Pope's Remarks on Holocaust Fail to Impress Israeli Leaders

By Howard Schneider
The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI faced criticism on Tuesday from Israeli religious and political leaders over his remarks about the Holocaust, a controversy that threatened to overshadow his calls for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

The pope's eight-day trip to Jordan and Israel had been carefully planned to reflect the sensitivities of Jews, Muslims and Christians. On Tuesday, for example, he visited both the Western Wall, where he followed Jewish tradition and placed a written prayer in the stones of Judaism's holiest place, and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims as the place from which the prophet Mohammed embarked on a miraculous journey to heaven.

But Benedict has run into a thicket of emotional expectations that he has left unsatisfied, particularly with his comments Monday at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Israeli critics said the German-born pope missed an opportunity to express regret for his country's central role in the extermination of 6 million Jews.

"You were not asked to do something unprecedented or heroic. All that was required from you was a brief, authoritative and touching sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That's all we wanted to hear," wrote Hanoch Daum, a columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

The tepid reaction to Benedict's trip prompted the Holy See's press office to mount a defense on Tuesday. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters it was unrealistic to expect the pope to recite a full litany of hoped-for phrases and ideas at every stop.

Lombardi noted that the 82-year-old pontiff has previously addressed many of the critics' concerns. During a 2006 stop at Auschwitz, for instance, Benedict said it was "particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany," to see the Nazi death camp.

"They think every time he should repeat everything, but this is not possible," Lombardi said.

But the Vatican's defense also drew attention to an issue it did not seek to highlight: the pope's compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager in Bavaria during the war. Lombardi at first denied Benedict's involvement in the youth group — which the pope mentions in his autobiography — then later in the day clarified that the pontiff was "involuntarily enrolled."

The criticism was not limited to officials. As the pope made a multi-faith tour of Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday, honoring Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites with words of peace and fellowship, members of all three faiths said they had heard little from the pontiff to indicate he understood what is important to them.

"If you come to the Jewish land as a German — we had different expectations. More taking on of responsibility," said Yuval Wultz, 29, who was shopping in the Old City's Jewish Quarter in preparation for his wedding.

Yacoub Moussa, a Christian Palestinian, noted that Jewish settlers had moved into Old City buildings where Arabs traditionally lived, and wondered how the Pope might address that.

Mohammed Salameh, a Muslim, noted that Benedict had yet to utter the words "Israeli occupation" during his trip and suggested that if the pope does not do so, it will be a sign he has sided with Israel.

Benedict's reception, perhaps, shows the impossibility of being all things to all people, of bringing a language of universal values into a region that dwells on detailed grievances. In 17 sets of prepared remarks issued since he began his trip in Jordan on Friday, Benedict has talked in broad strokes about faith and the need for unity and love among all people, and has said he is praying daily for peace.

Many of his listeners, however, have been looking for specifics: for him to set aside one day a year for Catholic priests to preach against anti-Semitism; for help freeing a captured Israeli soldier; for a denunciation of Israel's demolition of Palestinian homes in specific neighborhoods.

In the case of Yad Vashem, the expectation was not just for specific words, but for specific words in a specific place.

Within minutes of his arrival in Israel on Monday, Benedict issued a strong condemnation of anti-Semitism and mentioned the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. When he did not repeat those phrases at Yad Vashem — and also omitted any reference to the Nazis, Germany or the Catholic Church's neutrality in World War II — a central, symbolic moment of his visit fell flat for many Israelis.

"With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears," Israeli Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Israel Radio. He added that Benedict spoke "as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines."

Benedict has received a warmer welcome while ministering to Christians, meeting with priests and nuns and celebrating a Mass on Tuesday before a crowd of thousands near the Mount of Olives. He drew applause in his homily when he urged the local Christian community to persevere, declaring: "In the Holy Land there is room for everyone!"

Alfred Ra'ad, whose Old City shop is near one of the stops Benedict made on Tuesday, said that as a Catholic he was proud to have Benedict in the country. Yet, he said, compared to Pope John Paul II's visit nearly 10 years ago, the current pope seems distant.

"John Paul was loved and more popular," Ra'ad said. "This one — he has provoked people. He has apologized, but something stays in the heart."

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