J’accuse, of course, is the title of the most famous open letter ever published, in which Emile Zola, the most celebrated French author of his time, charged the French government, in January 1898, with illegally sentencing Captain Alfred Dreyfus to life in prison. Dreyfus, who was Jewish, had been charged with spying and convicted of treason, and Zola charged that Dreyfus had been framed precisely because he was Jewish. The Italian writer Giulio Meotti’s decision to give his new book the title The Vatican against Israel: J’accuse is no coincidence. His topic, like Zola’s, is institutional anti-Semitism – the institutions, in this case, being Christian churches. He doesn’t ignore the Church of England and the various Protestant and Eastern churches, but his focus is on Roman Catholicism, and especially on the last several Popes. Like Zola, Meotti is unsparing. Citing historian Daniel Goldhagen’s statement that the Catholic Church, after the Shoah, had the moral obligation to defend Israel and Jews, Meotti flatly sums up his thesis: “This book shows that the Vatican tragically failed, and has forsaken the Jews again.”
Meotti’s jeremiad, then, is mostly about the postwar Church – although he does provide a few choice samples of Vatican rhetoric before and during the war. In 1904, Pope Pius X explained his opposition to a Jewish state in this way: “The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” In 1919, Benedict XIV “called the Jews ‘infidels’ whose coming to power [in the Holy Land] would cause ‘terrible grief for us.’” In 1922, the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica insisted on the “necessity of hating” Judaism. The first Arabic translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published by the Catholic Church in Jerusalem; the book’s first French translator was a writer for the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano. When Arabs slaughtered Jews in a 1929 pogrom, that same newspaper absolved the Arabs of guilt, instead blaming “the politics of Zionism.”
As for the wartime church, here are a couple of tidbits courtesy of Meotti. In 1943 Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who would become Pope John XXIII, pronounced himself “uneasy about the attempts of Jews to reach Palestine, as if they were trying to reconstruct a Jewish kingdom.” Pius XII’s Undersecretary of State also rejected the idea of a Jewish state, saying “Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews.”
It’s no news, admittedly, that the Roman Catholic Church was anti-Semitic before the Holocaust, and that Pius XII could’ve spoken up more firmly about the Final Solution. But what about the post-Holocaust era? The generally accepted narrative is more or less as follows (I quote from a recent article in the National Catholic Register): “Blessed Pope John XXIII reset Catholic-Jewish relations in the 1960s, seeking to reconcile the grievances of the past, in which Catholics had treated Jews less like beloved brothers and more like strangers – or worse, as enemies. The Church approved that outreach in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council with the document Nostra Aetate, and Popes Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI all continued efforts to deepen those relations.”
Meotti begs to differ. He documents the fact that, in the immediate postwar years, the Vatican – hardly penitential about its failure to stand up for Jews under the Nazis – called Israel’s founding “tragic,” the Vatican news agency called Zionism “the new Nazism,” and Civiltà Cattolica called Israel “racist” and “fanatic.”
John Paul II is widely seen as a bridge-builder between Catholics and Jews. Meotti, however, shows that on several occasions he characterized Israel as an aggressor and Palestinians as victims, and at least once compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Final Solution. Whereas the Holy See waited until 1993 to recognize Israeli statehood, JPII frequently called for a Palestinian homeland. During his papacy, L’Osservatore Romano accused Israel of “extermination,” of “barbaric acts,” of “profan[ing] with fire and iron the land of the Resurrected,” and of deliberately “killing…harmless babies.”
The latter charge prompted a protest by Oriana Fallaci herself, who wrote: “I find it shameful that the newspaper of the Pope…accuses of extermination a people who were exterminated in the millions by Christians. By Europeans. I find it shameful that this newspaper denies to the survivors of that people (survivors who still have numbers tattooed on their arms) the right to react, to defend themselves, to not be exterminated again.” Meotti finds it shameful, too. JPII, he charges, “was morally blind to the nature of the Arab-Israel conflict. By his actions and silence, the Pope condoned and legitimized Arab terrorism.”
That’s not all. Meotti also criticizes JPII for “repeatedly embracing the man who was responsible for introducing terrorism against innocent individuals.” He’s referring, of course, to Yasser Arafat. Over the years, JPII held a total of eleven meetings with Arafat, the first of them well before Arafat’s Peace Prize. When Arafat died, a Vatican statement declared it an “hour of sadness” and a papal spokesman said, “May God welcome in His mercy the soul of the illustrious deceased.”
It was also JPII, Meotti argues, who while still a cardinal in Poland began “to transform the Holocaust into a Catholic event.” Meaning what? Well, for example, at a 1970 ceremony the Pope “distributed ashes from Auschwitz,” apparently either not knowing or caring that by “touching, removing, and distributing…the remains of Jews’ dead bodies” he was doing something that Jews would consider “a desecration of the dead.” It was on JPII’s watch that a convent was built at Auschwitz in 1984; in response to worldwide Jewish outrage at this move, the Mother Superior asked: “Why do the Jews want special treatment in Auschwitz only for themselves? Do they still consider themselves the chosen people?” It was JPII, too, who beatified Catholic convert Edith Stein, who’d been murdered at Auschwitz for having been born Jewish. For JPII, writes Meotti, “Stein demonstrated that the very symbol of Jewish martyrdom, Auschwitz, was not a Jewish event, or the expression of anti-Semitism nurtured by two thousand years of Christian teaching of contempt, but a place of Christian suffering and redemption.”
Things got no better, in Meotti’s view, under JPII’s successor. Benedict XVI. One point of continuity, as he demonstrates, was that during both papacies many high-level churchmen habitually served up Palestinian liberation theology rhetoric – comparing Palestinians to Jesus, while casting the Jews once again in the role of the crucifying villains.
“Did the Church,” asks Meotti toward the close of his book, “learn that the road to Hell is paved with silence?” But as his own indictment makes clear, the Church’s main offense, in the years since World War II, hasn’t been keeping quiet but sounding off in unpalatable ways.
Critical though he is of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Meotti allows himself to hold out hope for the current Vicar of Christ, who, he notes, has “celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah in synagogues, voiced solidarity with Jewish victims of Iranian terrorism and co-written a book with a rabbi, Avraham Skorka.” Just this week, the American Jewish Committee praised Pope Francis’s affirmation of Catholic-Jewish relations in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). Meotti worries, however, that even under a personally philosemitic pontiff, the Vatican will persist in its tendency “to drive a wedge between the ‘good’ and docile Jews of the Diaspora and the ‘bad’ and arrogant Jews of Israel.”
His concern may be well-founded. And there’s another reason to hold the applause: as one recent commentator approvingly put it, Francis is “more relaxed than his predecessor about the threat that the Muslim faithful represent to Roman Catholicism.” In September, the pontiff sent off a chummy note to the Great Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo expressing his “respect” for Islam. And in his Apostolic Exhortation, he warns against “hateful generalisations” about the Religion of Peace. How genuinely and meaningfully friendly can a Pope be to Jews and Israel, one wonders, when he seems bent on playing “let’s pretend” about Islam and overlooking the virulent Jew-hatred that’s preached and taught at places like Al-Azhar?
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