PARIS — Senior Vatican and French Jewish communal officials attended the second “European Encounters Between Catholics and Jews” last week in Paris, a two-day event that climaxed on the evening of March 11 with a reception for more than 1,000 people in the honor ballroom of City Hall. Organized by the European Jewish Congress and the French Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Relations with Judaism, the interfaith gathering was also attended by a delegation of the North American Boards of Rabbis.
Iraq on their minds
It was supposed to be an interfaith meeting where God, peace and togetherness would take center stage, far from the fury of a world racing toward war. True, the participants did talk about religion, history, memory, common initiatives, common ground and goals. There were strong intellectual discussions about the Holocaust and the role of religion in the modern state. There were emotional moments when veterans of the dialogue exchanged gifts.
But the looming war in Iraq could not be kept from center stage — especially with a group of American rabbis coming to France in the midst of a transatlantic row and a showdown at the United Nations over Iraq.
Two rabbis from the North American delegation actually cancelled their visit because of France’s opposition to the war against Iraq. And several American speakers blasted the attitude of the “Old Europe” against the war, clearly annoying Catholic officials; a day earlier, the French Conference of Catholic Bishops had officially called on the French government not to take part in a war against Iraq.
When Rabbi Marc Schneier, chairman of the North American Boards of Rabbis, explained at a press conference that American Catholics — having to choose between President Bush and the pope — had supported the president, he was met with some disapproving looks from European Catholics. Schneier said it was his duty as an American to “express the sense of betrayal he felt” over France’s stance on Iraq.
European Jewish leaders showed clear signs of uneasiness at the blunt display of what one termed “American heavy-handedness.”
In his keynote speech at City Hall the next day, European Jewish Congress chairman Michel Friedman of Germany, while avoiding openly taking sides, reminded the crowd that “my enemy is not George W. Bush but Saddam Hussein, it is not U.S. democracy but the Iraqi dictatorship… We should never forget who are our friends and who are our enemies.”
Pius XII on their minds
While both Jewish and Catholic officials stressed that they wanted to stop bickering about the past and think about the future, the issue of the Vatican wartime archives still hung over the meeting.
Friedman, a television talk-show host who is vice president of Germany’s central Jewish council, started the inaugural press conference by telling Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the Vatican archivist, that the archives needed to be made available in order to pass judgment on the role of Pope Pius XII.
“I am very impatient and I am sure we will find a solution,” Friedman said.
Israel Singer, who chairs both the World Jewish Congress and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, a conderation of Jewish groups recognized by the Vatican as its formal Jewish dialogue, urged patience and expressed hope that a solution would be eventually found.
Singer is deep in negotiations with top Vatican officials and is hoping for a church announcement that it will open all the relevant archives within five years. There was some speculation that the breakthrough could happen in Paris and the main parties met on the sidelines of the meeting, but Vatican officials said they need more time to assess how long it will take to catalogue the archives.
In the words of a senior Israeli official, all sides — the Vatican, the Jewish community worldwide and Israel — have to settle the situation “before it blows up in our face.”
Antisemitism à la française
When the American rabbis arrived at the airport in Paris, a bus escorted by two policemen was waiting for them. The French authorities obviously did not want any incident to tarnish France’s already-negative image among American Jews.
During the City Hall event, Schneier heard some boos from the crowd when he called the French “shameful bystanders afflicted with a moral laryngitis” when it comes to antisemitic violence and wondered aloud why the Catholic Church “was not raising its voice” over the issue.
Father Patrick Desbois, who heads the Committee for Relations with Judaism of the French bishops’ conference, argued that the Church had often spoken out on the issue, especially the Jewish-born Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris.
The following day, Serge Cwajgenbaum, the French secretary general of the European Jewish Congress, noted that the number of incidents had dropped. He pointedly noted that antisemitism was not a French but a European disease.
Friedman, for his part, said that Jews could live in Europe both as members of the Jewish people and as full citizens of their respective countries for one reason: Israel.
“I can live as a German in Germany and as a European in France,” he said. “But I can do so because Israel guarantees it.”
This prompted France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been hailed for his efforts to crack down on antisemitic incidents, to counter that no Jew should be afraid to live in France.
“There are many of us who don’t want even one Jew to ask himself where he belongs,” he said.
Argentina tops the agenda
Singer announced that Jewish groups and the Vatican were preparing a major initiative to tend to the needy in a crisis-stricken Argentina. While he did not disclose publicly all the details — they still need final Vatican approval — aides said the project would facilitate access to credit for both Jews and Catholics in Argentina.