Source: First Things
More than any other pope, John Paul II was the twentieth century’s greatest papal friend and supporter of the Jewish people. Indeed, John Paul II’s extraordinary relationship with the Jews was an important chapter in the historic legacy of his pontificate, which has had profound implications for Catholic-Jewish relations in our time.
Growing up in the small Polish town of Wadowice, where Jews and Catholics mingled with relative ease, Karol Wojtyla, according to biographer Tad Szulc, “had Jewish playmates and classmates with whom he enjoyed easy camaraderie.” John Paul’s closest friend was Jerzy Kluger, whose father was a prominent local attorney and president of the local Jewish community and its synagogue. About fifteen hundred Jews lived in Wadowice, more than 20 percent of the town’s population, during Karol Wojtyla’s childhood. When Karol was a teenager, the town’s synagogue, which had had a full-time rabbi for many years, hired its first cantor, who was renowned for his splendid voice. On the festival of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day in the Jewish year, Karol was taken to the synagogue by his father to hear the Kol Nidre, the central prayer of the Yom Kippur worship service, chanted by the new cantor. In later years, Karol Wojtyla, as bishop and pope, would often remark on how moved and inspired he was by that memorable Yom Kippur service.
As Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi have pointed out, “since the time of the Apostle Peter, no Roman pontiff has ever spent his childhood in such close contact with Jewish life.” The Wojtylas’ landlord, Chaim Balamuth, was Jewish, as were several of the Wojtyla family’s other neighbors on Zatorska Street in Wadowice. Karol learned firsthand about many Jewish religious festivals, such as Yom Kippur, Succoth (the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles), and Chanukah. Karol and his family were invited into their neighbors’ homes to join in celebrating some of these festivals, as well. Across the courtyard from the Wojtyla home, Karol would watch the traditional Succoth booths set up by the family of his friend and classmate Regina Beer. In fact, Karol’s father had offered Regina’s family the use of his balcony for a Succoth booth.
Karol Woytyla’s friendship with Jerzy Kluger and his family was especially close. They had both been in the same class in the local high school gymnasium since they were eleven years old; Jerzy Kluger would remain one of his closest friends throughout his life. The poignant story of their lifelong friendship, vividly and movingly recounted in Darcy O’Brien’s book, The Hidden Pope: The Personal Journey of John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger, is unique in the history of papal-Jewish relations in modern times.
Karol Woytyla and Jerzy Kluger excelled at soccer and played together in the Wadowice high school, where soccer was the most popular sport. It is especially relevant that “while the Wadowice high school boys formed separate Catholic and Jewish soccer teams,” Karol Woytyla was always ready to play for the Jewish team. “In most places, this would have been insignificant,” but in the Poland of the early 1930s “it carried real meaning,” shaping and defining Woytyla’s ecumenical personality and philo-Semitic attitudes for the future.
Indeed, his lifelong friendship with Jerzy Kluger—from their childhood in Wadowice and separation at the beginning of World War II, to their reunion almost thirty years later and their much closer personal friendship throughout the years of his pontificate—helped to influence and shape his understanding of Jews and Judaism, and of contemporary issues of Jewish concern, as well as his unprecedented commitment to furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue and cooperation throughout the world. Jerzy Kluger was the first person to be granted a private audience by the new pope following John Paul II’s election to the papacy in 1978. Kluger and his English-born wife, Renee, were John Paul II’s frequent luncheon and dinner guests at the Vatican and at the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. It was, for example, his friend and confidant Jerzy Kluger who would advise and actively encourage John Paul II to make his historic visit to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986 and to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel several years later.
