JERUSALEM, March 23 (JTA) Give the pope credit for what he said, rather than criticism for what he didn’t, say many Jewish leaders.
The sight of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church standing in the Jewish state to express sadness for Christian contributions to Jewish persecution moved many to tears.
But did Pope John Paul II utter the combination of words that would tell the Jewish people a half-century later not only that the church is saddened, but also sorry for its silence during the Holocaust?
In a somber memorial ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Thursday, the pope said, “I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place.”
Many Jewish groups and leaders said the pope could have gone further during his long-awaited speech at Yad Vashem.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Israel office of the Anti- Defamation League and a veteran interfaith activist, said he would have been pleased if the pope had used stronger language about the Holocaust and issued a call for repentance for the church’s silence during the Holocaust.
“Nevertheless it was a very important moment,” Rosen said. “The significance of the event was that it happened, and he said the words he said where he was.”
Rosen and other Jewish leaders say Jews should acknowledge how far the Vatican has come in acknowledging its history of anti-Semitism and the contributions of Pope John Paul II to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.
“The drumbeat of negative criticism over the last month” gives the impression that “what was omitted was more important than what was included” in the pope’s recent comments on the church’s role in fostering anti-Semitism, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Some of those who criticize “are not representative of the sentiment of the community,” said Yoffie on Thursday, as he was preparing to deliver a speech on Jewish-Catholic relations at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
He declined to cite those critics by name.
The pope’s speech at Yad Vashem was watched closely, coming just weeks after the pope issued a broad apology for sins committed by the church throughout the ages. That speech, delivered at the Vatican, included sins against the Jews, but did not specifically mention the Holocaust.
Many who criticized those remarks for stopping short of a specific apology for the Holocaust had hoped to hear more from his speech at Yad Vashem during his visit to Israel this week.
As the eternal flame flickered at Yad Vashem’s vast Hall of Remembrance, the pope laid a wreath in memory of the 6 million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust.
He also met with Holocaust survivors, including a childhood friend, and a woman whom he helped save while a young priest in Poland.
“There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah,” the pope said.
“I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust,” the pope said.
His remarks touched on personal memories of Jewish friends, some of whom perished and others who survived the Nazi atrocities.
“We wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail,” he said.
To Seymour Reich’s ears, the pope’s speech didn’t go far enough.
“I was disappointed that he did not address the silence of the church during the Holocaust,” said the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, the main Jewish partner in formal dialogue with the Vatican.
“It was a lost opportunity. Maybe our expectations are higher than they should be but they are still there, and they haven’t been met,” Reich said in a telephone interview in Jerusalem after attending the Yad Vashem session.
But Rosen of the ADL believes that it was “unrealistic” for the pope to say anything more.
“Anybody who expected him to distance himself from the church or Pius XII doesn’t understand the theological frame of reference of this pope,” Rosen said.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, said the pope’s statement had “enormous power.”
“This is a denunciation and a repudiation of anyone, anywhere, who would minimize, trivialize or deny the reality of the Holocaust,” Rudin, who was also in Jerusalem for the event, told JTA.
Rudin added that the speech did not break any new ground, and some things were left unsaid. The next step, he said, would be for Jewish and Catholic scholars to fully explore all relevant Vatican documents relating to the wartime period.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak called the pope’s visit to Yad Vashem a “noble act,” and a climax of this historic journey of healing.”
But that healing, the prime minister said, will take time.
“The silence was not only from the heavens,” Barak said of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust.
“It is impossible to overcome all the pains of the past overnight,” said Barak, calling for reconciliation between Jews and Christians.
“It is our wish to continue productive dialogue on this issue, to work together to eliminate the scourge of racism and anti-Semitism.”
During the ceremony, Yad Vashem officials presented the pope with reproductions of illustrations of the Bible drawn by a Belgian Jewish painter who died in Auschwitz, but whose daughter survived.
In a brief relaxation of protocol, immediately following the memorial service the pope was reunited with some 30 Jewish friends from his hometown of Wadowice, Poland, some of whom he has kept in touch with.
Earlier in the day, the pope visited Israel’s President Ezer Weizman at his official residence in Jerusalem. The visit was seen as further recognition by the Vatican of Israel, with whom diplomatic relations were established in 1993.
During the last papal visit to Israel in 1964, Pope Paul VI did not go to western Jerusalem, and sent a letter to Israel’s president addressed to Tel Aviv.
Also on Thursday, the pope met with Israel’s two chief rabbis at their offices in Jerusalem.
The rabbis presented the pope with a Bible, inscribed with a dedication from the book of the Prophet Micah, “For all the people who will walk, everyone in the name of his God, and we will walk in the name of the Lord, our God, forever and ever.”
(JTA correspondent Avi Machlis in Jerusalem and JTA intern Brianne Korn in New York also contributed to this report.)