Debate in the Jewish Community over Who Should Represent American Jewry at the Sept. 1 Meeting with
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Debate in the Jewish Community over Who Should Represent American Jewry at the Sept. 1 Meeting with

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An increasingly bitter debate within the American Jewish community over who will attend the Sept. 1 meeting with Pope John Paul II at his summer home in Castel Gandolfo points to a lack of consensus on who represents American Jewry, according to observers.

Representatives of at least eight Jewish organizations vying for a place on the delegation to the Vatican met here Wednesday night in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve what appears to be the last outstanding issue for the meeting: Who will attend the scheduled one-and-a-half hour dialogue with the Pope?


In a related development, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Thursday he will postpone a visit to Rome to meet with the Pope which he characterized last week as a “long-standing invitation” that he received before the Vatican issued its invitation to other Jewish representatives.

“When the news of my invitation to the Vatican reached members of the Jewish groups that have asked to meet with Pope John Paul II, some of them requested that I postpone my journey to Rome. Since they represent various Jewish organizations and I represent no one, I chose not to create the impression that I interfere with their plans and thus informed the Vatican of my wish that my visit be rescheduled at a later time.

“I hope the meeting between the Jewish groups and Pope John Paul II will bring much needed results.” Wiesel said.

At the same time, some Jewish officials welcomed the publication Wednesday of a letter from the Pope to an American Catholic leader on the Holocaust which was widely viewed as a gesture to mollify Jewish anger over his audience with Austrian President and accused Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim in June.


The Vatican issued an invitation about two weeks ago formally to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) which comprises five Jewish organizations: the Synagogue Council of America (SCA): World Jewish Congress (WJC); B’nai B’rith International; American Jewish Committee (AJC); and Israel Interfaith Association (IIA). The Pope has requested no more than five representatives attend the meeting.

Initially, IJCIC intended to compose a delegation from its member organizations. But shortly after news of the meeting became public, a number of other organizations requested that they be included in the delegation.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith all sent representatives to the meeting Wednesday night in hopes of carving out a place for themselves on the delegation.

Some of the representatives at the meeting Wednesday night suggested a larger delegation be sent to meet with high-ranking Vatican officials during the two-day visit while only five or six would meet with the Pope.

Lay leaders have complained that the delegation would not be representative of American Jews because only rabbis would be included. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has castigated IJCIC for failing to include any Zionist representatives in the delegation. The Labor Zionist Alliance (LZA) has called on the American Jewish community to “boycott any meeting with Pope John Paul II” in light of his granting an audience to Waldheim.

Milton Shapiro, ZOA president, criticized IJCIC for neglecting the input of major American Jewish organizations and the entire Zionist movement in forming the agenda for the meeting. A more appropriate forum for establishing an agenda would have been one of the major umbrella organizations like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shapiro said.

The issue of Jewish representation is further complicated by the injection of political issues into a dialogue traditionally centered on theological and interfaith concerns.


Although the groups have not and probably will not work out a solution which is satisfactory to all, the four-point agenda for the meeting has widespread support. The delegation will raise the concern over rising anti-Semitism in Europe and especially in Austria in light of the Waldheim controversy. The Holocaust and the Vatican’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel will also be presented as issues of concern.

The fourth item on the agenda, contradictory Vatican statements on Jews and Judaism, goes to the heart of the historical antagonism between the two faiths. According to one participant in the formation of the agenda, the Pope has alternately made positive statements on Jews and Judaism when speaking to an interfaith audience but has made some distressing references in meetings with Catholic audiences.

Last year during an Easter Mass in Rome the Pope quoted from the Gospels, thereby reviving a theology denounced two decades ago within Catholicism that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus.

On the other end of the spectrum have been statements not unlike the Pope’s letter released Wednesday promoting mutual respect and friendship between the two faiths.


The Pope’s letter to Archbishop John May of St. Louis released Wednesday took on increased significance in light of the tension between the two religions caused by the Waldheim meeting. The Pope’s letter thanked Archbishop May for preparing a book entitled “On Jews and Judaism 1979-1985.” which chronicled the Pope’s statements on the topic.

The cover letter which accompanied the Pope’s letter noted that it was “most appropriate following recent events involving the visit of the President of the Federal Republic of Austria, Dr. Kurt Waldheim, to the Holy Father.”

The Pope recounted in his letter his efforts to “develop and deepen our relationships with the Jews, ‘our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham.” But he devotes the greater part of the letter to a discussion of the Holocaust and its meaning.

“With our hearts filled with this unyielding hope, we Christians approach with immense respect the terrifying experience of the extermination, the Shoah, suffered by Jews during the Second World War, and we seek to grasp its most authentic, specific and universal meeting.

“As I said recently in Warsaw, it is precisely by reason of this terrible experience that the Nation of Israel, her sufferings and her Holocaust are today before the eyes of the Church, of all peoples and of all nations as a warning, a witness and a silent cry.”

Before the vivid memory of the extermination, as recounted to us by the survivors and by all Jews now living, and as it is continually offered for our meditation within the narration of the Pesah Haggadah — as Jewish families are accustomed to do today — it is not permissible for anyone to pass by with indifference. Reflection upon the Shoah shows us what terrible consequences the lack of faith in God and a contempt for man created in His image can lead.”

The Pope concluded with his wishes for furthering the “spirit of peace and universal fraternal solidarity” with American Catholics and Jews in his upcoming visit.

A meeting with Jewish officials has been scheduled for Sept. II in Miami. Many of the organizations originally participating in the meeting considered boycotting it after the Pope met Waldheim. The groups have called on the Pope to make some statement defining his views on the Holocaust as a prerequisite to their participation in the Miami meeting.

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