The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom falls in a year rich with commemorations in a civil rights vein--including the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was no coincidence that the March occurred in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at a time when the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation were a year away from passage. (As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted at the beginning of his “I Have a Dream” speech: “But 100 years later, the Negro is not yet free.”) Of the speakers present at the March, only Rep. John Lewis remains alive--one of the great Americans of our time.
I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Rep. Lewis speak in 2008 at the plenum of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs in Atlanta. (The venue of the speech was "The Temple"--the historic synagogue of the city--and a target of civil rights era violence. More on this below.)
Rep. Lewis recounted marches in which he participated: the grandeur, promise and Call to Action of August 28, 1963. The preparation for the March included a meeting with President Kennedy in June, 1963 in which Rep. Lewis participated as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. ("In 1963 we could not register to vote simply because of the color of our skin" remarked Rep. Lewis at Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 2013, at the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration.) Indeed, the speech of Rep. Lewis was a challenge to the Kennedy administration to get serious about Voting Rights legislation with teeth. (At the urging of A. Philip Randolph, Rep. Lewis tempered his remarks. He redacted, for instance, his sentence that "segregation is evil and must be destroyed in all forms." [See Meteor Blades at Daily Kos, August 25, 2013, for the transcript of Rep. Lewis' March on Washington speech which includes the portions struck from his speech as delivered].) Rep. Lewis' unalloyed call for what rightfully belonged to African Americans by natural law and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was heightened by the authority, personality and vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he spoke: “There will be neither rest or tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” (Another upper Midwest connection is the work of Rep. Lewis with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, in a bipartisan effort to renew the Voting Rights Act.)
The legislative advance of civil rights through the Congress via the breaking of the southern filibuster in the United States Senate did not result in acquiescence in many areas below the Mason-Dixon. The idea of African Americans voting in large numbers in the South remained an incendiary issue. Seeking to emphasize federally guaranteed voting rights and access to public accommodations, the Selma to Montgomery March of March 7, 1965, started quietly with a church service. Marching two by two, the participants were stopped as they reached the end of the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement set upon the marchers. Fifty-eight marchers were wounded and treated at a Selma hospital including John Lewis who suffered a head fracture. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday."
The seizure of power by the Egyptian military marks yet another convulsion in the thirty months of increasing instability in the Arab world which began in Tunisia.
Touring the Middle East – including and beyond its Arab component – presents this stark geographic picture from the perspective of Israel and its remarkable stability.
Egypt (386,700 square miles) – which has long seen its deep history and large population as its foundation for leadership in the Arab world – has gone from Mubarak to Morsi to the military in 2.5 years following a leadership chain of Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak which lasted 55 years. In the last thirty or so years, Egypt honored its cold peace with Israel while receiving billions of dollars of foreign aid from the United States. The Egyptian military immediately faces three areas of instability either within Egypt or Gaza: 1) the protests in Cairo; 2) arms smuggling with either Jihadist and/or Iranian influence or origin in the Sinai peninsula; and 3) Gaza with Hamas – vowing Israel's destruction trying to maintain its own order with a finger on its rockets – with a backdrop of either more radical-terrorist elements trying to provoke conflict with Hamas by attacking Israel. Given these circumstances how far will the Egyptian military go in restoring calm? And how much will its behavior reflect larger issues in the Arab world from Amman to Damascus to Beirut – not to mention the ongoing Sunni oil-producing states’ considerable and legitimate fear of Iran's nuclear program? From a United States and Israel vantage point, the former has its foreign aid leverage for a country whose tourism trade has largely evaporated; the latter can – largely only watch from a distance, albeit a short distance – and wonder if any power configuration will emerge which will provide a stable regime on Israel's southern border – keeping in mind the poverty and despair of the Egyptian people which precipitated the Tahrir Square revolution in the first place in 2011.
The three 1920s and 1930s Arab states – that is nations carved out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire through such demarche as Sykes-Picot – are teetering towards the salinity line between order and disorder in varying degrees (Lebanon and Jordan) or have descended into the abyss of civil war and humanitarian crisis (Syria). Beginning with the smallest and arguably the most fragile Lebanon (4,036 square miles) "hosts" both Hezbollah which has planted a Shia (Iranian vassal state-let) in Lebanon as a frontal position for Iran's terrorism with Israel which has all but crippled the decades-long power sharing agreement between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah support for the Assad regime, in Syria in accordance with Iranian Middle East strategy, has intensified the Syrian civil war forcing large numbers of Syrians to enter Lebanon (and Jordan and Turkey) as refugees.
