Monday, May 11, 2009

Contrition, Apologies and Understanding

In "Tender Sensibilities" (below), I wrote about the disappointment in the Arab world with the Pope's lack of contrition for quotes that he had used about Islam having been spread by the sword which, incidentally, it clearly was. In the post I was roundly critical of their reaction and I'll not retract a word.

Islam has a long way to go before it can be generally accepted as the "religion of peace" that it professes to be and the key step is to reign in its bloodthirsty extremists.

That said, there seems to be disappointment in Israel , as well, with Benedict XVI:

Pope Benedict XVI on Monday paid tribute to the memory of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, pledging to work tirelessly to prevent such hatred from recurring in the hearts of mankind again.

But the pontiff's closely-watched speech at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial stopped short of an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church, producing palpable disappointment among those Israelis who had expected a historic address from the German-born pope on the first day of his visit here.

"I have come to stand in silence before the monument erected to honor the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah," Benedict said in his speech.

"They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names. These are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again."

The solemn memorial service, which was held at the Holocaust Memorial's darkened Hall of Remembrance, was seen as the highlight of the pontiff's visit to the Jewish state, especially in light of the recent controversy over the pope's decision to revoke the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust.

"I reaffirm - like my predecessors - that the church is committed to praying and working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men
again," he said.

The English-language address by the pontiff, which was peppered with biblical quotations but which never referred to the Nazis and avoided all Holocaust-related issues of contention, was preceded by the pope's rekindling of the eternal flame in the chamber, which has a mosaic floor engraved with the names of 22 of the most infamous Nazi murder sites.

He also laid a wreath over a stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims.

"As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood," he said.

"I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope," he concluded.

All well and good, but there was still disappointment in the air:

The chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who is a Holocaust survivor, expressed disappointment at the pope's speech, saying that "there certainly was no apology expressed here."

"Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret," Lau said. "If not an apology, then an expression of remorse."

Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said that the "certain restraint" in the formulation of the speech was a "missed opportunity."

"I did not expect an apology, but we expected more," he told The Jerusalem Post. "This is certainly no historic landmark."

"I had expected a historic speech from the German pope at the site which is a memorial altar for the victims of Nazi Germany," said Prof. Shevah Weiss, a former Yad Vashem chairman and Holocaust survivor. "And though the speech was moving - it wasn't that."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin - who was absent from all of the welcoming festivities other than the visit to Yad Vashem - said after the pope's speech that "everything that we feared came to fruition."

"I came to the memorial not only to hear historical descriptions or about the established fact of the Holocaust. I came as a Jew, hoping to hear an apology and a request for forgiveness from those who caused our tragedy, and among them, the Germans and the church. But to my sadness, I did not hear any such thing," he said.

"The visit to Yad Vashem does not constitute an expression of regret as such," added Rivlin. "The eyes of Jews across the world, and of the nation in Israel, were directed here, in anticipation of hearing honest communion - personal and determined - regarding the Holocaust of their people. And we heard nothing of the sort."

There were certainly some positive reactions at the end of the piece and I encourage you to read it all.

I am, and continue to be, a proud supporter of Israel and have a banner on my blog attesting to that fact. While I'm not Jewish, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, raised by parents from whom I never detected even a whiff of antisemitism. My mother used to say "it's good to live in a Jewish neighborhood; they're good people". I had as many Jewish friends as Christian, and as a Roman Catholic, I always felt an odd kinship to the Jews that I really cannot explain.

Having always had an interest in history, I came to know quite a lot about the Holocaust at an early age. Several years ago, I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and the experience haunts me to this day.

No amount of apologies and professions of grief will ever undo this horrific chapter in human history. Those responsible, who are still alive, should be hunted down and hanged for their crimes, regardless of their age. Their modern ideological heirs should occupy no place at the table of civilized discourse and should be shunned as the vermin that they are. They are the enemies of humanity and should be treated accordingly. "Never Again" shows the innate frailty of words, but words are all we have.

I cannot imagine the horrors these Holocaust survivors experienced, but I am sure that their experiences hold considerable sway on their attitudes, as is to be expected. For that reason, I do not feel comfortable criticizing their disappointment or their perceptions regarding Benedict's remarks, and I won't.

What I can do is to hope that generations of Jews, present and future, will find a way to refrain from blaming all Germans and expecting constant apologies for atrocities of which individuals were clearly not a part. Benedict was clearly not a Nazi and had no interest in becoming one:

Following his fourteenth birthday in 1941, Ratzinger was enrolled in the Hitler Youth, as membership was required for all 14-year old German boys after December 1939,[6] but was an unenthusiastic member and refused to attend meetings.[7] His father was a bitter enemy of Nazism, believing it conflicted with the Catholic faith, according to biographer John L. Allen, Jr. In 1941, one of Ratzinger's cousins, a 14-year-old boy with Down syndrome, was taken away by the Nazi regime to a care center and killed there in secrecy during the Aktion T4 euthanasia campaign of Nazi eugenics.[8] In 1943 while still in seminary, he was drafted at age 16 into the German anti-aircraft corps. Ratzinger then trained in the German infantry, but a subsequent illness precluded him from the usual rigours of military duty. As the Allied front drew closer to his post in 1945, he deserted back to his family's home in Traunstein after his unit had ceased to exist, just as American troops established their headquarters in the Ratzinger household. As a German soldier, he was put in a POW camp but was released a few months later at the end of the War in summer 1945. He reentered the seminary, along with his brother Georg, in November of that year.

Pope Benedict XVI's portrayal as being insufficiently contrite, and in some quarters actually sympathetic to the Nazis is unfair and runs counter to the historical record. Were he, or members of his immediate family, sympathizers, I think personal apologies would be in order but, to this point, there has been no evidence to that effect presented. He, and his family were also victims of a totalitarian regime, though, obviously, to a far lesser extent than German and Eastern European Jews.

Yes, we must "never forget", for such evil ideologies are still alive today and the past has a way of rearing its ugly head when we least expect it. Vigilance is the key to preventing of a repeat of that past. On the other hand, indiscriminately using Germans in general, or the Pope in particular, as vessels for the anguish of the past, on the basis of their nationality alone, distracts us from the work we have ahead of us in eliminating the hate that created that anguish.

In deference to complaints about the Church itself, there was profound lack of recognition and action before and during the war on the part of the Church that is a matter of record. John Paul II addressed this matter, to his credit, and I wish that Benedict XVI had taken the opportunity to do the same. I do hope that Benedict will consider these criticisms and complaints and address them in an effort to bring these two great faiths to a higher level of trust and understanding.

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