Ambivalence About a Historic Meeting
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Ambivalence About a Historic Meeting

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The 75-minute meeting between Pope John Paul II and nine Jewish leaders Tuesday — hailed by some participants as a historic new beginning — has met with sharp criticism by some American Jewish figures who claim that the Vatican avoided all substantive topics of concern and that no real progress was made.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue here said the meetings “did not break any new ground”, but served the purpose of damage control.

“The exchange cleared the air. It gave everybody a face-saving opportunity to allow the Jewish community an opportunity to participate in the Miami meeting (with the Pope September 11). What is critical is that American Catholic-Jewish relations not be affected because this is where they really work,” Brickner said.

Archbishop John May of St. Louis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the meetings “positive and constructive.” He said the Vatican’s stated commitment this week to increased consultations with Jewish leaders on decisions which affect Jews is a new development in Vatican-Jewish relations.

Earlier this month, the Pope sent May a letter thanking him for compiling a book of the Pope’s statements over the years on Jews and Judaism. The letter included a sympathetic account of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.

May also said individual American Catholic bishops who had conveyed Jewish dismay over the Waldheim meeting had been instrumental in arranging a meeting in New York between Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli and Jewish representatives which paved the way for this week’s discussions.

“I am very happy about the meeting and think it’s a good basis for the meeting next week in Miami,” May said.


One of the participants, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, reflected the ambivalent reactions of Jews to the meeting, calling it a “landmark in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations,” but expressing dissatisfaction with some aspects of the exchange.

The delegation “did not accept” the Pope’s explanation of why he had received Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, accused of Nazi war crimes, Schindler said. “Nor did we find persuasive the Pope’s statement on why the Vatican has not yet recognized Israel,” he said.

A joint communique issued by participants in the meetings touched upon the four main topics raised by the Jewish delegation but some said the document fell short of addressing the substance of those issues.

On the top of that agenda was Jewish bitterness over the Pope’s reception of Waldheim in an audience last June 25. In the weeks leading up to the meetings, the Vatican had insisted privately in correspondences with the Jewish representatives that the subject of Waldheim not even be raised at the meeting with the Pope. Consequently, some viewed the admission of Waldheim’s name to the talks a victory for the Jewish delegation, and a defeat for Waldheim.

But the Vatican did not apologize or concede a mistake in the Waldheim audience nor was such a reaction expected by the Jewish delegation. The joint communique said “The Catholic delegation acknowledged the seriousness of and the church’s sensitivity to those Jewish concerns, and set forth the serious reasons behind the judgement of the Holy See.” This was the only comment addressing the Waldheim controversy from a Vatican perspective in the entire document.


Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress — which was represented in the delegation — said the meeting accomplished very little. However, he noted that the Vatican had at least given in on the Waldheim issue, acknowledged sensitivity to Jewish anger and called this “a slap in the face to Waldheim.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, said the meeting resembled more of an audience than a dialogue and claimed “nothing substantive came out of the meeting. The Pope did not respond to concerns raised by Jews on the Waldheim visit. Nor did he respond to the issue of recognition of Israel.”

Weiss has led protests against Waldheim internationally. On the occasion of Waldheim’s inauguration, Weiss protested in Austria and when the Pope received Waldheim at the Vatican, Weiss and his supporters dressed in black-and-white-striped garb symbolizing Jewish prisoners of the Holocaust and demonstrated outside the Vatican.

Weiss added, “I think many of the Jews emerged from the meeting terribly dissatisfied. But they want to make it look as good as possible.”

He noted that the Pope will probably meet Waldheim again in June when he makes a state visit to Austria.


The discussions of the question of the Vatican’s absence of diplomatic relations with Israel, also one of the four main agenda topics, drew critical responses from observers and participants.

The joint communique said the Vatican declared “there exist no theological reasons in Catholic doctrine that would inhibit such relations, but noted that there do exist some serious and unresolved problems in the area.” The communique restated the Vatican’s opposition to diplomatic relations because of political questions which were noted in the past to include the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian question.

“The central question of Israel has been left in abeyance,” Steinberg said. “This still remains the principle obstacle to betterment of Vatican-Israel relations. You cannot normalize relations with the Jewish people unless you normalize relations with the Jewish State.”

Weiss echoed this sentiment, saying, “If the Vatican does not recognize Israel, it does not recognize me.”


Seymour Reich, international president of B’nai B’rith who met with the Pope said “We were realistic in our expectations… We did not expect the Pope to apologize for meeting with Kurt Waldheim, nor did we expect the Vatican to announce the commencement of diplomatic relations with Israel.

“Nevertheless, both subjects were aired and the Church now knows the depth and intensity of Jewish feelings on these matters. I must also add, frankly, that while I was not satisfied with the Church’s response concerning diplomatic relations with Israel, we will continue to pursue the issue.”

Although the Vatican did respond to a third item on the Jewish delegation’s agenda, concern over revisionism of the Holocaust, by saying it was preparing a paper on the topic, this is also not a new development. The formulation of an official Catholic document on the Holocaust and historical anti-Semitism was announced more than a year ago on the occasion of another Jewish delegation’s visit to the Holy See.

It remains unclear, though, whether the Vatican will address the Catholic Church’s role during the Holocaust in that paper, which was one of the concerns expressed by the Jewish delegation and others.


Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress and also a member of the Jewish delegation, played down the significance of the meeting. “What was achieved in Rome should not be exaggerated; it is far too early to describe our achievement in Rome as historic. We averted permanent damage to the newly developing relationship between Catholics and Jews that might have been harmed by the unfortunate audience granted Kurt Waldheim by Pope John Paul II.”

A letter by the American Jewish Congress following the Waldheim audience — in which it declared it would boycott the Miami meeting with the Pope and Jewish representatives in Miami and called on the Pope to address the question of the role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and historical anti-Semitism — was one of the catalysts for this week’s meetings in Rome.

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