Next door in Syria (71,498 square miles) nearly 100,000 have died – with Bashar Assad pursuing full-scale war against his opponents trying to oust his minority regime – a conflict whose large-scale bloodshed dates back to 1982. Israel's northern Golan border was once characterized by an uneasy but long-standing modus operandi with Syria, but now, just a few miles beyond the frontier, a great proxy conflict between the Shia and Sunni worlds has erupted which can’t help but impact Israel beyond the wounded of the Syrian civil war it is treating and the artillery and mortar fire which has crossed the border into the Golan. Meanwhile, Russia has embarked upon Cold War-like stratagem of pursuing its own interests relentlessly in Syria including the provision of sophisticated anti-aircraft to the Assad regime which the West had implored Putin not to send. This is an issue for United States and Russian relations and geo-political influence.
In geographical summary, Israel's 8,019 square miles is an outpost of democratic stability – relatively – among the 1,436,806 square miles of these six nations bordering on all sides of Israel or just beyond Israel's horizon – this does not take into account the future of Iraq.
Amid the human suffering which is Syria, some historians and other commentators are suggesting the civil war and participating proxies represent the denouement of the end of the Ottoman Empire a century after the fall of Sultan Mehmed VI and the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At the risk of seeming callous in seeking historical context when tens of thousands of people have died in a conflict in which Bashar Assad has used chemical warfare against fellow Syrians and the Syrian regime, Iran (for Iran, see The pentagon’s 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Assessment describing the efforts of China, Iran and North Korea to develop and share advanced ballistic technology.), Hezbollah, Russia and Israel are preparing for possible war. Nevertheless in a war where choosing between the sides is a Hobson's choice, Americans ought to have some background of why so many are staring into the abyss.
Among the many historical facets leading to July, 2013 are the contradictory impulses (some would say promises) of British foreign and imperial policy during and after the First World War. Certain representations were made to Arab Middle East interests in exchange for fomenting of uprising against the Ottoman Turks in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Two years later, with Russia tottering on the brink of the Bolshevik Revolution, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary James Arthur Balfour wrote to Baron Rothschild noting his Majesty's government "viewing with favor the establishment of a Jewish National Home" in Palestine. Astride these promises was a mutual British and French imperial motivation to carve up the Ottoman Empire as it was purportedly disintegrating under pressures of the First World War and the internal contradictions of national minorities seeking their Independence.
This last demarche was portrayed most vividly in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Or as described by Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren: "The map of the region — drawn a century ago by European powers to reflect imperial interests rather than ethnic realities" (Washington Post, 5/24/13). The territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (including the ports of Haifa and Acre) and southern Iraq was allocated to the United Kingdom. Southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon were assigned to France. These territorial designations would in some instances become national boundaries.
These national boundaries had little relationship with a coherent national identity. In David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East" (Henry Holt & Company, 1989), the author relates the experience of the de Bunson committee whose recommendations preceded Sykes-Picot. Tasked with defining the best interests of Britain, the committee believed there were four alternatives: 1) Annexation of the Ottoman territories by the Allies; 2) Dividing the territories into spheres of influence; 3) Leaving the Ottoman Empire in place – with a subservient government; and 4) Decentralizing the Empire into semi-autonomous units. Per number 3, there was a camp within the British government which faired keeping the Ottoman Empire believing its disappearance would "presage" the disappearance of the British Empire.
The spheres of influence in combination with annexation which informed Sykes-Picot was the result of deliberations – as Fromkin points out – as the committee feeling free to "remake the face of the Middle East as they saw fit." There was no need to follow lines of existing political subdivisions. Greek and Latin classics with their geographical terms studied at public school became the basis of territorial division as did national aspirations centuries old. There was the historic French mission to rule the Levant and protect its Christian communities. There was the long-standing British imperative to secure the Empire with a Middle East presence which protected the trade and communications networks to India.
Sir Mark Sykes believed – despite the British and French primary desire to remake the Middle East in their Anglo-French image – he could reconcile the various national aspirations at the post World War I negotiations. Mark Sykes intentions – sometimes quickly shifting intentions – have been analyzed by his son, Christopher Sykes – a respected Middle East historian ("Cross Roads to Israel-Palestine from Balfour to Bevin" [Collins, 1965]) with British diplomatic and military experience in Egypt and Iran. Christopher Sykes explores the motivation of his father in a book of two extended essays: "Two Studies in Virtue" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Both Christopher Sykes (and Fromkin) agree that a cause in which Mark Sykes believed was Jewish-Arab friendship. Mark Sykes envisioned a pro-Allied partnership of Arab, Jewish and Armenian interests. Sadly, whether ever realistic or not – such affinity has likely never seen so remote.
