NEW YORK, May 8 (JTA) – When the Western-educated Bashar Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president of Syria last summer, Israeli officials hoped the changing of the guard from the Lion of Damascus to the Optometrist of Damascus would usher in a gentler approach toward Israel.
Young Assad has lost no time in establishing his bona fides as an Israel-hater, however, greeting Pope John Paul II to Syria this week by resuscitating one of the great anti-Jewish canards: the accusation that Jews killed Jesus.
Even more galling to many Jewish leaders, however, was the pope’s silence in the face of the Christ-killer charge, as well as Assad’s call for Christians and Muslims to unite against Jews and an apparently novel claim that Jews even tried to kill the Prophet Mohammad.
The following day, Assad’s minister for religious affairs weighed in by warning the pope: “We must be fully aware of what the enemies of God and malicious Zionism conspire to commit against Christianity and Islam.”
As is his policy, the octogenarian pope stuck to his script and did not attempt to counter his hosts’ harangues.
To some Jewish leaders, the pope’s silence raises the question of whether a man often hailed for his moves toward Jewish-Christian reconciliation really is committed to stamping out the insidious anti-Semitism that the Roman Catholic Church helped propagate through the ages.
Jewish leaders note with alarm a shift in the Arab world over the course of the seven-month intifada from anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment to flat-out Jew-hatred.
Assad’s defense minister, for example, has written a book that purports to detail how Damascene Jews killed gentile children to use their blood in Passover matzahs. Egyptian producers are trying to make the book into a movie, which they claim will be the counterweight to “Schindler’s List.”
Assad’s comments also come just weeks after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party first took the Christ-killer charge out of mothballs, comparing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s actions against the Palestinians to the ancient Jews’ alleged persecution of Jesus.
Assad, for his part, said Tuesday that he cannot be accused of anti-Semitism, since Arabs are themselves Semites.
The anti-Jewish trend also includes a surge in Holocaust denial, which Jewish leaders say is part of a wider campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and international support.
Moreover, world political and religious leaders seem generally indifferent to it – like U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who appeared at the Arab summit in Jordan in late March and stood silently while Assad denounced Israel as more racist than the Nazis.
And now the pope – whose reign has seen international criticism of the Vatican’s silence in the face of Nazi atrocities – also held his tongue while Assad picked up a theme that the Catholic Church itself finally repudiated in 1965.
“If you needed a model for group hatred and group libel, what Assad said is it, and in some countries it would probably be against the law,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 1930s, it’s that words – especially the words of leaders – have consequences,” Rudin said. “And these words should not go unchecked or uncriticized.”
A spokesman for American Catholics responded that it’s not necessary for the pope to criticize Assad’s comments.
“This was an attempt to be political by using religious themes, and I assume that Christians would understand this and put it into a larger perspective,” said Eugene Fisher, who directs Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Jews agitated by the incident should “relax,” Fisher said.
“The Catholic Church has stated that it is inappropriate and wrong to say directly or indirectly that the Jews are to blame for the death of Jesus. And nothing Mr. Assad says will change the mind of the pope or of 1 billion Catholics,” Fisher said.
“You can’t taint the pope with someone else standing next to him. The church respects the right of anyone to speak their mind.”
Fisher’s words do not mollify Jewish critics, however. Several are writing letters to the pope or issuing press releases.
After all, they note, it was the pope’s high-profile visit, covered at length by the world media, that provided Assad with a rare international platform for his statements.
The pope seemed to have three goals for his three-day visit to Syria: retrace the path taken by the Apostle Paul, improve the church’s ties with Islam and plead for Middle East peace.
“It’s one thing for the Vatican to repair relations with the Muslim world, as long as it’s not done at the expense of the Jewish people,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“It’s nonsense for the Vatican to say we had nothing to do with this, because they provided a megaphone for this bigotry,” Foxman continued.
“It’s critical for the Vatican to speak out now. The longer the silence continues, the greater continues the legitimacy of this hate.”
While the Vatican remains mum, Washington has denounced Assad and his colleagues.
“These comments are as regrettable as they are unacceptable,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.
“There’s no place from anyone or from any side for statements that inflame religious passions and hatred,” he said. “We hold with the pope’s call for reconciliation. That is really the only way forward, especially in these difficult times, and the only way to achieve the peace that all parties profess to want.”
Still, a papal clarification would help reassure Jews that this does not mark a shift in Catholic-Jewish relations, according to Mark Weitzman, who directs the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s task force against hate.
“This flies in the face of all their condemnations of anti-Semitism,” Weitzman said. “Is this going to be a case of Vatican policy – to the West – of repudiation of anti-Semitism, and to the Mideast, silence in the face of it? A lesson they say they’ve learned is that the crime of indifference is one of the greatest sins.”
Fisher, however, said it is customary for the pope to devise a blueprint of what he will do and say during an upcoming trip, and then not deviate from the script.
This strategy allows the pope “to have control of what he says” and avoid getting embroiled in a tit-for-tat with his often roguish hosts.
“I can understand the pope’s practices,” said Seymour Reich, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations. “But I am a little disappointed that there wasn’t some sort of diplomatic way for the pope to indicate his annoyance and irritation – which he must have felt at Assad for taking advantage of his pilgrimage.”
The price of the Vatican’s policy, Fisher conceded, “is that the pope can’t respond when he disagrees at that moment. But he’s perfectly free to go back to Rome and clarify what needs to be clarified. On the charges of Christ-killer, though, that’s very clear and doesn’t need to be clarified. It’s one of the most solid building blocks of church teaching today and everyone knows it. Every other reading is misinterpretation.”
Yet Jewish observers suggest a teaching that for centuries was the cornerstone of church attitudes toward the Jews will take more effort to undo. And, they note, without a concerted campaign to correct centuries of anti-Semitism, it may be a leap of faith to expect average Christians to be familiar with the change in church teaching. Therefore, they say, the lack of a quick riposte to inflammatory comments such as Assad’s can lead to misperceptions.
Reich, indeed, noted that comments by professional basketball player Charlie Ward and Republican activist Paul Weyrich – who both referred to Jews recently as Christ-killers – indicate that the Vatican’s teachings have not yet permeated the Christian world, and need steady reiteration.
“One would think we’d be past these things,” Reich said, “but obviously we’re not.”