As German-born Pontiff Visits Jewish State, Sharp Reactions

By Tovit Nizer

Published May 13, 2009, issue of May 22, 2009.
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The outcry started even before he arrived.

One week prior to Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to the Holy Land, Israeli Knesset Member Michael Ben Ari of the right-wing National Union party called on Israeli officials to boycott the visit.

“The pope, who was active in antisemitic youth movements, recently restored to the church a Holocaust-denier bishop,” observed Ben Ari, who was an aide to Rabbi Meir Kahane, the radical right-wing nationalist who called for the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel. “He called the nations of the world to attend the antisemitic Durban II conference. And beyond the personal aspect, the theological antisemitism embedded deep in the Catholic church’s ways has for many generations nourished the hate towards Israel.”

Boycott calls came from the left, too, albeit for very different reasons.

“He is responsible for the suffering of numerous people,” declared Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz of the left-wing party Meretz, citing the church’s stand against birth control, abortion and gay rights.

The message of the pope, he added in an article published on the Internet site Ynet one day before the pope’s arrival, is one of “detachment, rigidness and religious fanaticism.”

“Of all the wrongdoings of the Pope, the worst one is his rejection of birth control devices in the third world,” Horowitz wrote. “It is hard to estimate the number of miserables in Africa, Asia and South America who caught AIDS and other diseases as a direct result of this ignorant approach.”

The Knesset refused Ben Ari’s demand that it convene an urgent meeting concerning the upcoming visit and its implications. But after the pope’s remarks during his May 11 visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, more protest was heard, and not from just the fringes, about a speech widely criticized for being abstract and general.

Knesset Chairman Reuven Rivlin said the speech “failed to convey remorse of any kind.”

“What we have feared did happen,” he said. “With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot and must not ignore the burden he carries with him as a German, as a young ideologist who joind the Nazi Hitler Youth and as a man who was part of Hitler’s army.”

He added: “It is impossible to ignore the silence of the church towards the horrors afflicted on the Jewish people. He cannot refuse the demand to open the Vatican’s archive in order to show what had happened in those days. He must stand against Holocaust deniers and certainly not enable rehabilitation to one of the church’s Holocaust deniers” — a reference to Pope Benedict’s recent move to rescind the excommunication of four right-wing bishops, including one Holocaust denier, who rejected the reforms of Vatican II.

“He spoke as an historian, as a bystander, as a man who shares his opinions on things that must not happen,” Rivlin said of Benedict’s remarks. “The Shoah is not a protocol. It is impossible to look towards the future without facing the guilt of the past.”

The widespread criticism led to a May 12 press conference in Jerusalem, where Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi defended the pope while wrongly claiming he never had been part of the Hitler Youth. A correction was later issued, explaining that Benedict, a child at the time, had been forced to join the group, and later, as a 16-year-old, he had to join an anti-aircraft unit to defend his home city against attacks.

Contact Tovit Nizer at feedback@forward.com.


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