John Paul II was also the first to stress that his youthful experience and Jewish friendships in Wadowice helped to influence and shape his understanding of Jews and Judaism, and were the source of his unprecedented commitment as pope to furthering Catholic-Jewish dialogue and cooperation throughout the world. The local priests in Wadowice, such as Fr. Leonard Prochownik, were committed to religious toleration. According to George Weigel in his biography Witness to Hope, Fr. Prochownik, “who had served in Wadowice since 1915 and who officially became the town’s pastor in 1929,” would be remembered for many decades “as someone whose promotion of interreligious tolerance was responsible for the town’s relative lack of anti-Semitism.” The Wadowice of Karol Wojtyla’s childhood was also, as Weigel has noted, “a place where the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s description of Jews as the ‘elder brothers’ of Christians was taken seriously by many local Catholics.” As pope, John Paul II would remember his Wadowice parish priest Fr. Prochownik preaching in church that “anti-Semitism is anti-Christian,” and his high school Polish-literature teacher quoting from Adam Mickiewicz’s 1848 Manifesto for a Future Slave State Constitutionthat “all citizens are equal—Israelites too.” Karol Wojtyla would later write that he “vividly [remembered] the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind our school. Both religious groups, Catholics and Jews were united . . . by the awareness that they prayed to the same God.”
Pope John Paul’s memory of Wadowice, and the families of his Jewish friends from Wadowice who had lost their lives during the Holocaust, was especially compelling when he visited Auschwitz in June 1979. While paying tribute to the millions of Jews and non-Jewish Poles whose lives were destroyed in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, he invoked the memory of and prayed for the mother of his childhood friend Regina Beer, and the mother, grandmother, and sister of friend Jerzy Kluger, who all died in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. After kneeling and praying at the stark Wall of Death, one of the locations at Auschwitz that Nazi leaders had selected for the murder of Polish intellectuals and priests, John Paul delivered one of the most powerful and poignant homilies of his pontificate, condemning the inhumanity and anti-Semitism that made Auschwitz possible. Calling Auschwitz a “place where human dignity was appallingly trampled underfoot,” a place “built on hatred of, and contempt for humanity,” he invoked the memory of the six million Jews who died in the crematoria of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, solely because they were Jews, reminding his fellow Catholics that their memory must never be forgotten. As Fr. John Oesterreicher noted in his very poignant “Reflections on Pope John Paul’s Pilgrimage to Auschwitz,” published by Seton Hall University’s Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies in 1984, “Pope John Paul spoke with great feeling, like one who had experienced the torments Hitler’s victims had had to endure, who felt their pain as his own.”
On May 9, 1989, having ordered the placement of a commemorative tablet at the site of the Wadowice synagogue destroyed by the Nazis, the pope wrote Jerzy Kluger that it would honor the memory of Jews from nearby who were exterminated during the Holocaust. To Kluger he wrote that:
Many of those who perished, your co-religionists and our fellow countrymen, were our colleagues in our Elementary School and, later, in the High School where we graduated together, fifty years ago. All were citizens of Wadowice, the town to which both you and I are bound together by our memories of childhood and youth. I remember very clearly the Wadowice Synagogue, which was near our High School. I have in front of my eyes the numerous worshippers who during their Holidays passed on their way to pray there.
John Paul II and the Papal Condemnation of Anti-Semitism
Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II reached out to the Jewish community as no other pope had before him. From his election in 1978, as George Weigel has noted, John Paul II “invested enormous energy in building a new conversation between Catholics and Jews.” At his very first meeting with representatives of Rome’s Jewish community, on March 12, 1979, John Paul noted that “our two religious communities are connected and closely related at the very level of their respective religious identities.” Jewish-Catholic dialogue, from a Catholic perspective, was a religious obligation.
Later, addressing representatives of the German-Jewish community of Mainz in November 1980, John Paul II spoke of “the depth and richness of our common inheritance bringing us together in mutually trustful collaboration.” Imbued with a deep understanding of Judaism and of the Jewish people, unique among modern pontiffs, he described Judaism as a “living” legacy that must be understood by Christians and spoke of a dialogue between “today’s churches and today’s people of the covenant concluded with Moses.” In this speech to the Jews of Mainz, the pope addressed the Jewish community with full respect as “the people of God and of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked by God” and emphasized the “permanent value” of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish community, which witnesses to those Scriptures as sacred texts.
