Published in The Jerusalem Post on March 12, 2000
Did you know that the Jewish people today is threatened by a dangerous enemy who “secretly plots complicated, complex plans to weaken the stability of the State of Israel, bit by bit” and who “aspires to the final annihilation of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, at one stage or another”?
Yes indeed, this insidious, hyper-active archenemy “is the greatest foe ever to rise against us”, whose “theoretical, spiritual and practical goal is to destroy the eternality of Israel”. This enemy “acts to collapse the State of Israel by supporting anti-Israel terrorist organizations, under the cover of concern for justice and humanity”. This indefatigable antagonist seeks to “suck our blood” and “burn our souls” by “lying in ambush outside the door of every Jewish family in economic and Jewish distress, seeking to convert them”.
You guessed it, our “Number One Enemy” today is none other than Christianity and the Catholic Church. At least that is the story according to an intemperate booklet I picked up last week, published just in time for the Pope’s visit. Penned by prominent scholar and national-religious yeshiva dean, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the ill-considered work is provocatively entitled: “The Christian Enemy”.
With all due respect to Rabbi Aviner, I beg to differ.
Now, I’m no softy on the Christian Church, nor am I tingling with excitement about the upcoming pilgrimage of Christ’s Holy See. I won’t be out on the streets of our united Jerusalem (which the Vatican doesn’t recognize) waving a flag and cheering-on a cross-bearing John Paul II.
I have not forgotten 2000 years of vicious Christian anti-Semitism — the burning of Jews at the stake and the burning of the Talmud, the disputations and inquisitions, blood libels and pogroms — right up to the Holocaust and through the early years of our statehood. I don’t like the Pope’s cozying-up to Yasser Arafat.
Furthermore, we are still in deep conflict with Christianity over central religious concepts such as Divine mission and election, and I am not prepared to yield an inch of my dogma, even in this age of slippery inter-faith relativism. I am also deeply offended by the Christian missionary activity in Israel that has greatly intensified in recent years, about which Rabbi Aviner correctly rails.
But a modicum of fairness and balance is called for, even when writing about an age-old theological adversary who heads a still-problematic institution. In the year 2000, not all Christians are marauding Crusaders nor do all Churches seek to forcibly convert Jews — not hardly. And the current Pope *is* different from other Popes.
A little credit where credit is due. John Paul II has changed for the better the way in which Christians view, and teach about, Jews. He has reaffirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish People retains eternal validity — an enormous, almost unbelievable theological concession for the Church. More than thirty times he has said that anti-Semitism is a “sin against God”.
He has called upon his flock to do *teshuva* for misdeeds against the Jews, using the Hebrew word for repentance. He has respectfully attended synagogue services and spoken of Jews as “elder brothers”; has finally acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and its right to security; and personally overseen the establishment of diplomatic relations with the country that embodies Jewish continuity. On this visit to Israel, John Paul II is going to be received by our heads of state and will stand to attention for *Hatikva* – a great victory for Judaism and Zionism.
Rabbi Aviner, who relates none of this in his angry treatise, avers that John Paul II’s warmer touch is just Catholic lip-service, a tactical change in tone forced upon the Church by changed political realities. The rabbi’s paradigm is the midrashic dictum: “Esau eternally hates Jacob”.
This suspicion of the Church is not totally unfounded. There are still those in Rome who want to beautify Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope”. Even with regard to the Pope’s upcoming visit, there are ugly stories circulating about the Vatican’s insistence that Israeli ambulances accompanying the Pope be stripped of their Star of David symbols. John Paul II could have been more respectful of our Shabbat too; many leading rabbis politely requested this and were rebuffed by Rome.
Nevertheless, the few, fringe right-wingers who threaten to demonstrate against the Pope during his visit are wrong, morally and tactically. We ought to be able to recognize and amiably acknowledge favorable change in Christian attitudes where such exists, and it does. And the State of Israel has no need to alienate hundreds millions of fair-minded Christians around the world who’ll be watching the Pope’s pilgrimage on television.
Memory is central to Judaism, and we mustn’t forget what the Catholic Church has been. But the Jewish People and the State of Israel have no need to make enemies out of potential friends and to spurn good will where it is proffered.