Jewish Leaders Outraged at Pope’s Meeting with Waldheim; Their Sept. 11 Papal Meeting in Doubt

Weeks of protest and dismay over the decision by Pope John Paul II to receive Kurt Waldheim turned to outrage after the meeting Thursday. Jewish leaders stood aghast as the Pontiff not only blessed the Austrian President, who is accused of complicity in Nazi atrocities, but praised him as an outstanding diplomat who always worked for peace.

The reactions of Jewish leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere to Waldheim’s reception at the Vatican were blunt. “A cruel insult to the memory of the victims of Nazism,” is how Burt Levinson, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith put it.

“This is no less than a whitewash of an international figure who has been accused of complicity in the Holocaust,” declared Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, president of the Synagogue Council of American, the umbrella organization of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the U.S.

“How is one to explain so profound an insensitivity to the meaning of the Holocaust, so painful a failure of the moral imagination, by the custodian of Catholic conscience?” Theodore Mann, president of the American Jewish Congress, asked in an open letter to the Pope read at a press conference here following the papal reception of Waldheim.

American Jewish leaders also made it clear the Pope’s action placed in doubt, at best, their scheduled meeting with him September 11 in Miami during his visit to the U.S. Some declared flatly that they would not participate.

PERES QUESTIONS SYMBOLISM

In Paris, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, presently visiting Western Europe, said on television that the Pope should have realized the “symbolic implications” of his gesture toward Waldheim. Speaking in French, Peres also recalled some “unanswered questions” about the Vatican’s attitude toward the Holocaust during World War II.” We express our shock and distress that the prestige and moral standing of the Vatican were bestowed without qualification on Kurt Waldheim, whose complicity in Nazi crimes and his failure to acknowledge them or repent have led to his being barred from the United States and other Western countries,” a statement released jointly by seven national and international Jewish organizations said.

It was signed by the American Jewish Committee, ADL, World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Congress, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the Synagogue Council of America.

The statement noted that “Waldheim sought the appearance of moral exoneration from Pope John Paul II. By the Pontiff’s agreeing to the meeting and failure to speak to the issue of moral accountability for heinous acts, Waldheim has not only advanced the process of whitewashing his past but of obliterating a reality and memory which the world forgets at its peril. We refuse in conscience to acquiesce to that revision of history.

“We appreciate our many Catholic friends and others who have spoken out publicly, who have felt our pain and who have lent their voices to ours. We look forward to continued constructive relations with them.”

MEETING IN DOUBT

In his separate statement for the ADL, Levinson said “The Pope’s silence is tragically reminiscent of the Church’s silence less than 50 years ago…the hypocrisy of welcoming and praising Waldheim as an outstanding diplomat is offensive and damaging to the progress in Catholic Jewish relations.”

Levinson added that the ADL is reconsidering its participation in the September 11 meeting with the Pope in Miami.

Klaperman said “The Pope’s praise of Waldheim’s diplomatic career at the United Nations as ‘dedicated to the securing of peace’ must be challenged in light of the fact that it was during his tenure that the UN passed the infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism.”

He added: “This makes all the more imperative the substantive meeting with the Pope called for by the Synagogue Council of America and other major Jewish organizations. We hope that the Vatican will agree quickly that this meeting is timely and critical for Vatican-Jewish relations.”

Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, said in a statement Thursday: “The Pope’s decision to see Waldheim places in doubt the scheduled ceremonial meeting between the Pope and Jewish leaders in September. We are unconvinced that such a meeting can be productive. It remains for the Pope to clarify the Church’s position. The action today clearly erodes the progress made in Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years.”

Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said he was “prepared to demonstrate” against “any meeting by Jewish leaders and the Pope” and urged that such a meeting be boycotted. He said the reception of Waldheim “demonstrated the Pope’s lack of memory of the Holocaust” and that “there should be no dialogue on the part of the Jewish community with this Pope.”

Theodore Mann said in his open letter to the Pope: “We believe it is terribly important that we give clear and unambiguous witness to the central moral issue that was raised by the decision to receive Kurt Waldheim. It is the fact that you and the Vatican see Kurt Waldheim as just another head of state. Sadly, this indicates to us that despite the Church’s pronouncements on this subject, the significance of the Holocaust and the uniqueness of the evil it represents is not really part of the consciousness of the Church…

“Is it possible that this man, who has be come the symbol not only of an evil Nazi past, but of current efforts to diminish, falsify and forget the Holocaust, is just another unpleasant head of state for the supreme leader of the Catholic Church? That, incredibly, is what your spokesman has said, and that is what the welcome you personally extended this man inescapably implies…How paradoxical, and how deeply disquieting, that secular governments like the United States were determined to put politics aside to take a stand on moral principles by isolating Waldheim, while the Vatican was guided by political considerations and put moral principles aside.”

Mann asked: “Is it possible Your Holiness, that in Waldheim’s forgetfulness there is an echo, however distant, of the Church’s forgetfulness as well? Has your Holiness dealt with the indifference of the Catholic churches in Europe to the fate of their Jews during World War II? …Despite the extraordinary heroism of so many individual Catholics, isn’t it true that, along with so much of the rest of the world, the official churches were largely silent, and abandoned the Jews in their agony?…

“These are some of the painful questions that are raised by the audience you granted Kurt Waldheim. We have participated in the dialogue with the Catholic Church for these past 20 years, an we value its significant achievement. But this dialogue can no longer avoid urgent questions that so deeply agitate our consciences and our souls. The meeting scheduled for September 11 in Miami is not where these questions will be addressed. It is therefore not where we can be…”

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