The complexity which Sykes-Picot failed to appreciate or ascertain about the Middle East is seen in the series of bad options which the United States faces with the Syrian civil war and throughout the Middle East. Is there any ground between the murderous Bashar Assad regime aided by Hezbollah and Iran and the Jihadist opposition with its Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elements? Keeping in mind each side would like to have control of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons with which to threaten Israel.
American military intervention in Syria has almost no supporters. This recognizes the intractable situation which Americans would face in Syria. Much can be learned from the experiences of American soldiers in Iraq. Click here for an essay from Corporal Eddie Nevin – now completing his degree at the University of Minnesota in Global Studies with a regional focus on the Middle East – about his Marine Corps experience in Iraq against the backdrop of his current studies about the Middle East.
In a time when Israel’s ethos is wrapped up in remarkable statistics – as the 100th smallest country in the world, Israel has played a significant role in the development of the cell phone; Windows NT and XP operating systems; Pentium MMX chip technology and voicemails; with a net gain of trees entering the 21st century; developing the first fully computerized, no-radiation, diagnostic instrumentation for breast cancer, to name just a few devellopments.
It is easy to forget the painfully slow process of building political support for a Jewish state. There are interesting Minnesota connections to the incremental political steps which culminated in David Ben Gurion reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence 65 years ago on May 14, 1948 at the Tel Aviv Museum. These Minnesota connections include a role played in the decision of President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel only eleven minutes after the Declaration went into force.
In terms of the possibility of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, Minnesota was on the scene early in the aftermath of the First World War. This was a time when the victorious Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain and France) were creating the 20th and 21st century Middle East – for better or for worse – with the nations we know today as Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. (See David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace” ) A fulcrum at the making of the modern Middle East resulting from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the Paris Peace Conference. Present at the conference were delegations from throughout the world trying to generate support for their national political aspirations. (David Ben Gurion and Ho Chi Minh met while staying at the same hotel in Paris in 1919, the same year Ben Gurion signed an agreement with Emir Faisal pledging cooperation in their respective national movements.)
The competition for influence and profile in Paris occurred on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States emerged from the First World War relatively unscathed – in contrast to the devastating losses suffered by the European combatants – with President Wilson determined to remake the world in accordance with his “Fourteen Points” speech. Point 12 was “Non-Turks in the old Turkish Empire should govern themselves.” Point 14 called for the creation of a League of Nations “to guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states.” These Wilsonian points – first articulated in a speech to the United States Senate on January 8, 1918 – were the point of contact between American idealism and the European penchant for “Great Games” as represented by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
These Wilsonian Points became the point of departure for those interests in the Middle East (Jewish, Arab and others) seeking their say in the Paris Peace Conference. The campaign to strengthen Jewish interests in the Paris Peace Conference had an American corollary. This road led both through Washington, DC and the nation’s state capitols, including Saint Paul. In Rabbi Gunter Plaut’s “The Jews in Minnesota: The First 75 Years” (American Jewish Historical Society, 1959) he reports passage of the following resolution by the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1919:
“JOURNALOf TheHOUSEOf The FORTY-FIRST SESSION Of The LEGISLATURE Of The STATE OF MINNESOTA
69th Day] FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 1919. 1541
AFTERNOON SESSION.___________At 2:30 o'clock P. M. the House reconvened.
Mr. Levin offered the following concurrent resolution:
Whereas the future prosperity and peace of the world depend upon the just and equitable settlement of the European war, whereby each and every nationality, however small, shall be granted the liberty of determining its own destiny and the opportunity of living its own life.
And Whereas the government of the United States of America is recognized as an urgent exponent of the rights of the small nations;
Therefore, Be it Resolved by the House of Representatives of the State of Minnesota, the Senate concurring, that it is our opinion that the national aspirations and the historical c1aims of the Jewish people with regard to Palestine, be recognized at the Peace Conference in accordance with the British Government's declaration of November 2nd, 1917, that there shall be established such political, administrative and economic conditions in Palestine as will assure the development of Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth and that American representatives at the Peace Conference shall use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.