In subsequent addresses, he deplored the terrible persecutions suffered by the Jewish people—indeed, in Australia in 1986, he was to call acts of discrimination and persecution against Jews “sinful”—and called for Christians and Jews to hold more in-depth exchanges based on their own religious identities. “Our common spiritual heritage is considerable,” he noted, “and we can find help in understanding certain aspects of the Church’s life by taking into account the faith and religious life of the Jewish people.”
No other pope of the twentieth century was as forthright and unequivocal in his condemnation of anti-Semitism generally, and the Nazi Holocaust in particular. This abhorrence, as Eugene Fisher has noted, “was not simply theoretical. John Paul II lived under Nazism in Poland and experienced personally the malignancy of the ancient evil of Jew-hatred.” In his first papal audience with Jewish leaders, following his election as pope on March 12, 1979, John Paul II reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council’s repudiation of anti-Semitism “as opposed to the very spirit of Christianity” and “which in any case the dignity of the human person alone would suffice to condemn.” The pope often repeated this message in meetings with Jewish leaders at the Vatican and in country after country throughout the world. Speaking at Auschwitz four months later, in a homily commemorating the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust, he called on Catholics to remember “in particular the memory of the people whose sons and daughters were intended for total extermination.” From the intensity of his own personal experience, the pope was able to articulate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience of the Shoah while never forgetting the memory of Nazism’s millions of non-Jewish victims. The pope would, as Eugene Fisher has noted, agree unreservedly with the formulation of Elie Wiesel: “Not every victim of the Holocaust was a Jew, but every Jew was a victim.”
Throughout his pontificate, as George Weigel has observed, John Paul “persistently, vigorously and unambiguously condemned the Shoah, the Holocaust of the European Jews during the Second World War.” Meeting with Jews in Paris, on May 31, 1980, John Paul made a point of mentioning the great suffering of the Jewish community of France “during the dark years of the occupation,” paying homage to them as victims, “whose sacrifice, we know, has not been fruitless.” Speaking as a Pole and as a Catholic on the fortieth anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, in April 1983, the pope termed “that horrible and tragic event” a “desperate cry for the right to life, for liberty, and for the salvation of human dignity.” On the twentieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, in October 1985, the pope stated that “anti-Semitism, in its ugly and sometimes violent manifestations, should be completely eradicated.” Speaking to the leadership of Australia’s Jewish community, in Sydney, Australia, on November 26, 1986, John Paul II intensified his condemnation of anti-Semitism and, recalling that “this is still the century of the Shoah,” declared that “no theological justification could ever be found for acts of discrimination or persecution against Jews. In fact, such acts must be held to be sinful.” Perhaps the most eloquent papal statement condemning the Holocaust came at a meeting with Jewish leaders in Warsaw, on June 14, 1987, when he described the Holocaust as a universal icon of evil:
Be sure, dear brother, that . . . this Polish Church is in a spirit of profound solidarity with you when she looks closely at the terrible realization of the extermination—the unconditional extermination—of your nation, an extermination carried out with premeditation. The threat against you was also a threat against us; this latter was not realized to the same extent, because it did not have time to be realized to the same extent. It was you who suffered this terrible sacrifice of extermination: one might say that you suffered it also on behalf of those who were in the purifying power of suffering. The more atrocious the suffering, the greater the purification. The more painful the experience, the greater the hope . . . . Because of this terrible experience . . . you have become a warning voice for all humanity, for all nations, all the powers of this world, all systems and every person. More than anyone else, it is precisely you who have become the saving warning. I think that in this sense you continue your particular vocation, showing yourselves still to be the heirs of that election to which God is faithful. This is your mission in the contemporary world before all the peoples, the nations, all of humanity, the Church.”
In the years following this dramatic statement, John Paul worked to keep the memory of the Shoah alive in the center of world Catholicism. Addressing the leaders of the Jewish community of Strasbourg in 1988, the pope said: “I repeat again with you the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism,” which is “opposed to the principles of Christianity.” In commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, at Saint Peter’s Square on April 18, 1993, he spoke of the Shoah as “a true night of history, with unimaginable crimes against God and humanity.”
