John Cardinal O’Connor was taken aback and visibly angered Sunday by a statement sharply critical of his conduct and remarks during his visit to Israel and Jordan last week. The statement, which expressed disquiet and distress about some of his remarks, was released Saturday. It was signed by the leaders of 53 major American Jewish groups, including community, rabbinical, Zionist and fundraising organizations.
O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, told reporters after conducting Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, that he feared the “fruits” of his trip and his meetings afterwards at the Vatican could be “destroyed” by the response of the Jewish organizations.
He expressed “deep, deep disappointment” at the statement. “I hope there is nothing in that statement that will make it more difficult than it has been for me in trying to support the Jewish cause,” he said.
He described his trip to the Middle East as the most difficult he ever made, one that involved “great personal and professional risk.” He went to Israel “in good faith,” the Cardinal said.
TRIP FRAUGHT WITH CONTROVERSY
The trip was fraught with controversy and embarrassment. The Cardinal was forced to cancel appointments he had made with Israeli leaders because Vatican policy which does not recognize the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, forbade him to meet with them at their offices in Jerusalem.
He did meet, however, with President Chaim Herzog at the Presidential residence in Jerusalem and with Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the latter’s home. The Cardinal apologized profusely during his trip for any offense he might have given the Israeli people and their leaders and faulted himself for failing to recognize the ramifications of the constraints placed upon his movements by Vatican policy.
The Jewish leaders said in their statement that they were “disquieted and distressed” by remarks made by O’Connor sympathetic to the Palestinians and that they “found disturbing and painful” his statement at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem that the Holocaust “may be an enormous gift that Judaism has given the world.”
O’Connor was particularly stung by the latter criticism. He said he meant it as “an enormous compliment to the Jewish people … If this is considered demeaning to the Holocaust, then it demeans my entire theology because mine is a theology of suffering,” he said.
He also said that the compassion he expressed when visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza was not meant as an indictment of Israel. “I said repeatedly that this was not to be blamed on Israel,” the Cardinal declared, adding that the blame rests on the entire Middle East. Both Arabs and Jews are “involved and responsible.” The Israel government promptly dissociated itself from the statement by the Jewish leaders. Barukh Binah, press spokesman for the Israel Consulate in New York said Sunday that “It was an American response and not an Israeli response.”
The statement acknowledged that the Cardinal has been an outspoken foe of anti-Semitism and a strong supporter of Jewish causes, particularly the struggle of Soviet Jews for civil rights and the right to emigrate.
O’Connor, however, saw the statement as a whole as amounting “to a unilateral censure, which I do not appreciate and which makes it difficult for me to move farther toward peace. Serious damage could be done if this line is pursued,” he said.
O’CONNOR SENT FLOWERS TO ISRAELI OFFICIAL
Ironically, O’Connor last week sent flowers to Israel’s Consul General in New York, Moshe Yegar, thanking the Israeli official for having helped arrange his trip to Israel. The Archbishop sent the flowers upon his arrival in Rome through his New York office. A handwritten letter by O’Connor accompanied the flowers sent “in gratitude for your wonderful assistance” in arranging the Israel visit. Yegar was instrumental in arranging the details of the Cardinal’s trip from the beginning.
According to an Israeli official here, O’Connor’s aides kept Yegar regularly informed throughout the Cardinal’s stay in the Mideast. “The flowers and the letter to Yegar are a clear sign that the Cardinal came out from his visit to Israel with a good feeling,” the Israeli official said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.