Be It Further Resolved that it is our opinion that express provisions be made at the Peace Conference for the purpose of granting Jewish people in every land the complete enjoyment
of life and liberty and to the end that justice may be done to one of the most suffering people on earth, the Jewish people,
And Be It Further Resolved That a copy of these resolutions be transmitted by the Chief Clerk to the President of the United States.
Mr. Levin moved the adoption of the resolution.
Which motion prevailed.
Mr. Swenson, O. A., moved a call of the House.
The roll being called, the following members answered to their names:
Adams, Anderson, Arens, Arneson, Baxter, Bendixen, Bernard, Berve, Bouck, Boyd, Briggs, Brophe,Burdorf, Burrows, Carlson”
Minnesota became the ninth state to pass such a resolution at the time it was considered.
The resolution – while largely symbolic from a Minnesota vantage point – was both prescient and a marker for the deliberate pace of the incremental building of support for Zionism inside and outside of the Jewish community in the United States. It would take until 1942 – at a gathering of Zionist leaders from 18 countries known as the Biltmore Conference – for adoption of a resolution calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine echoing the 1919 Minnesota resolution. By this time, the Holocaust was well underway by the Einsatzgruppen in German occupied Soviet Union and by design, in the aftermath of the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942.
* * * * * * *
The events of May 1948 were dramatic as the British evacuated Palestine having declared an end to their mandate – against a backdrop of the November 1947 United Nations’ vote partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The bloody struggle for Palestine had begun in earnest shortly after the partition vote with the Arab Higher Committee vowing to destroy any nascent Jewish state. Again, across the Atlantic, a corollary struggle was unfolding in Washington, DC as the various parties sought to influence the Truman Administration and the policy it would follow for the future of Palestine after the end of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948.
There was a Minnesota connection to the political denouement in the White House: the Minnesotan, Max Lowenthal. Mr. Lowenthal’s role hasn’t been completely lost to history – it is discussed in the 1990 book by Michael J. Cohen, “Truman and Israel.” (Lowenthal’s papers are now fully organized and indexed at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library.)
In broadest strokes, this history is the story of Max Lowenthal earning the trust of Harry Truman over years of work. It is also the story of Mr. Lowenthal being in the right place at the right time as a presidential assistant – where counsel, given quietly, was deeply considered.
Mr. Lowenthal was a University of Minnesota graduate and graduated Harvard Law School in 1912. (His father was a founder of Kenesseth Israel Synagogue in Minneapolis.)
* Mr. Lowenthal, according to the Cohen book, was a protégé of Justice Louis Brandeis. Lowenthal introduced Truman to Brandeis and others in Jewish “New Deal” Washington, DC circles.
* Lowenthal served as chief counsel to the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee from 1935-1942 where he and Truman met and established a friendship that lasted until Truman’s death in 1973.
* Vic Messell, Truman’s secretary in the Senate commented: “Lowenthal was a mystery man… He exercised power behind the scenes…”
* Key Truman presidential advisor Clark Clifford brought Lowenthal to the White House in 1947 as Clifford’s chief advisor on Palestine affairs. Lowenthal wrote voluminous memoranda on the subject of Palestine with, according to Clifford, the underlying premise: “The United States should support the Zionist cause, come what may.”
In the momentous days leading up to May 15, 1948, Lowenthal’s memoranda were a critical counterworking center-of-gravity to the pro-Arab positions of the State Department and Department of Defense. He argued in one memorandum that maximum advantage for the United States lay in an “immediate statement” that he [Truman] intends to recognize the Jewish state when it is proclaimed.” Lowenthal asserted this recognition was consistent with American national interests since it would strengthen the US relative to the USSR, reduce violence in Palestine and strengthen the United Nations.
Truman wrote a letter to Lowenthal in 1952 in which he noted:
“I know exactly how you feel about the ideas of your not wanting to be considered as benefactor to the State of Israel but I don’t know why you should because I don’t know who has done more for Israel than you have.”
Yet, when Lowenthal was interviewed by the Truman library staff in 1967, according to Michael Cohen, he claimed he never discussed Israel with Truman during that time – at all. Lowenthal said he heard second hand from another White House staffer about Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.
Putting aside the issue of Max Lowenthal’s modesty, President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was a decision of historic proportions which has echoed throughout the world ever since.
I'm sorry to see fatuous comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians given such prominent space in the Sunday (March 24) print edition of the Star Tribune.
It would be much better to discuss the President's trip to Israel and the Middle East and the intricate and intimate choreography resulting in, hopefully, the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, thus strengthening America's position with respect to Syria and Iran. It would better to discuss the possibility of resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians after the President's meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Abbas in Jerusalem and Ramallah. It would be better to discuss Pope Francis – the "New World Pope" in the words of Time Magazine – and his dedication to alleviating poverty.