The following year, on April 7, 1994, John Paul II hosted a Holocaust Memorial Concert in the Paul VI Audience Hall of the Vatican. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Gilbert Levine, a Brooklyn-born American Jew whom John Paul had befriended after Levine became musical director of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987. On this occasion, the pope sat in the audience hall side by side with the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, himself a Holocaust survivor, and Italian president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. Rabbi Toaff “had brought his congregation with him, the first time that many had been inside the Vatican except as tourists. Two hundred Holocaust survivors from twelve different countries attended, along with diplomats from all over the world.”
The occasion for this Holocaust Memorial Concert was the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The day of this concert, April 7, 1994, as John Paul’s biographers have pointed out, was a “unique and unprecedented moment” in the history of the Catholic Church and of John Paul II’s personal mission to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in the center of world Catholicism. In addition to hosting the Holocaust Memorial Concert, the pope also arranged for the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead—the Kaddish—to be recited and for six candlesticks of the menorah to be lit in his presence at the Vatican. In so doing, as Tad Szulc has written, “the pope chose to publicly honor the memory of those Jews who died in the name of freedom” during the Holocaust—in a way that “the Catholic Church had never done before.”
Throughout the 1990s, moreover, at John Paul II’s instruction, the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews was engaged in preparing an official Catholic document on the Holocaust— We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah —that was published in March 1998. An historic document, the Holy See’s first official statement on the Holocaust, We Remember describes the Shoah as an “unspeakable tragedy” and a “horrible genocide” before which “no one can remain indifferent, least of all the Church, by reason of her very close bonds with the Jewish people and her remembrances of the injustices of the past.” We Remember, which included a lengthy (and controversial) footnote defending Pope Pius XII’s actions during the war, also urged that Christians who had risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust not be forgotten.
John Paul II’s relationship to Jews, and to the Jewish community of Rome, was historic in other ways as well. In April 1986, John Paul II became the first pope in history to visit Rome’s chief synagogue, an historic event in Catholic-Jewish relations. Even John XXIII, who was revered in the Jewish community for convening the Second Vatican Council (which publicly repudiated anti-Semitism and had expunged from the Catholic liturgy the insulting reference to the Jews as “perfidious”), never actually entered Rome’s Great Synagogue. (He once stopped, in his car, to bless the Roman Jews leaving their Sabbath worship services.) In becoming the pope to go to the Great Synagogue of Rome “to meet the Roman Jewish community at their own place of worship,” John Paul II changed history.
Yet this historic event goes completely unmentioned in the books of liberal papal critics, such as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Goldhagen’s anti-Catholic diatribe A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, actually attributes anti-Semitism to John Paul II. Goldhagen writes that “neither John Paul II nor any other pope has seen fit to make . . . a direct and forceful public statement about Catholics’ culpability and the need for all the members of the Church who have sinned during the Holocaust to repent for their many different kinds of offenses and sins against Jews.” In fact, however, John Paul II made just such a public statement during his visit to Rome’s synagogue. After the chief rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, welcomed the pope, John Paul II responded with an eloquent address in which he publicly acknowledged, and apologized for, the Church’s sins against the Jews during the Holocaust and in the centuries that preceded it. Insisting that there was no theological justification for discrimination against Jews, John Paul II declared that the Church condemned anti-Semitism “by anyone” — “I repeat: by anyone.” He did precisely what Goldhagen claims he never did: He admitted, in public, the Church’s “culpability.” Moreover, time and again, the pope cited the Thirteenth International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee meeting held in Prague, with its call for Christian teshuvah (repentance) for anti-Semitism over the centuries and its statement that anti-Semitism is “a sin against God and humanity.”
