Vatican Rep Accuses Israel Of ‘Blood Libel,’ Harsh Exchange Seen As Major Interfaith Setback


A Vatican representative accused Israel of a "blood libel" against a World War II-era pope, and blamed the Jewish state for mounting tensions between Jews and the Catholic Church, shocking an audience at a conference on anti-Semitism in Tel Aviv, and prompting interfaith leaders to say severe damage has been done to the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Rev. David Yager, an Austin, Texas-based priest who represents the Vatican on a committee to improve relations with Israel, stunned listeners when he said that Israel’s anti-Catholic attitude is preventing relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state from warming as Israel prepares to greet millions of Christian pilgrims at the start of the new millennium. During the Monday conference, Yager said that Roman Catholic institutions are no longer anti-Semitic.

Yager, who helped negotiate the historic 1993 Vatican-Israel accord establishing full diplomatic relations, claimed that the commonly used Hebrew word for Jesus, Yeshu, is actually an acronym for "May his name and memory be erased." But perhaps most troubling to Jewish leaders were his comments regarding Pope Pius XII, the WWII-era pope who is coming under increasingly tough criticism from some Jewish groups and Israel for allegedly failing to do more to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The Vatican, preparing to nominate Pius for sainthood, says the pope helped Jews behind the scenes, and that public activism would have endangered Catholic lives. But Yager said Israel aimed to keep the Vatican on the defensive, pointing to Israeli reminders of Pius XII’s alleged failure to speak out against Nazi atrocities during World War II, which he called a "blood libel." Jewish leaders responded angrily. "Our questions, our desires to search the truth are not blood libelous," said an angry Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended the conference. Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called Yager’s remarks dangerous. "It’s really throwing a verbal hand grenade into both Catholic Jewish relations and Israel relations. I think it’s a real setback to Vatican-Israel relations. I’m particularly upset with the phrase ‘blood libel. He [Yager] knows that people were murdered because of a blood libel." Yager said that Jewish mistrust of Catholics was unjustified and that Israel was creating antagonism. The open question this week is whether Yager was speaking on his own or on behalf of the Vatican, interfaith leaders said.

ADL’s Israel head Rabbi David Rosen said that after 2,000 years of church-sanctioned anti-Semitism, it would take time for Jews to regain trust in the Vatican and that the onus was on the church. Regarding Jesus’ name, Jewish researchers said that Yeshu is either the Hebrew corruption of the Greek version of "Joshua," perhaps Jesus’ birth name, or the shortened version of "Yeshua," which means savior.

Eugene Fisher, director of ecumenical affairs for the National Conference of Bishops, told The Jewish Week Wednesday that Yager’s use of blood libel was "entirely inappropriate." But he said it reflected a mounting concern in the Vatican about "groundless" Jewish attacks on Pius XII. Fisher also said he had never heard of Yager’s "Yeshu" charge.

With the NATO war over in Kosovo and the rebuilding process begun, one high-ranking U.S. Navy officer wants to try and avoid future ethnic conflicts with the help of military chaplains.

Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, chaplain on the staff of Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, is pushing an initiative to include chaplains from all faiths in military decisions to prevent violence and, if that fails, in the healing process.

"We all know that religion can play a role in conflict, and has been used to fan the flames of hatred during a conflict," Resnicoff says. "We must investigate ways that religion can also play a role in conflict resolution and reconciliation."

To that end, the soft-spoken Conservative rabbi says NATO chaplains should have a greater role in supporting Allied troops with personal moral conflicts, and in reducing misunderstandings about foreign religious beliefs.

He says it is important to move fast and establish regional cooperative programs in such potential hot spots as Eastern Europe and South Africa "so that we are ahead of the power curve before another Kosovo explodes."

Capt. Resnicoff says American military leaders have come a long way in understanding other religious cultures since the UN shot at a minaret in Gaza in 1957, "because unfamiliarity with the ‘call to prayer’ made them think it might be a ‘call to revolt.’

"But we are not yet at the stage where we can use the stories from other cultures as opportunities to show understanding and respect in a way that can strengthen relationships and create opportunities for progress.

"There are still large pockets in our knowledge, which the chaplain can help fill in through staff work and advice."

Resnicoff also believes chaplains can become bridges to suspicious ethnic civilians wary of foreign troops. "Again and again I see that civilians … who are still mistrustful of the military, respond in a much more positive way to chaplains."

He notes that British chaplains tell him that chaplains even cross religious and political lines more easily than others in the supercharged atmosphere of Northern Ireland.

The rabbi is traveling around the globe trying to gain support for the proposal.nRabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, has been elected as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The 10-member body is charged with advising President Clinton on strengthening religious freedom and combating religious persecution worldwide.

The new commission has "the potential to raise the visibility of religious freedom in U.S. policy making, and to draw our nation’s attention to the most egregious manifestations of religious persecution," said Saperstein, a lawyer celebrating his 25th year at the Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s social justice arm.

"It should be a great source of pride to the Jewish community that the Soviet Jewry campaign is often cited by senators and representatives as an inspiration for the legislation that established the Commission," Saperstein said. Michael K. Young, dean of the George Washington University Law Center, was elected vice chairman at the group’s inaugural meeting last month.

The other Jewish member of the Commission is Elliott Abrams, author of "Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America" and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an organization dedicated to clarifying the connections between the Judeo-Christian tradition and American public policy.

The Commission, established by Congress through the International Religious Freedom Act, will focus on reviewing U.S. policy toward countries with "urgent problems of religious persecution" including China and Sudan, and countries where religious protection is waning, such as Russia, India, and Pakistan.