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Seeing as the Catholic Church has itself been the victim of a damaging disinformation campaign, one might expect that Church leaders would be careful not to allow themselves to be drawn into a similar slander operation. But, although the Church is still defending itself against charges of wartime anti-Semitism, many Church leaders seem to see nothing wrong with current efforts to vilify Israel.

In the early 1960s, Soviet intelligence launched a multi-pronged smear campaign against Pope Pius XII with the aim of undermining the authority of the papacy and with it the authority of the Catholic Church (which at that time was the main focus of resistance to communism in Eastern Europe). The plan was to frame Pius as “Hitler’s Pope”—an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. The details of the plot can be found in Disinformation, a highly readable and well-documented account co-authored by Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald Rychlak. Pacepa is in a particularly good position to tell the story because he was the chief of Soviet espionage in Romania at the time. To make a long story short, the “Hitler’s Pope” campaign was highly successful, with the result that the calumny against Pius is now almost universally accepted by the opinion-making elites and by plenty of average citizens as well.

It is ironic, then, that Catholic leaders should lend legitimacy to another carefully manufactured campaign of disinformation with no more basis in fact than the charge that Pius was “Hitler’s Pope.” This decades-long campaign, the brainchild of Palestinian and leftist propagandists, aims to delegitimize the Israeli state by comparing it to some of history’s most notorious regimes—Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and, to leave no stone unturned, that of King Herod. According to the Palestinian propagandists, the Israelis are King Herod reincarnated and intent on slaughtering innocent Palestinian children. The slander is meant to appeal to Christian sensibilities, and apparently it has. Numerous Christian clergy—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—have taken up the meme. For example, on the occasion of the war between Israel and Hamas, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, commented: “I think of the ‘massacre of the innocents.’ Children are dying in Gaza, their mothers’ shouts is a perennial cry, a universal cry.”

One of the reasons children in Gaza were dying is that Palestinian terrorists deliberately put them at risk by locating their rocket launchers next to schools and residential neighborhoods. Moreover, the number of innocent Christian children in Muslim lands who are being murdered, raped, and otherwise persecuted has reached epidemic proportions. Why is Israel singled out as Herod when there are so many other, much more obvious candidates for the title?

Herod? The new Nazis? Christ-killers? (The Palestinians like to refer to themselves as the “new Jesus” who is being crucified once again by the Jews). These are extraordinarily serious slanders—of the same order as branding Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.” Yet, for a very long time, Church leaders have been content to echo these calumnies.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ recent trip to the Holy Land was no exception. At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he listened as Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal compared the Israelis to King Herod while he likened the Palestinians to the “Divine Child.” In his own homily, the Pope took up the theme of suffering innocent children, but wisely extended it to children everywhere. Unwisely, however, he did bring Herod into the homily: “Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and cared for him? . . . Or are we like Herod, who wanted to eliminate him?” In some other context, that would be perfectly acceptable, but the pope should have been aware that for Twal, for Michael Sa­­bbah, the patriarch who preceded Twal, and for a long line of Arab Christian prelates, “King Herod” refers precisely to Israel. In an age which prides itself on sensitivity, the pope’s choice of words showed scant concern for Israeli sensitivities.

Shortly before the Mass, Pope Francis had “spontaneously” stopped to pray at the security barrier that was built to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorists. This could be passed off as simply a show of sorrow that divisions exist among the peoples of the world, but the pope or his advisers must have known that Palestinian propagandists have made the wall a symbol of Israel’s supposed racist and segregationist nature. It is commonly known as the “apartheid wall.” And, in fact, the pope was guided to a section of the wall where a large graffiti message compared Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto. Unwittingly or not, the pope was participating in a piece of Palestinian propaganda that makes the Israelis out to be the “new Nazis.” Amazingly, this gesture of (one hopes, unintended) partisanship was hardly noticed as such by the world’s media, including the Catholic media. Instead, the pope was widely hailed for his journey of peace and reconciliation. According to the Vatican Insider, the pope’s stop at the barrier “was more eloquent than a thousand speeches.”

One could look at it that way, or one could take it, as many Israelis undoubtedly did, as a slap in the face. It’s estimated that the existence of the security fence has saved the lives of thousands of Israelis from the type of suicide attacks that were so frequent before its construction. To suggest that the wall is “offensive” (a common refrain) or that it ought to come down (as numerous Christian leaders have demanded) is to suggest that Jewish lives are not that important. I once met a man whose son had been killed in a suicide attack on a restaurant in Jerusalem in the days before the barrier was built. The father himself narrowly survived and required numerous surgeries. He does not consider the wall to be offensive. Most people, however, are barely aware of that perspective on the situation. The Palestinian disinformation campaign has been such an enormous success that almost all “enlightened” people take it for granted that, no matter what the issue, the Palestinians are in the right, and the Israelis are in the wrong.

For some perspective on the issue, however, imagine the following scenario. Suppose a group of rabbis from Israel were to make a highly publicized visit to Rome for the purpose of furthering peace, harmony, and fraternal dialogue. Suppose further that they made a point of stopping to pray at the massive wall which surrounds the Vatican and which they asserted was a sorrowful reminder of the way that Pius XII and the Catholic Church had walled themselves off from the pleas of innocent Jewish children in the Holocaust.

Catholics, of course, would be outraged—and rightly so. Yet Catholic leaders over the past several decades have cooperated in a similar slander against Israel. Israeli leaders are quite used to this kind of treatment from the Vatican and chose to ignore the pro-Palestinian bias displayed on the recent papal trip. But not everyone has been so reticent. Writing for The Jerusalem Post, Caroline Glick acknowledged that the Pope said appropriate things at Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall but added that “his statements ring hollow and false in light of his actions.” “Francis’ decision to hold a photo-op at the security barrier,” she writes, “was an act of extreme hostility against Israel and the Jewish people.”

I don’t believe the pope harbors any animosity toward the Jewish people, but it does seem that he and other Church leaders don’t fully grasp the implications of what they say and do in regard to the situation in the Middle East. Mark Twain’s book describing his travels to the Holy Land in the company of fellow Americans is titled Innocents Abroad. That phrase seems to fit the Vatican’s stance toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. Far from having a nuanced grasp of the situation, Church leaders have let themselves be pulled in by propagandists. Too many of them seem innocent of the ‘game’ that is being played by their Palestinian hosts.

With the slur of “Hitler’s Pope” still hanging heavily in the air, one would think that the Vatican would be more attuned to disinformation campaigns that are based on slanders rather than facts. It’s not a question of absolving Israel of all culpability. It’s a question of bringing a sense of justice and proportion to the discussion. Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or justice of this or that Israeli policy, but it is not reasonable to indulge in the child-killing and, yes, Christ-killing rhetoric that is so frequently employed in the Middle East.

Catholics should be able to understand the point because it’s essentially the same point that is at issue in the “Hitler’s Pope” controversy. It’s one thing to question whether Pius could have done more to save Jews. That is a legitimate question. But it’s another thing altogether to suggest he was a closet Nazi and a secret anti-Semite. That is simply calumny.

William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation.

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