John Paul II and the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations Between the Vatican and Israel
When the pope visited the Synagogue of Rome in April 1986, Rome’s chief rabbi asked him to establish diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel. Six years later, over the objections of some of the bureaucrats in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which was waiting for the government of Israel to first reach an accord with the Palestinians, John Paul II personally took the initiative to do so. In 1994, the Vatican established full diplomatic relations with Israel. In taking this unprecedented initiative, once again, John Paul II changed history and radically transformed the Vatican’s relationship to Zionism and the Jewish State. In 1904 Pope Pius X told the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, that the Holy See could not “encourage” the Zionist movement in its goal of establishing a Jewish State. No previous pope had ever referred publicly to the State of Israel, as did John Paul II in his official pronouncements and correspondence. Indeed, even Pope Paul VI, during his visit to Jerusalem in 1964, had refrained from referring publicly to the “State of Israel,” managing "with pointed omission never to speak the name of Israel," talking officially only of the Holy Land or Palestine. Nor had any of John Paul’s papal predecessors ever seriously contemplated establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.
Yet, as we read in Witness to Hope , from the earliest days of his pontificate, John Paul II was aware, from conversations with his friend Jerzy Kluger and many others, “that the absence of full diplomatic relations was regarded by Israelis and by Jews throughout the world as a depreciation of the State of Israel and as a failure to fulfill the promise of a new Jewish-Catholic relationship envisioned by the Second Vatican Council,” to which John Paul II was passionately committed. According to Jerzy Kluger, as early as 1981, John Paul II had authorized his old friend “to initiate private, informal discussions with Israeli diplomats in Rome to clarify issues involved in moving toward full diplomatic relations. Kluger, an Italian citizen, was also authorized by the government of then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to speak on its behalf.” One immediate result of these early discussions was a papal telegram of good wishes to the president of Israel on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in October 1981. This holiday telegram was historically unprecedented: No such communication had ever previously been sent by a pope to an Israeli head of state. John Paul, by Kluger’s account, “also used his old friend and Wadowice classmate as a continuing sounding board for thinking out loud about the history of relations between Catholics and Jews and the relationship of that history to the question of establishing diplomatic relations.”
As George Weigel wrote in 2000, it was John Paul’s own actions during the 1980s—including his regular meetings with Jewish groups in Rome and elsewhere on his pastoral pilgrimages, his condemnations of terrorist attacks on synagogues in Vienna and Rome, his 1982 meeting with Israeli foreign minister Yitzchak Shamir . . . his historic visit to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986,” and his 1987 Vatican statement that there were “no theological reasons in Catholic doctrine that would inhibit full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel”—that helped further lay the foundation for the actual diplomatic negotiations that would, in the early 1990s, result in the historic establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
At the culmination of the lengthy negotiations, on December 30, 1993, representatives of the Holy See and the State of Israel signed in Jerusalem the Fundamental Agreement that would lead the way to full diplomatic “normalization” of relations between the two. On August 16, 1994, in Jerusalem, Archbishop Montezemolo presented his credentials to President Chaim Herzog of the State of Israel as the first ambassador of the Holy See to the Jewish state. The following month, in Rome, Shmuel Hadas presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II as the first ambassador of the State of Israel to the Holy See.
As the Fundamental Agreement acknowledged, “this was not just a moment of international diplomacy between two tiny Mediterranean states.” It was, rather, as Eugene Fisher has noted, an historic and “theologically significant moment in the nearly two-millennia-long history of relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.” In taking the unprecedented initiative to bring this moment about, John Paul II had changed history. As George Weigel has pointed out, the Fundamental Agreement “was widely regarded as one of the diplomatic master strokes of John Paul II’s pontificate and a historic turning point in Catholic-Jewish relations.”
A Pope in the Holy Land: John Paul II’s Historic Visit to Israel
In his historic visit to Israel in March 2000, moreover, John Paul II continued to condemn anti-Semitism while continuing his personal mission of furthering and consolidating a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations. Jews and Catholics alike were profoundly moved by John Paul’s tearful meeting with Holocaust survivors from his hometown in Poland, as well as his saluting an Israeli flag, listening to the solemn playing of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, and being welcomed as an honored guest by the Jewish state.
