Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel this past May is not likely to be remembered as a landmark event. Nor is it likely to be viewed as a turning point in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. Sadly, however, it will be remembered as a decidedly less-than-pleasant affair. To be sure, feelings were tense from the outset, with Israeli politicians on both the right and the left openly expressing their dissatisfaction at the pope’s impending visit; Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin went so far as to boycott the official welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. The pope’s much-anticipated speech at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, hardly improved matters, at least for those who sought an express apology for the Holocaust (and didn’t get one). Indeed, the atmosphere surrounding the pope’s presence became so bitter that Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi was forced to convene a press conference in Jerusalem to cool tempers on both sides. “There is not always a willingness to understand well,” he noted with obvious frustration. “Sometimes there are prejudices, and not everyone is open to an attitude of readiness to listen.”
Of course, the discomfort felt by many Israeli Jews during the pope’s visit was not unjustified. In recent months, already strained relations between the Vatican and the Jewish world were exacerbated by several developments: Pope Benedict’s lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, an antisemitic Holocaust denier; his public endorsement of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, which was boycotted by both Israel and the United States on account of its virulent anti-Zionist slant; his decision to allow for the wider use of the Tridentine Mass, which expresses the hope that the Jews will convert to Christianity; and his personal history as a member of Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht, albeit as an unwilling conscript. In Israel, a country already beset by bitter collective memories of Christian persecution, all of this could not help but incur suspicion and resentment toward the man who wished to bring a message of peace to the Holy Land.
What was overlooked amidst all this animosity and mistrust, however, is the fact that Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Ratzinger—is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City. On the eve of the pope’s visit, Aviad Kleinberg, a scholar of Christian history and a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, attempted to remind his readers of this. Ratzinger, he explained,
was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves…. John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.
A few days later, in reaction to what he called an “embarrassing demonstration of tactless and boorish behavior” toward the pope, Kleinberg wrote, “It is particularly obtuse of us to demand of others what we would never demand of ourselves. Try suggesting to any of our rabbis that they should declare what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have declared. For example, that Christians are our young and beloved brethren and that their covenant with the Lord is also intact—‘Excuse me?’ you say. ‘Did we understand you correctly? Give us a break!’”
Indeed, while Catholic leaders of recent times have repeatedly expressed sorrow and even remorse for hundreds of years of antisemitism, the Jewish world has not yet shown a comparable willingness to reconsider its own perception of Christianity. No one, of course, has demanded this of Judaism, for understandable reasons. Ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century c.e., it was the Jews, the so-called Christ-killers, who were persecuted by the Church, and not the other way around. Today, however, circumstances demand that all established religions reexamine their traditional attitudes toward each other. Christianity, in all of its various denominations, has generally risen to the occasion. Judaism, for its part, has not.