to annihilate the Jews of Rome, the city of which he was bishop.

There is a historical explanation for such impious behavior. Anyone with knowledge of the creation and canonization of the New Testament knows that it is a work of propaganda as well as a religious text. Among other injustices, the authors, in an attempt to replace Judaism, first libeled and then undertook to demonize the Jews. They distorted the teachings of the Pharisees and heaped blame upon them, though the Pharisees' approach to religion and interpretations of the Bible inspired Jesus. For example, the Pharisee Hillel's "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you," which encapsulates a crucial aspect of Judaism, rephrased became Jesus's Gold Rule.

But, in attempting to forge a dominant and proselytizing religion, the creators of the New Testament linked Jesus's version of Judaism to lies. The effect of this unholy work on their followers is conveniently illustrated in our time in the scurrilous definition of "Jew" in the Aurelio Brazilian dictionary as "evil man" and in antisemitic cliches of our own language -- "Jewed him down," for example, meaning "bargained." Whenever I hear this phrase, I ask the speakers if they are Jewish, and when, as has always been the case, they identify themselves as Christian, I respond: "Then you Christianed him down." Occasionally, they get the point.

In sum, for proselytizing and economic reasons, Christianity, attempted from its inception to demoralize and destroy the Jews, whose religion was as old when the Christian community began as Christianity is now.

The saintly Pope John XXIII tried to reverse this perversity, initiating a process of self-examination that the present pope is extending. In keeping with what John XXIII began, John Paul II was correct to express sorrow for the sins people of his faith committed over history against the Jews. But, unless he expresses contrition for what the corporate church he represents has done, John Paul II is surely trying to accomplish the impossible. No guilt attaches to one who has neither perpetrated nor permitted transgressions. Though he is right to express regret, the pope cannot apologize for the sins of other humans; he has not committed those sins. And he is morally out of bounds when he demands that Jews forgive them. Having suffered nothing at the hands of the sinners, he therefore has no place in exacting anything from those sinned against.

Moreover, because the essential facts about Plus XII are known, John Paul II sins by omission in failing to acknowledge his predecessor's failures. In fact, John Paul II would be sinning by commission if he allowed current Vatican revisionists to beatify Plus XII. To offer the distinction to one whose crimes against the Jews and other minorities are recorded in the memories of the still-living flies in the face of the reconciliation and mutual acceptance John Paul II wants to advance. He should denounce both Nazis and their fellow travelers of the past, some of whom wrapped themselves in his faith, and those of the present who espouse Nazi values or who knowingly benefit by Nazi plunder.

For example, when John Paul II traveled recently to Fatima, Portugal, for the beatification ceremony (13 May 2000) of two young shepherds for their vision there in 1917, he should have demanded restitution from the managers of the shrine, who almost certainly paid for 1982 and 1986 renovations to the shrine with gold looted from Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War. Having failed to speak up at that time, he should do so now.

The pope need not enjoin the Jews to relinquish their hatred of people who have sinned against them. The Hebrew Bible, the holy text of Jesus of Nazareth and the work in which the idea of a merciful (in Hebrew, rachamim), monotheistic divinity has its origin, demands that sinners "restore what [they have] ... gained" from those against whom they have sinned, adding an additional sum. (Lev. 6,4) Further, on the road to turning the other cheek, it orders those who have been offended to relinquish their desire for revenge. (Lev. 19, 18)Jews have done so. They have been doing so for millennia. If they had not, the consequent bitterness might have prevented them, after giving the world monotheism, from contributing so remarkably to the advances of civilization and the defense of the oppressed. The pope if he wishes could beg forgiveness/or his predecessors, but it is no man's right to command such generosity -- of the divinity or of anyone else.

Even after the work of John XXIII, the Catholic leadership attempted to stymie the Jewish people and undermine their religion and aspirations. The Vatican delayed recognition of the State of Israel until the last decade of the 20th century. And even now, knowing what the Bible says about the relationship between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, and despite Israel's singular protection of the local holy places of all religions, the Holy See opposes Israel's claim to the city.

When Pope John Paul II recognized Israel and claimed the Jews as his "elder brothers" he took long strides toward halting Vatican failures. But, in relation to Israel, those helpful strides covered existing terrain: on the political level he acknowledged the presence of a state that exists, and in religious terms he bore witness to facts that any responsible translation of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament confirms in its footnotes. On the other hand, when he allows Yasir Arafat to use the highest office of the Roman Catholic Church as a pulpit from which to lay claim to what the Palestinians do not now have, and in fact have never had, a nation state with Jerusalem as its capital, the pope impedes the peace process.

John Paul II, for all the good he intends, erred during his early years in office in allowing his church to oppose itself to Israel. In firm control now, despite his advanced years and infirm health, he will be sinning gravely if he continues to allow his church to pursue such policies, or does so himself. The negotiations with the Palestinians are difficult enough without encouraging their intransigence.

At 80, even as he prepares to conclude his life, the pope should take two more bold steps and bring his believers to face the truth. First, he should recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The city functioned as such for over a thousand years before the people of Arabia spread across the Middle East, and it is in fact Israel's capital now. Second, though he does not have to condemn his predecessor and his culpable allies (who, after all, are long dead), John Paul II should keep Plus XII from the Catholic list of the beatified. That list already contains more sinners than it should.

ALBERT WACHTEL is a professor of literature at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. His books include The Cracked Looking Glass (Associated University Presses) and Modernism (University of Illinois Press).
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Author:Wachtel, Albert
Date:May 1, 2000
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