These were unique and unprecedented moments in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, as was the pope’s prayer at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. For nearly two millennia, Jews have prayed at the Western Wall, all that is left of the Jerusalem Temple compound after the Romans destroyed the city following the second Jewish revolt. Now came the bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter, to pray at the Western Wall, as a humble pilgrim acknowledging the full validity of Jewish prayer, on its own terms, at this most holy of Jewish sites. The Western Wall is for Jews the central physical remnant of biblical Israel, “the central symbolic referent for Jews as a people and for Judaism as a four- to five-thousand-year-old faith tradition.” As Eugene Fisher has noted, in praying at the Western Wall, there was no hesitation in the pope’s religious affirmation of Judaism, no political, theological, or social caveat.
Especially moving was the pope’s impassioned and emotional talk in the Hall of Remembrance at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. After observing a moment of prayerful silence, John Paul began speaking at Yad Vashem by saying: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah. My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the war. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished while others survived.” Remembrance, he continued after a moment, must be in the service of a noble cause: “We wish to remember for a purpose,” he said, “to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.” And knowing that evil’s victory during the Nazi Final Solution had ensnared too many Christians, he then made what no one listening could doubt was a heartfelt statement of repentance: “As Bishop of Rome and Successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.”
At the conclusion of the pope’s address, many Israelis in attendance, Holocaust survivors and politicians, religious leaders and army officers alike, cried. In his own address which followed, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, himself a former army general not given to sentimentality, movingly thanked John Paul for doing more for Jewish¯Catholic relations than any pope in history. “You have done,” Barak asserted, “more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people . . . and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.”
There is much evidence to substantiate the historical accuracy of Barak’s assertion. After the pope prayed at the Western Wall and spoke as he did at Yad Vashem, Catholic-Jewish relations could and would never be the same. Both changed the history of Catholic-Jewish relations in our time, and for all time, as did the pope’s unprecedented meeting that same week in Jerusalem with the two chief rabbis of Israel. “It was,” as Eugene Fisher accurately pointed out, “a meeting of dialogue not diatribe, a meeting of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation after centuries of alienation. It was a meeting that neither the pope’s nor the chief rabbis’ parents could have dreamed to be possible in their wildest imaginations.” In initiating this historic meeting, Pope John Paul II “had seized the opportunity not just of a lifetime but of the millennium.”
A Lonely Voice in the Wilderness: John Paul II vs. the New Muslim Anti-Semitism
As Eugene Fisher has noted, throughout the 1980s, John Paul II “issued strong statements of condemnation of acts of terrorism against synagogues and Jewish communities” in Vienna and Rome, “sending messages of sympathy for their victims.” He condemned, for example, the August 29, 1981, bomb-throwing attack on a synagogue in Vienna, Austria, as “a bloody and absurd act, which assails the Jewish community in Austria and the entire world” and warned against a “new wave of that same anti-Semitism that has provoked so much mourning throughout the centuries.” During the October 1985 seizure by Muslim Palestinian terrorists of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro, in which a Jewish passenger was singled out for killing, the pope condemned what he called “this grave act of violence against innocent and defenseless persons.”
John Paul II always condemned European anti-Semitism. But other European leaders have been less willing to take a stand against the resurgent Muslim anti-Semitism that is part of what has been called the Islamization of Europe. This is especially true in France, where Muslims make up about 10 percent of France’s population and outnumber French Jews ten to one.
Between 2000 and 2003, Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were implicated in the bombing of French synagogues and other acts of anti-Semitic violence and terrorism against Jewish communal leaders and institutions in France. The year 2000 witnessed an alarming eruption of anti-Jewish violence carried out almost exclusively by Arab Muslims. During the last three months of 2000 alone, violence aimed at French Jews included forty-four fire bombings, forty-three attacks on synagogues, and thirty-nine assaults on Jews as they were leaving their places of worship. Between January and May 2001, there were more than three hundred attacks against Jews. Synagogues were destroyed, school buses stoned, and even innocent Jewish children assaulted. Yet very few of the incidents were reported in the French media, which has an evident pro-Palestinian bias.
