- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Anti-Catholic bigotry is rearing its ugly head in Israel. Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the Holy Land has sparked a public firestorm of criticism and denunciation that threatens to damage Vatican-Israeli relations.

The cause for the latest outburst of pope bashing was the pope’s comments at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He expressed compassion for the Holocaust’s victims and solidarity with the Jewish people. Some Israeli rabbis and politicians criticized the German-born pope’s speech for its “restraint” and said he had failed to apologize for having served as a teenager in the Hitler Youth during World War II.

“I came to the memorial not only to hear historical descriptions or about the established fact of the Holocaust. I came as a Jew, hoping to hear an apology and a request for forgiveness from those who caused our tragedy, and among them, the Germans and the church,” said Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. “But to my sadness, I did not hear any such thing.”

The pope has nothing for which to apologize. He has been open about his wartime past. His service in the Hitler Youth and brief stint in the German army were compulsory and against his will. Like all Germans at the time, he lived under a militaristic totalitarian state that regimented nearly every aspect of life. In fact, he deserted before the end of hostilities - an act of defiance that could have resulted in his being executed or jailed by Nazi authorities. He was not - and never has been - a supporter of German dictator Adolf Hitler.

In his farewell address, the pope stressed that his meeting with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem had been “one of the most solemn moments” of the visit.

“Those deeply moving encounters,” he said, “brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews - mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, friends - were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred.”

Rather than being an enemy of the Jews, Benedict is a strong ally. He has condemned the global resurgence of anti-Semitism. He has championed a secure Israel. He has called for an ecumenical alliance against Islamic terrorism.

Yet Mr. Rivlin touched on the real issue at stake: the church’s role in the Holocaust. The pernicious notion that the Vatican played a pivotal role in the Holocaust is a central tenet of anti-Catholicism. Pope Pius XII has been vilified as a Nazi collaborator who remained silent in the face of genocide. Writers such as Daniel Goldhagen and James Carroll have accused the wartime pontiff of embodying a deep-seated Catholic tradition that views all Jews as “Christ-killers.” They argue that, beginning in the New Testament, the church’s historical development has been shaped by hatred of the Jews; at its core, the church is said to be animated by and founded on anti-Semitism.

The attacks on Pius XII have nothing to do with the historical evidence. They are an attempt by the secular left to discredit the Catholic Church and, with it, traditional religion. No man did more to protect the Jews in Europe than Pius. He was instrumental in saving as many as 860,000 Jews from being slaughtered by Nazis. During the roundup of Italian Jews, Pius ordered that they be sheltered. Holocaust survivors have testified that he was personally responsible for saving 4,000 Jewish lives - more than three times as many as the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, the subject of 1993’s celebrated film “Schindler’s List.”

If Pius was “Hitler’s pope,” why did leading Nazis despise him? The reason: He consistently condemned Hitler’s anti-Semitic racism as evil. During the 1930s, then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli publicly called the Nazis “false prophets with the pride of Lucifer.” Nazi officials regularly referred to him as the “Jew-loving” cardinal. Senior Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich admitted in late spring 1943 that “in the long run the pope in Rome is a greater enemy of National Socialism than Churchill or Roosevelt.” This is why Hitler planned to invade the Vatican and kidnap Pius.

For the church’s opponents, none of this matters. The real goal is to use the smear of “Hitler’s pope” to bludgeon Pius and his successors - especially traditionalists such as the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Jewish theologian Will Herberg once said “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of secular Jewish intellectuals” - a cancer that corrodes rational judgment.

Yet the controversy over Benedict’s visit is about more than an eruption in anti-Catholic bigotry by some in Israel’s elite. It is about the moral confusion and intellectual disarray of a national religious community that no longer seems able to distinguish real friends from enemies. The Jews are staring at another Holocaust. In Europe, Jewish cemeteries and businesses are being desecrated by roving Muslim youths. Islamist clerics routinely call for the destruction of Israel. Iran is close to acquiring a nuclear bomb. The forces of Islamic fascism are on the march.

Yet the speaker of the Knesset and leading Israelis are preoccupied with apologies from one of their staunchest champions. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington think tank.

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