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With New Leaders, Group Returns to Nurturing Jews’ Ties to Vatican

August 17, 2005
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Less than two months after he was elected pope, the newly minted Benedict XVI sat down to his first audience with an official delegation of Jews. Members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations weren’t the only ones who had attempted to score face time with the pontiff.

“Every Jewish organization tried to call the Vatican,” says Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, the director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and an IJCIC member. “It was the Jewish version of the ‘Amazing Race’: Who was going to get to meet with the pope first?

“The message we got from everybody across the board was: The pope, in the first three months, will meet only with IJCIC.” Bretton-Granatoor went on to say that in the fall, depending on the pope’s schedule, “any Jewish organization has the right to request a meeting.”

The IJCIC group’s precedence makes sense: It was created in the early 1970s so that the Holy See, which had grown frustrated that it couldn’t turn to a unified Jewish address on interfaith matters, would have a consolidated Jewish partner for dialogue.

With Benedict’s election and the subsequent meeting with the IJCIC, insiders at the group say, a momentous period for Roman Catholic-Jewish relations got under way — a period that may significantly impact not just this pope’s tenure but those of future popes as well.

“The positioning that relations with the Jewish people acquires during the beginning of a papal tenure can have much significance for the rest of it,” says Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s department for interreligious affairs and the IJCIC’s new president.

Further, other Vatican watchers say, with the power base of the Roman Catholic Church shifting toward Latin America and Africa, the next pope — likely to be younger than the 78-year old Benedict — will not necessarily be European and therefore will be less intimately familiar with the Holocaust and the church’s historic condemnation of anti-Semitism.

“We are at a very special moment in time in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations,” Rosen says.

Today the IJCIC comprises the AJCommittee, the World Jewish Congress, the ADL, and the rabbinic and synagogue bodies of the Reform and Conservative movements and modern Orthodoxy.

Over the years the IJCIC has played an important role on issues from fighting the building of a convent on the grounds of Auschwitz to advocating for the opening of the Vatican’s archives. But is it really a single, unified address?

Its members say yes — and no.

“Somebody once told me that IJCIC was an appropriate acronym for an organization that does the kind of work it does — it really itches and kicks,” Rosen says.

Still, IJCIC insiders say the group operates relatively smoothly on the basis of consensus; if any of its constituent groups is seriously opposed to a particular move, the IJCIC won’t do it.

The body’s Orthodox representatives, for example, oppose discussing matters of pure theology with the Catholic Church. As such, the IJCIC does not engage the Vatican on subjects such as their respective approaches to the unity of God.

“We’re at a community table, and we have to temper our unique identities to be able to stand together,” Bretton-Granatoor says.

Earlier this month, the IJCIC named Rosen as its new president — and simultaneously re-elected Rabbi Israel Singer, the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, as chairman.

Until recently the group had only one top position, chairman. In 2002, another top position was added as Singer became chairman and Rabbi Joel Meyers became chairman of the board. Although the two-tiered leadership was initially intended as a one-time move, the IJCIC recently codified the change in its bylaws, changing the position names once again. Now Rosen is president, and Singer is chairman.

Between the president and the chairman, Rosen says, the president is the “first among equals.” The two will have certain shared responsibilities and will consult with each other before decisions are made.

Historically, insiders say, the WJC tended to take a harder line on Vatican issues than some other groups, including the AJCommittee, though some observers say that’s changing.

“We do speak about Judaism in a proud way, and we will continue to do so,” Singer says. “If that’s hard-line, then that’s what we stand for — and the pope likes that.”

Will the appointments of representatives from different groups to the IJCIC’s top two positions create tension? Both Singer and Rosen say no.

Some people who are no longer in the WJC “took a much more aggressive style than Israel Singer, and I think that very often Israel Singer was unfairly represented as a result,” Rosen says. “I feel comfortable that we share an orientation and an understanding.

“I have every confidence that he will respect the nature of my position and that we will be able to work together,” he adds.

Meyers, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, says that “sometimes organizations on IJCIC will be on slightly different planes when it comes to making statements.”

In a July sermon, Pope Benedict did not list Israel among countries that have suffered from Islamic terrorism. Israel reacted strongly, and the Vatican fired back.

The IJCIC did not issue a public statement on the flap, opting to address the matter behind the scenes.

“I think it was unfortunate,” says Seymour Reich, a former chairman and a current member of the IJCIC. “Israel has been a victim of terrorism, and the pope should have acknowledged that. But it’s an issue that has been blown out of proportion by the Foreign Ministry of Israel and by the Vatican. This will pass.”

At least one of the IJCIC’s member groups did go public with its complaint to the Vatican.

On July 29, Bretton-Granatoor and Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, sent a letter to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls in which they expressed concern about the escalating rhetoric and Israel’s absence from the “litany of places beset by terrorism.”

“We are especially troubled by your most recent assertion that ‘Israeli reactions (are) not always compatible with the rules of international law,’ ” they wrote. “This is a serious charge and we cannot believe that Pope Benedict XVI would have made such a determination.”

Bretton-Granatoor says he was not contacted by anyone in the IJCIC about how to respond to the fracas.

Under his leadership, Rosen hopes that the group will begin engaging more deeply with other faith groups, notably in the Muslim world, “which poses to us the most crucial challenge of all.”

Singer, for his part, also wants the group to engage Muslims and Protestants — and to “bolster the relationship with the Catholic Church to get many of its bishops’ conferences to make statements against anti-Semitism.”

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