Singing from his own song sheet at Yad Vashem

John L. Allen Jr and Tom Heneghan both discuss the negative reaction in the Jewish press to the Holy Father’s speech at Yad Vashem yesterday.

It seems that Pope Benedict did not realise that there was a pre-existing script he was supposed to have been following, and decided to use his own. It also seems that – true to form – he tried to use the visit as a “teaching moment” rather than as an opportunity to improve his image with his audience. In any case, he was singing from his own song book.

Let’s look at what Allen has to say (my comments in [italics]):

Benedict’s timeless touch noble, but tricky
May. 12, 2009
By John L Allen Jr

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit yesterday to Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust memorial, had been billed coming into this trip as a make-or-break moment, a key test of whether the pontiff could mend fences with Jews after several recent setbacks. This morning, the lead commentary in Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily, carried this reaction: “Benedict’s speech showed verbal indifference and banality.” [!!!]

Safe to say, that’s not exactly the headline the Vatican was hoping for.

To be sure, other Jewish commentators so far have been far more positive, accenting the importance of the pope’s choice to visit Yad Vashem and his firm commitment to Holocaust remembrance. A striking number of critical voices, however, saw the visit as a missed opportunity. (Notably, those voices included the chairman of the board of directors at Yad Vashem.)

Aside from some relatively minor points of word choice – that Benedict said Jews had been “killed,” not “murdered,” and that “millions” of Jews died rather than “six million,” even though he cited that figure in an earlier speech at the Tel Aviv airport) – the main thrust of the criticism centered on three points missing from the speech:

[1] Acknowledgment of the role that Christian anti-Semitism played in shaping attitudes that led to the Holocaust;
[2]Reference to Benedict’s own biography as a German who saw the horrors of the Nazi regime with his own eyes, and who had himself been drafted into the German army;
[3]Regret for the recent strain in Catholic/Jewish ties caused by the lifting of the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, who is a Holocaust denier.

[Thus far, it sounds to me like BXVI simply wasn’t accepting the textbook narrative that some wanted to thrust upon him. There were other criticisms, like the fact that he didn’t specify SIX million Jews (he said only “millions”) and that he said the victims were “killed” – which was taken as an intentional choice rather than the vocabulary that they were “murdered”.]

…Since it was entirely predictable that the absence of these three points from the Yad Vashem speech would stir reaction, the $64,000 question becomes: Why didn’t Benedict say it?

It would be easier to answer if it were clear that Benedict didn’t actually think these things – that is, if he didn’t believe that anti-Semitic attitudes among Christians played any role in the Holocaust, or that his personal experience is irrelevant to what Yad Vashem symbolizes, or if he felt no regret for the Williamson affair. Then his decision not to say them would make all the sense in the world.

In fact, however, Benedict is on record as thinking and saying the precise opposite.

…So once again, the inevitable question: Why didn’t he say any of this at Yad Vashem?

Jesuit Fr. Fedrico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, attempted to answer that question in a session with reporters today in Jerusalem.

“He does not have to repeat every time, in every speech, all the points he has made in the past about the tragedy of the Holocaust,” Lombardi said. “Many people who have not listened on other occasions to what the pope has said expect him to repeat it every time, but this is not possible.”

That’s certainly a point. Yet inevitably, there’s a difference between saying it in an article in L’Osservatore Romano or in a letter to bishops, and saying it at Yad Vashem – when virtually every major news network in the world is carrying the event live, and when it’s one of the rare occasions when the pope has unfiltered access to the Israeli and Jewish “street.” [I sympathise with both Lombardi and Allen’s points here.]

One could argue, of course, that Benedict did not want to tarnish the significance of the Yad Vashem visit by using his speech to put out fires or score PR points. It’s also true that Benedict is legendary for thinking in centuries, implying that his main concern is rarely what tomorrow’s headline might be.

Yet Lombardi seemed to hint at a deeper logic for the way Benedict chose his words. The theme of the speech, Lombardi insisted, was “memory,” and that’s where the pontiff placed his focus.

In fact, the most dramatic line from the speech came near the end. Meditating aloud on the sight of the reflecting pool at Yad Vashem, where the faces of Holocaust victims gaze back at visitors, Benedict said the memory of those who were lost “is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence … a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood.”

Perhaps the key words in that line of thought are “every” and “perpetual.” At monuments to evil such as Auschwitz and Yad Vashem, Benedict seems compelled to offer reflections which are deliberately universal and timeless.

In both cases, he clearly acknowledged the specificity of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and resolved to ensure that such crimes are never repeated. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI seems to see such settings – not just Holocaust memorials, but also, for example, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, which he visited last April – as eternal reminders of the seductive power of hatred. One has the impression that to him, it would fail to do justice to what these places represent if he were to turn the focus upon himself, or recent events and plans of action, or even too much on the historical particularities of the location.

In a sound-bite, he seems to believe that occasions for grappling with the deepest and most painful mysteries about God’s plan require something more from a pope than good image management.

Put that way, of course, it sounds quite noble. The fly in the ointment is that Benedict is nonetheless pope in the here and now, and whatever he does and says – or, in this case, fails to say – has immediate real-world consequences: For inter-faith relations, for the public image of the Catholic church, for his capacity to get a hearing, and across the board. Thinking in centuries when you speak in public is a marvelous academic disposition, but it can be a tricky business for a leader on the global stage.

Whatever one makes of Benedict’s approach to these moments, however, one thing seems clear after four years, which has been reinforced this week: This is who Benedict XVI is, and he’s not likely to change simply because day-after headlines don’t break his way.

I think Allen is on the right tack here. Benedict does not treat the Holocaust as an isolated event – an hiccup in human history. He sees it as an expression of that evil that humanity is capable of when it forgets God and hence forgets the dignity of the fellow man who is also created in God’s image. Jews naturally see the holocaust in specific terms: this is what happened to them. And Yad Vashem is clearly a memorial to the Holocaust. Yet Pope Benedict wanted to challenge his audience to see the cry of those murdered in the Holocaust as

a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood. It is the cry of Abel rising from the earth to the Almighty.

My reading of his speech is that the Holy Father didn’t want to talk about what happened sixty years ago. He wanted to talk about something else. He wanted to warn us about what is still in danger of happening today – the continual threat that human injustice and violence poses to the human race at all points in history.

The catch-cry of the Shoah memorial is “Never again”. To do that, as our Jewish brothers and sisters constantly remind us, we must “Never Forget”. But there is a single trap here that is reached by two paths. The first path into that trap is by forgetting the past – but the second path is by being so focused on the specific context of the past horror that we fail to see the same horror when it threatens us in the future or even in the present. The Holocaust could happen again. Some would even say it IS happening right now (for various given applications). This time round the victims may not be Jews. They could be (ARE?) any of us. That is a horror that the world needs to be warned about, even if it means singing from the wrong song sheet to say it.

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2 Responses to Singing from his own song sheet at Yad Vashem

  1. Matthias says:

    One could ask ,do we still need to apologise for the holocaust,but as phillip yancey wrote in his book SO WHAT’S AMAZING ABOUT GRACE,we Christians should keep silent when it comes to Jews and the Holocaust and issues around forgiveness. Although my head seems to think that the Orthodox jews in israel-majority Ashkenazim rather than Sephardic- will not let the POPE forget his decision re removing SSPX’s ex communication,and this is why sections of the Press there will not let up.But the genocides of Rwanda,the Balkans and in Pakistan show that History is being forgotten-again,thus the need to NEVER FORGET

  2. Louise says:

    Interesting, because the May issue of AD2000 ( had an article by a Rabbi (not online yet) defending the Church’s decision re the SSPX re-communications.

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