Behind the Headlines: with Exception of Wjc, Jewish Leaders Pleased with Meetings at the Vatican
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Behind the Headlines: with Exception of Wjc, Jewish Leaders Pleased with Meetings at the Vatican

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Jewish leaders who met last week with Pope John Paul II have, for the most part, expressed satisfaction with their two days of talks at the Vatican.

But one Jewish leader just back from Rome called the meeting, the first of its kind with the pope in three years, “a mixed bag.”

“In many ways procedurally and substantively, our concerns were not addressed,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, who participated in the talks.

The WJC is one of five constituent groups of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which is the group designated to represent world Jewry in dialogue with the Vatican.

The other constituent groups of IJCIC are the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International/Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Israel Interfaith Committee and Synagogue Council of America.

As far as most of the IJCIC delegates were concerned, the goals of the trip to the Vatican were achieved.

“All we were looking for was a confirmation, by the pope, of the Prague declaration, which he gave to us unequivocally,” said IJCIC Chairman Seymour Reich. “In fact, he went beyond the language of Prague, which called for dissemination (of the new church teachings), and he called for implementation.”

The Rome visit, commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s document that redefined the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism, was intended to be largely ceremonial, Reich said, unlike the working meeting between Catholic and Jewish leaders in Prague three months earlier.


Out of the Prague meeting came a church statement decrying anti-Semitism as a sin, as well as guidelines for implementing new church teachings on Judaism. By contrast, “Rome was theater, to some extent,” said Reich, who represents B’nai B’rith on IJCIC.

One of the procedural elements of the Rome trip that upset WJC’s Steinberg was one that left most of the 30 IJCIC representatives discomfited.

The pope was seated on an elevated platform in what Steinberg called “a throne-like chair” when he met with Jewish leaders on the morning of Dec. 6, leaving IJCIC’s chairman to address the pontiff from the floor below.

The Jewish representatives were expecting the meeting to take place on equal terms, physically as well as politically, and were taken by surprise when they saw the layout of the room.

“I was uncomfortable,” conceded Reich.

Vatican officials explained to IJCIC that the room was the only one available to accommodate the group, which was larger than had originally been agreed upon.

In order to make up for the imbalance in the private meeting, the pope spent time afterward informally chatting with each IJCIC delegate.

Most participants felt there was no intended hostile message in the seating arrangement, and they said, in fact, that the atmosphere was warm.

“The fact that there were no religious symbols in that room was very important, because there usually are,” observed Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of interreligious affairs for the Synagogue Council.

“Besides,” said Bemporad, “the real issue is not where the pope sits, but what he says.”


Still, Steinberg was unhappy with what he called the IJCIC “audience with the pope.”

WJC participants were also dissatisfied because they wanted to achieve more progress on the Vatican’s willingness to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, Steinberg said.

The Vatican “clearly communicated that there is nothing on the immediate horizon as far as diplomatic relations with Israel,” he said. “We may well have reached the theoretical limit of the political dialogue between us.”

As a result, the WJC “is likely to give a lower priority to Vatican-Jewish relations in the future,” Steinberg said.

The Vatican has long emphasized that it considers diplomatic relations with Israel a political matter rather than a religious one, and one that is addressed through different channels than meetings devoted to the religious relationship between the two faiths.

In Rome, Archbishop Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews, arranged a meeting between the Jewish leaders and the new Vatican deputy secretary of state, Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran, whose appointment had been announced less than a week earlier.

That meeting established a formal political relationship between IJCIC and the Vatican to deal with such issues as recognition of Israel.

In any case, “Israel is not interested, in this stage, in pushing for full diplomatic relations with the Vatican,” said Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a former chairman of IJCIC who participated in the Rome meetings and was present when “Nostra Aetate” was issued 25 years ago.

“Israel does not want to invite Vatican pressure for a Palestinian homeland, and so it is in Israel’s interests to remain relatively silent,” he said.


Jewish opposition to the proposed beatification of Queen Isabella of Spain was also communicated during the Rome meetings, according to Reich. It was Isabella and King Ferdinand who ordered the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

“One Vatican official asked for documentation about our concerns relating to Queen Isabella. And I replied that they have that information in their own archives,” Reich related. “It’s not our burden to document that for them. The history of that period is well known.”

The next step in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue will be the establishment of joint committees to implement the church’s revised teachings about Jews and Judaism, teachings that have not yet reached the world’s 800 million Catholics on the grass-roots level, Jewish leaders said.

Initial meetings between IJCIC and Archbishop Cassidy are expected to be scheduled within a few months, they said.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves,” said Reich. “Prague was the big event of the year, and now the pope has given the declaration his full support. It is up to us to establish the mechanisms to implement that.”

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