The Italian Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister, whom authoritative sources characterize as an authoritative source, provides an important perspective on Benedict XVI’s visit yesterday to the Rome Synagogue. His report includes a complete translation of the pope’s remarks. Although Benedict did not break new ground, the world (as the late Fr. John Neuhaus was wont to say) is more in need of reminding than instruction. Like his great predecessor John Paul II, Benedict believes that the Jews are “the people of the covenant” that remains in effect between God and his chosen nation.
The day before the pope’s visit, the Italian-Jewish historian Anna Foa published a commentary in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official daily, emphasizing that Israeli identity was founded upon a Zionism that pre-dated the Holocaust. Israel should not be defined in terms of an “original sin” of its creation—the misleading narrative that the Great Powers created the State of Israel in response to the Holocaust—but in terms of the enduring aspirations of the Jewish people.
In the article, Anna Foa endorses the ideas of one of the leading scholars of Zionism, Georges Bensoussan. In the opinion of both, the state of Israel was not born as”redemption” from the extermination of the Jews carried out by Hitler. The real force behind the state was Zionism, already during the British mandate, with the settlement of that land by Jews who wanted to create a new man. The idea of the Holocaust as the foundation of the state of Israel gained strength only much later, after the Eichmann trial and especially after the war of Yom Kippur, in recent decades.
Interpreted this way, the birth of the state of Israel is no longer that “original sin” which even today many of its friends and enemies ascribe to it. The latter of these include many Catholics, first among them the Arabs living in the region. The most authoritative of these, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, was also in the synagogue of Rome yesterday, at the pope’s arrival.
According to this “vulgate,” the state of Israel was created by the great powers in order to remedy the previous extermination in Europe of six million Jews, which meant that one injustice was compensated by committing another against the local Arab population. In 1964, when Paul VI went to the Holy Land, the Church of Rome had not yet accepted the existence of the new state. And when three decades later, in 1993, the Holy See finally recognized the state of Israel and established diplomatic relations with it, the Arab Christians took this act as a betrayal.
But on the part of John Paul II, and now of Benedict XVI, the recognition of Israel no longer has any reservation.
I do not know the work of Georges Bensoussan, but he probably is a distant relation; part of my family bore the name “Shushan.” By coincidence, I published an essay in First Things entitled “Zionism for Christians” under the name “David Shushon” (prior to emerging into the public light). Jewish self-understanding, I argued here and in other locations that it is pernicious to define Jewish identity in terms of the Holocaust:
We have found it expedient to teach the Holocaust rather than holiness to our young peopleand too many of them have concluded that Jewish election, if it is not a megalomaniacal conceit in an egalitarian age, must be a dangerous and undesirable thing. Election makes us uncomfortable; Conservative as well as Reform Jewish prayer books relativize the issue. We have turned away from holiness, but it has not profited us, for American Jewish youth think far less than their elders about the State of Israel and Jewish survival.
Here I follow Michael Wyschogrod’s emphatic rejection of “Holocaust theology.”
Unfortunately, the prospective canonization of Pope Pius XII overshadowed the pope’s gesture to the Jewish people in Rome yesterday. What is the point of the rancor? If the Church says that it will canonize the wartime pope in part because he did his best to save Jews from extermination, it is making a statement that the Church believes that its leaders should do their utmost to save Jewish lives. Do we really want to discourage this line of thinking? There are some arguments you don’t want to win.
The definitive issue is the recognition by the present and previous shepherd of the Catholic Church that the Jewish people are holy by virtue of their covenant with creator of the world. And here the words of Benedict XVI are eloquent and unambiguous:
The teaching of the Second Vatican Council has represented for Catholics a clear landmark to which constant reference is made in our attitude and our relations with the Jewish people, marking a new and significant stage. The Council gave a strong impetus to our irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship, a journey which has been deepened and developed in the last forty years, through important steps and significant gestures. Among them, I should mention once again the historic visit by my Venerable Predecessor to this Synagogue on 13 April 1986, the numerous meetings he had with Jewish representatives, both here in Rome and during his Apostolic Visits throughout the world, the Jubilee Pilgrimage which he made to the Holy Land in the year 2000, the various documents of the Holy See which, following the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration “Nostra aetate”, have made helpful contributions to the increasingly close relations between Catholics and Jews. I too, in the course of my Pontificate, have wanted to demonstrate my closeness to and my affection for the people of the Covenant. I cherish in my heart each moment of the pilgrimage that I had the joy of making to the Holy Land in May of last year, along with the memories of numerous meetings with Jewish Communities and Organizations, in particular my visits to the Synagogues of Cologne and New York.
Furthermore, the Church has not failed to deplore the failings of her sons and daughters, begging forgiveness for all that could in any way have contributed to the scourge of anti- Semitism and anti-Judaism (cf. Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” 16 March 1998). May these wounds be healed forever! The heartfelt prayer which Pope John Paul II offered at the Western Wall on 26 March 2000 comes back to my mind, and it calls forth a profound echo in our hearts: “God of our Fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the nations: we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
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