Alas, there is little choice but to respond to the mischaracterizations articulated.
Start with the proposition – as I once heard Elie Wiesel say – that it is difficult to compare the suffering of one people to another.
As Jews, also, who have been subjected to genocidal attempts of extermination, we are deeply sensitive to the pain and loss suffered by Native Americans, and other victims of genocide. Indeed, a leading early exponent of Native American rights in the United States was Felix S. Cohen, a distinguished scholar and author of the Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942). Prof. Cohen was a champion of Native American self-government and recognized that a discrimination against one people endangered all peoples.
Jews, also, the world over and in Israel have adopted the mainstream consensus view of the critical nature of a two state solution of Israel and Palestine to safeguard the security of Israel and vindicating Palestinian aspirations. President Obama repeatedly stressed this goal on his visits to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman during his recent Middle East trip.
Jews have supported Palestinian and Native American rights of self-determination.
If comparisons are to be made, begin with Palestinian opportunities for statehood, as opposed to the fate of Native American aspirations in the United States.
As far back as 1937, the Peel Commission of the British Government recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jewish state was more of a "statelet" comprising – essentially – greater Tel Aviv and portions of the Galilee. The Arabs rejected it.
The United Nations created a Palestinian state in 1947 when the General Assembly voted to create a Jewish and Arab state in mandatory Palestine. Arabs inside and outside of Palestine rejected the partition and immediately took to violence to destroy the compromise culminating in the invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies the day Israel declared its independence.
The two state solution came closest to realization in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David negotiations between President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. A proposed Palestinian state encompassing nearly the entire West Bank and critical concessions for the "final status" issues of Jerusalem and refugees was before Arafat. He rejected this possible end-of-conflict resolution and initiated the Second Intifada.
In connection with the rights of self-determination of Native Americans – no such opportunities have ever been presented. History does not start with the Six Day War in 1967 or even with the release of Leon Uris’ Exodus in 1958.
Indeed, comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians should also include the most significant morality test of the twentieth century: who did what with respect to Nazism, fascism, and Japanese militarism.
Here lies another great difference between Native Americans and Palestinians. Despite facing confiscation of heritage, history and tribal lands, Native Americans fought for the United States in the Second World War with great valor and distinction in every theater of combat according to the United States Army Center for Military History. Forty-four thousand Native Americans served during the Second World War – 40 percent more enlisted than were drafted. The 45th infantry division – “Thunderbolt” – produced three “Medal of Honor” winners from the European theater. The fifty thousand person Navajo nation provided 420 "code talkers" critical in communication in some of the most intense Pacific combat on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima. As was the case with African Americans and Japanese Americans, the systemic discrimination and marginalization at home did not deter taking up arms for their country abroad.
The response of the Arab world – particularly to Nazism – could not have been more different. The response to the Third Reich from the Arab world inside and outside of Palestine ranged from sullen neutrality to outright collaboration with Germany as was the case of the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Arabs – Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. As the Mufti , among other things, he made radio broadcasts from Berlin during the war encouraging the Arab world to fight the allies and advocating for the extermination of the Jews. The record of the Arab world in the Second World War was fully before the General Assembly of the United States when it voted to create a Jewish state – and a Palestinian state – on November 29, 1947.
Sadly, despite the heroic service of Native Americans in World War II, little changed with respect to their condition in the United States in the post war years.
Underscoring these important distinctions is a salient similarity. Native Americans have been present in North America for well over 10,000 years. The Jewish connection to the Holy Land – from where the Jews gave the world the Bible – dates back over 3,700 years of continuous presence despite the destruction of the two Temples and exile with a perpetual hope first in prayer and then in Zionism for redemption in their own land.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Leo Nomis was a volunteer fighter pilot for Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Nomis was of Irish and Sioux heritage with a heroic and colorful record of service in the Second World War. Before the United States entered the war he served with the Royal Air Force's Eagle Squadron (comprised of American volunteers) as well as RAF assignments on Malta and the Middle East. Nomis transferred to the United States Army Air Force in 1943.
Three years after the end of the Second World War, Nomis volunteered to fly for Israel's fledgling Air Force in its Squadron 101. Nomis noted: "I was sympathetic to the cause and plight of the new Jewish state from day one...” “…It seemed clear that after what happened to the Jews in Europe during the war and by the fact that they were in Palestine, surrounded by hostile Arab nations who had vowed their annihilation, that here was not only a political and military crisis, but a moral issue that one could not, in good conscience ignore…” (Nomis and Cull; "The Desert Hawks: An American Volunteer Fighter Pilot's Story of Israel's War of Independence, 1948"; Grub Street [London], 1998).
(Nomis flew alongside St. Paul's Leon Frankel who was a World War II naval aviator hero who would fly 25 missions in the 1948 war – See "Your Voices" interviews of Frankel from April 26, 2012, and December 7, 2011, chronicling his service in the United States Navy and Israel's Squadron 101.)
The papal resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is literally epochal – having not occurred in 600 years.
For much of that time – indeed until 1964 – views of the Church fathers holding the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus and relegated thereafter to a “wandering, homeless and rejected status” held great sway (“A Lethal Obsession,” Robert Wistrich). In the last fifty years, however, the theological view of the Church has been transformed from eternal damnation of the Jews to recognition of the sibling relationship between Catholics and Jews. This represents a remarkable sea change.
As my friend Jason Adkins, Executive Director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, wished: “Let us hope we will continue to build bridges between Christians and Jews in the succession from Pope John Paul II to Pope Benedict to the next Pope.”
Elected as Pope only five years after the century of the Holocaust, prominent figures in Jewish religious leadership have been praising Benedict XVI, who was of sufficient age to have served in the Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the German Army – from which he deserted – having been raised in an anti-Nazi German family, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The Times of Israel has quoted the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, as saying the Pontiff “heralded in an age of unparalleled Jewish-Catholics relations.” The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, described the pontiff as a “compassionate individual who carried with him an aura of grace and wisdom.”
In many respects, Pope Benedict XVI continued in the same forward thinking vein as Pope John Paul II with respect to Jews and Israel. The latter, who lived in Nazi-occupied Poland – became the first Pope to visit a synagogue; recognized Israel; promulgated a ground-breaking encyclical on the Holocaust and was an out-spoken foe of anti-Semitism referring to it as a “sin against G-d” while noting Jews “were our elder brothers” in faith. Praying at Auschwitz, Pope John Paul II stated: “We wish to commit ourselves to a genuine brotherhood with the People of the Covenant.” (“John Paul II and the Jews,” Our Elder Brothers, 2007.)
For Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews, his first official act was writing a letter to Rome's Jewish community. His first trip abroad as Pope was to his native Germany where he visited the synagogue in Cologne speaking out strongly about the “insane racist ideology” that led to the Holocaust. The Pope visited Israel in 2009; visited Israel's Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and met with survivors; and prayed at the Western Wall.
The Church's and the Pope's philosophy towards Jews and Judaism was well encapsulated in welcoming remarks from May 2012 to a delegation from the Latin American Jewish Congress (the Pope attended the Second Vatican Council as a young man):
“The Vatican II Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’ continues to be the basis and the guide for our efforts towards promoting greater understanding, respect and cooperation between our communities. The Declaration not only took up a clear position against all forms of anti-Semitism, but also lauded the foundations for a new theological evaluation of the Church's relationship with Judaism, expressing the confidence that an appreciation of the spiritual heritage that Jews and Christians share will lead to increasing understanding and esteem.”
(Thank you to Father Erich Rutten, Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas and Chair of the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, for providing the text of these remarks.)
A fair picture of Pope Benedict XVI must also include issues which generated concern in the Jewish community. Reaching out to end the schism with the Society of Pope Pius X, the Pope's reversal of the excommunication of unrepentant Holocaust denier, Richard Williamson with other individuals – raised many eyebrows, although, apparently the Pope did not know about his Holocaust denial at the time. (The Society for Pope Pius X has since expelled Williamson for these views.) Campaigning for sainthood for the World War Two-era Pope Pius XII – was seen as premature at best – with the backdrop of an incomplete historical record as a request for the release of non-published archival documents requested by the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission from 1999 – 2001 from the Vatican archives was refused by the Vatican. A return to older pre-1964 Catholic liturgy involving the Good Friday prayer was also seen as a retreat from the teachings of the Vatican II since it called for the conversion of the Jews. However, as Father Rutten points out, Pope Benedict also wrote a new Good Friday prayer for the Jews expressing eschatological hope for us all.
It is our fervent hope that the Pope who succeeds Pope Benedict XVI will follow in both his footsteps and the legacy of Pope John Paul II in strengthening the relationship between Christians and Jews.