On January 12, 2001, Palestinian journalist Raymonda Hawa-Tawil (whose daughter Souha was Yasser Arafat’s wife) spoke out on the public radio station French Culture, attacking the “racism of the Jews of France” and the “influence of the Jewish lobby.” During 2002 and 2003, violent anti-Semitic attacks against French Jews continued to increase. In December 2003, a young Jewish disc jockey was killed by his Muslim neighbor, who “slit his throat and mutilated his face.” Returning to his apartment, the murderer reportedly said: “I killed my Jew. I will go to heaven.”
In face of this resurgence of Islam-inspired French anti-Semitism, John Paul II often seemed to be a lonely voice in the wilderness, consistent and unequivocal in his condemnation of Europe’s new anti-Semitic, post-Christian left, while other European leaders and intellectuals—politicians, journalists, and leftist religious activists alike—chose to remain silent. Often alone among European leaders, Pope John Paul II issued strong statements condemning acts of Islamic terrorism against synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings and institutions in France and elsewhere, calling these incidents un-Christian and reprehensible. On April 3, 2002, moreover, Bishop Jean-Pierre Ricard, president of the French Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a forceful condemnation of French anti-Semitism. Speaking in the spirit of John Paul II’s many vocal protests against anti-Semitism, Ricard declared: “In recent days, attacks were committed against several synagogues in France, in Lyon, in Marseilles, and in Strasbourg. The Jewish communities are deeply struck in their most precious places of worship. Such acts of violence make one fear the worst . . . . To strike a community, whichever it is, in its religious sensibilities and faith, is a particularly grave act, which affects our democratic life with full force. In condemning these attacks with the greatest firmness, the Catholic Church in France expresses its profound sympathy and solidarity with the Jewish communities.”
While almost all French politicians and liberal journalists were silent or equivocating concerning the wave of arson and violence against French synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the French bishops were the only French leaders—religious or political—to condemn unequivocally the new anti-Semitism resurgent in France. As Michel Gurfinkiel pointed out, the response of France’s liberal political elite to these and other anti-Semitic incidents that occurred on a daily basis, in 2000 and 2001, was “minimal or mute.” Not so that of the Vatican, the Conference of French Bishops, and the church leadership in France. As Jewish leaders have appreciatively noted, their response has been forthright and forceful.
Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope John Paul II, is known to be a staunch friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel and a vocal critic of anti-Semitism. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict wrote of “the gift of Christmas” as “the heritage of Abraham” and condemned both Christian anti-Semitism and the Nazi Holocaust, which, he noted accurately, was “perpetuated in the name of anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel.” Shortly after succeeding to the papacy, in a history-making visit to the Community Synagogue of Cologne, Germany, which had been destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and rebuilt after World War II, Pope Benedict called Nazism “an insane racist ideology” and denounced “the rise of new signs of anti-Semitism.” Pope Benedict’s visit to the Cologne Synagogue in August 2005, which took place during his first papal trip to his native Germany, “was the second ever by a pope to a Jewish house of worship,” following Pope John Paul II’s 1986 visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome. The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, welcomed the pope’s visit, describing it as an “historic event.”
Jewish leaders, including Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, have praised Pope Benedict, saying that “he has shown the sensitivity [to Jews and the Holocaust] countless times, in meetings with Jewish leadership and in important statements condemning anti-Semitism and expressing profound sorrow for the Holocaust.” Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee said that, as Cardinal Ratzinger, the new pope had been “supportive of the establishment of full [diplomatic] relations between the Holy See and Israel, and he cares deeply about the welfare of Israel.”
John Paul II was the heir and exemplar of a long a venerable philo-Semitic tradition within papal-Jewish relations, a tradition of papal friendship and support for the Jewish people that has continued with John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul II’s historic role and accomplishments as the twentieth century’s greatest papal friend of the Jewish people, which have had such profound implications for the course of Catholic-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation in our time, should be remembered and cherished by Jews and Catholics alike.
David G. Dalin, an ordained rabbi, is professor of history and politics at Ave Maria University and the Taube Research Fellow in American History at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This essay is adapted from an article in the newly released John Paul II and the Jewish People: A Christian-Jewish Dialogue (Rowan & Littlefield).