"I don't feel that I am in a position to give judgement": What the Rabbi Really Said about Pius XII

Here is my transcript of a Vatican Radio interview between Phillipa Hitchen and Rabbi Cohen of Haifa. I give more than just what he said aobut Pius XII – you need to get the feel of the context in which he speaks. Note that all along he is conscious of not giving his own opinion, but recognising that he is a representative of the chief rabbinate and people of Israel. What you will not be able to pick up from reading this transcript is the hesitancy with which he spoke – I was very concious of the fact that he did not want to offend his hosts, and at the same time he did not want to misrepresent his people:

Rabbi Cohen: There are those who feel that it is more than a dialogue and are suspicious that it is an attempt in a way to blur the differences. Just another kind of the same religionwhich it is not because of the basic elements in the articles of faith that we believe in the christians believe in and we cannot ignore it; I feel that it’s not supposed to change us its supposed to say that you should try to understand eachother and live together for those principles and those ideas which join us.

Well there is no doubt that the invitation was not only because of what I have to say and to add to the information and the knowledge of what mainly the Christians call the Old Testament but the fact that I represent the chief rabbinate of Israel as chairman of the bilateral commission that was created by the late Pope John Paul II and the I represent the so-called dialogue between the two religions is maybe the main reason I was invited. I believe it was a step to prove to us that the present leadership of the Vatican intends to continue the line of thought and action of his predecessors starting from John XXIII through Paul IV throught John Paul II which I believe was the climax as I would say today in his days and then there was some doubt up until now I believe it is an effort or an attempt by way of demonstrating that here we are to continue the dialogue and the friendship and the association which our predecessors started, which is important. And that is the main reason I came, because it is a very difficult time for me to come. It is the Jewish high holidays and I come for one day and go back tomorrow to be with my community on the holiest day of the Jewish year which is Yom Kippur. But I felt I could not deny the invitation because of what it implies, not because of the subjects which I am going to discuss, but because of the very fact that I am going there to speak before the general leadership of the Catholic religion because most bishops of the world will be there.

Phillipa Hitchen: I imagine that your participation here is not accepted by everybody within the Jewish community. How is it being seen your presence here in Israel and within the broader Jewish community?

Rabbi Cohen: I am here not as an individual representing my own approach I represent the chief rabbinate of Israel which is the official body at least for the Jewish religion in Israel [and] in a way in the Jewish world. So I would say that the majority is with me here. There are those who feel that it’s more than a dialogue and are suspicious that it is an attempt to in way to blur the differences – just another kind of the same religion. Which it’s not! for that basic elements in the articles of faith that we believe in, that the Christians believe in, and we cannot ignore it. And I feel that it’s not meant to change us, it’s meant to say that we should try to understand each other and live together for those principles and for those ideas that should join us. And we stem from the same mother or from the same father Abraham the patriach…who was the founder of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And I feel it is important to remember where we come from. We may be able to bring more peace to the world that way and that is important. And I believe the relation has an influence on the lay leaders of all the states in the world. They need to feel that they are only human beings but under the same God. The main reason that I believe in this dialogue is to promote this kind of approach after so much bloodshed and painful events that happened only in recent generations.

Phillipa Hitchen: And yet in a way this focus on the Christian bible as the fulfillment of God’s plan can perhaps serve to highlight the differences it can cause in a way more obstacles than it can serve to highlight the points of unity.

Rabbi Cohen: Well, my speach, my lecture will be on the bible which we call the Tanakh the Torah the prophets and the writings which is what we believe in. I will not speak about the Christian part of it the New Testament and it is clear that that is as far as we can go. Christians are free and don’t need my permission to promote that part of the bible in which they believe, but the very fact that there is the common background the beginning or what you call the Old – its not old, its new, because of what we believe it has eternal living – and the very fact that in spite of the differences I am here, I take it as a message that we have the right to exist the way we exist and nobody denies our right to feel that we are the people that have the covenant with God brought to the world the entire bible (by the entire bible I mean, of course, the Tanakh in which we believe) but of course you cannot forget that those who created the other parts that the Christians believe in were also Jews. And we may not agree with their ideas but that doesn’t make it that we are not Jewish or they were not Jewish and if you remember that you cannot hate the people that come from the same origin. So I don’t think it is going to blur or try to erase the differences. It is different but equal.

Phillipa Hitchen: During the Synod there will also be an important commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII, the pope who still arouses such strong emotions on both sides about the role that he played in the Second World War. What are your views on this pope right now?

Rabbi Cohen: Being frank, I did not know about it before I came, I only learned about it yesterday. I feel that we should not ignore the pain and the sad memories, so many victims of the holocaust are still around, that is the children survivors have, who feel, maybe rightly so, maybe I don’t know, that not enough was done by the church to prevent the holocaust. I understand that the leadership of the church says that the late pope did try to save as much as he could, it should be proved, it should be more public, but there is no doubt that he did not raise his voice in public. Maybe because he was afraid, or because there was a danger that Nazis were against the Christian Church as well, who is to become a judge? God is the judge. But we are very unhappy about it. And we feel that that chapter in our sad history should be set aside and it is a mistake to try to forget it. And I say I was surprised by it, maybe, maybe, I don’t know, I cannot say, that our leadership would not have agreed to my participation if they knew about it before, but of course I didn’t feel like cancelling my coming because I don’t want the leadership of the Church to feel that we are not interested in the dialogue any more, so these are two separate chapters, it so happened by coincidence, and I hope that the leadrship of the church will refrain from anything that will make anybody feel bad and bring pain and sorrow and heartache. Unfortunately the memory of those years does it for us, as Jews. And when there was some discussion about the making him a saint there was strong opposition – Let me just say the feeling is that that chapter in the Christian history and European history should not be forgotten and I say unless those who represent the victims – the children and the families – feel differently, the feeling in Israel is not for sanctifying his name, his memor
y, so on. It is an internal Christian affair, I can only give advice, I cannot tell them what to do, but there is an very sensitive general feeling among the majority of Jews in this connection because of the unprecendented event of the holocaust. If you go to Jerusalem to Yad Vashem, that is, the memorial for the holocaust, where Pope [John] Paul II went and prayed, there is a whole wall that represents the fact that the European world did not rise up to the challenge to try to fight it stronger than they did, or can we ignore the fact that many individuals have been saved, so it is a very mixed feeling and I don’t feel that I am in a position to give judgement.

I think the two most important things that the Rabbi said about Pius XII was “it should be proved, it should be more public” – this is certainly our task. And especially in regard to the claim that “there is no doubt that he did not raise his voice in public” – what else was the 1942 Christmas address? But also, we should remember what the Rabbi said: “Who is to become a judge? God is the judge.”

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