The popular and ever-elegantly coiffed French moral philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has weighed in at Huffington Post with a passionate defense of Pope Benedict XVI from the many accusations (including a few of my own) that he’s no friend of the Jews. It seems to me he makes a few points worth considering.
As soon as he was elected, the accusations of “ultraconservatism,” taken up in a loop by the media, began — as though a pope could, in fact, be anything but “conservative Texts have been quite simply distorted, regarding his trip to Auschwitz in 2006, for example, where it was asserted — and repeated, also in a loop, time blurring the memory of the event — that he paid homage to the 6 million Polish dead, victims of a mere “band of criminals”, without mentioning that half of them were Jews. (The falsehood is downright staggering, considering that, on that day, Benedict XVI plainly spoke of the attempt of the “powerful of the 3rd Reich” to “eliminate the Jewish people” from the “ranks of the nations of the earth” [cf Le Monde, 30 May 2006]).
What’s particularly unexpected is Lévy’s double-barreled defense of Pope Pius XII, along with some little-known facts about the playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1964 play “The Deputy” first brought Pius’s wartime behavior of public attention. Here’s a piece of it:
And, as for the affair of Pius XII… If need be, I shall go back over the very complex affair of Pius XII. I shall go back over the case of Rolf Hochhuth, author of the famous work, The Deputy, the genesis of the polemic regarding the “silences of Pius XII”, in 1963. And I shall go back over the particular fact that this burning dispenser of justice is, as a matter of fact, a negationist, often condemned as such (notably by Paul Spiegel, the now-deceased former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany), whose last provocative act consisted of defending David Irving, who denies the existence of gas chambers, in an interview with the extreme right wing weekly Die Junge Freiheit five years ago. For the time being, I would just like to recall (as has Laurent Dispot in La Règle. du Jeu, the review I edit), that in 1937, when the terrible Pius XII was still just Cardinal Pacelli, he co-authored the encyclical With Burning Anxiety, which today still remains one of the firmest and most eloquent of anti-Nazi manifestos. For the time being, we owe it to historical accuracy to point out that, before engaging in clandestine action, opening—without saying so—his convents to Roman Jews hunted by the fascist bullies, the silent Pius XII made a number of speeches broadcast by radio, in particular at Christmas of 1941 and 1942. After his death, they earned him the praise of Golda Meir, who knew the value of the spoken word and was not afraid to declare that “during ten years of Nazi terror, while our people suffered in dreadful agony, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the executioners”.
Not least, here is how Lévy responds to Benedict’s much-criticized visit to the central synagogue in Rome a week ago:
When he bowed his head in silence before the wreath of red roses placed before the plaque commemorating the martyrdom of 1021 deported Roman Jews, Benedict XVI was only doing his. duty, but he did it. When Benedict XVI paid homage to the “faces” of these “men, women and children” rounded up as part of the project of “extermination of the people of the Covenant of Moses,” he was stating the obvious, but he said it. When Benedict XVI reiterates, word for word, the terms of John Paul II’s prayer at the Wailing Wall a decade ago, when Benedict XVI then asks “forgiveness” of the Jewish people, long the subject of pogroms inspired by the furor of an antisemitism essentially Catholic in nature and this, again, by reading John Paul II’s own words, it is time to stop repeating, like braying donkeys, that he is not going as far as his predecessor.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).