JERUSALEM – Even if he had said all the right things about the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews, the German-born Pope Benedict XVI would have had a hard time winning over Israelis on his visit to the Jewish state.
His background as a German who served under the Nazis, the Roman Catholic Church’s history of anti-Semitism, his predecessor’s extraordinary outreach to Jews and a series of public relations gaffes – not to mention a longstanding dispute over the conduct of the Holocaust-era pope – created formidable obstacles for Benedict to overcome in his relations with the Jews.
So, it was not surprising that Israelis criticized the pope for failing to apologize for Catholic wrongdoings during a speech Monday at the country’s national Holocaust memorial.
“The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word – ‘sorry,’ ” said Wednesday’s lead editorial in the Israeli daily Haaretzy.
Regardless of whether Benedict deserves the criticism, it’s clear he miscalculated the impact of what he chose to say and not say at the memorial.
Before he assumed the papacy, his decades of involvement in fostering Jewish-Catholic relations made him a favorite among Jewish leaders to become pope, said Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel’s leading voices in interfaith ties.
The apology Israeli critics said was so sorely missing from Benedict’s speech Monday at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial has actually been made by the pontiff in the past.
In an audience with Jewish leaders at the Vatican earlier this year, Benedict recalled a prayer by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem asking for God’s forgiveness for the treatment of Jews and said “I now make his prayer my own.”
Benedict’s speech at Yad Vashem contained a powerful pledge to never forget the victims’ names and a poignant allusion to the “joyful expectation” of victims’ parents anxiously awaiting the births of their children.
“What name shall we give this child? What is to become of him or her? Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a horrible fate,” the pope said.
Shortly after he said all this, however, the top two officials at Yad Vashem said they found the speech lacking because it failed to specifically mention the words “murder” or “Nazis” and left out the exact figure of 6 million Jews killed – in addition to the absence of a John Paul-like apology.
The speaker of Israel’s Parliament, Reuven Rivlin, criticized Benedict for coming off as detached, “as somebody observing from the sidelines.” Tom Segev, a prominent columnist and Holocaust historian, characterized the pope as “restrained, almost cold.”
Even Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor and a leader in interfaith relations, saw the speech as problematic despite his overall praise for Benedict.
“We should not be focusing just on an omission that took place at Yad Vashem, as painful as it might be,” said Schneier, who joined the pope on his visit Tuesday to the Western Wall.
Benedict has been warmly welcomed at every stop in Israel and the Palestinian territories and has been praised for his unequivocal calls for unity among religions.
But the flap over his Holocaust speech had the potential to eclipse his goodwill mission. If that happens, it wouldn’t be a first for Benedict.
There were uproars over his questioning of condoms as a valid weapons against AIDS during his pilgrimage to Africa, his quoting of a medieval text three years ago that characterized some of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman,” and his decision earlier this year to lift the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust.
Jewish leaders have only grudgingly accepted Benedict’s explanation that he did not know that Bishop Richard Williamson was a Holocaust denier when he lifted his excommunication from the church.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi defended Benedict against criticism of his Yad Vashem speech, saying the pope “can’t mention everything every time he speaks.”
In the end, Lombardi seemed to confuse the issue as much as clarify it. At one point, the spokesman said Benedict had “never, never” been a member of the Hitler Youth movement. A short while later, he backtracked, acknowledging that Benedict had in fact joined when membership was compulsory.
Sixty-four years after the last Nazi gas chamber closed, the Holocaust remains a raw wound across Israel’s national psyche. Many Israelis were deeply moved by John Paul’s stunning gesture at the Western Wall nine years ago, giving Benedict a hard act to follow during this, only the second official papal visit to the Jewish state.
The Vatican and Jewish leaders remain at odds over the conduct of Pius XII, the pope who reigned during World War II. Jews say he failed to do enough to stop the Holocaust and Catholic leaders insist he worked diligently behind the scenes to save Jews.
After John Paul’s death four years ago, Holocaust survivor Idit Tzirir described how that pope, as a young seminary student named Karol Wojtyla in Nazi-era Poland, trudged through the snow for miles carrying her – emaciated and suffering from tuberculosis – after her release from a German labor camp.
By contrast, Benedict by his own admission was a member of Hitler Youth during the war, albeit an unwilling one.
Steven Gutkin is the AP bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories.