Pope John Paul II's appearance at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and his apologies to the Jews help to heal the schism between Catholics and Jews.
Jews have often viewed the Catholic Church as their greatest persecutor. To this day, many Orthodox rabbis will not enter a church because of past persecutions.
We are reminded of this view every Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, when rabbis around the world read the story of Rabbi Amnon, who was an adviser to the bishop of Mainz, Germany, in the 12th century. The bishop asked Rabbi Amnon to convert to Christianity, and the rabbi asked for three days to decide. On the third day, Rabbi Amnon returned, told the bishop that he regretted having taken three days to make his decision and should have responded no immediately. The bishop then had Rabbi Amnon's hands and feet severed one by one.
Jews did not truly feel comfortable with the Catholic Church until 1965, when Pope John XXIII announced the changes of Vatican II. Before that time, Jews were stigmatized by many parish priests, particularly in Europe, as Christ- killers who deserved scorn.
In the years preceding World War II, particularly in eastern Europe, civic and church leaders were responsible for inciting pogroms, and limiting where Jews could live and the professions they could practice. Pope John Paul II's apology to the Jews and others for past sins on the part of Catholics specified two major incidents in Catholic-Jewish relations.
During the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, the Crusades began under the direction of Pope Urban II, who sought to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. Crusaders also destroyed many synagogues in the Holy Land, wreaked havoc in Jewish communities and put Jews to death.
By 1492, the Spanish Inquisition was in full force and Jews were expelled if they would not convert. Those who converted risked the rack and other tortures if their conversions were not deemed sufficiently zealous. Pope John Paul II's apology seeks to make amends for these horrific events.
The greatest tragedy for the Jewish people was the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as Shoah, when 6 million Jews, 1.5 million of them children, were murdered in the ''final solution.'' That monumental atrocity was led by Hitler and executed by Christians. The pope's omission of the Holocaust from his apology was painful, but he did mention the Holocaust at Yad Vashem.
In a statement issued in 1998, Pope John Paul II did acknowledge the failure of Catholics to do enough to prevent the Holocaust. That document appeared flawed to Jews because it ignored the failure of Pope Pius XII to speak out forcefully against the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The defense offered by supporters for the conduct of Pope Pius XII is expressed in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and is that ''speaking publicly would harm the Jews whom the Pope wanted to help'' and ''the fear that the Gestapo might seize the Pope and the Vatican.''
The pope was not alone in this failure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to do all he could to save Jews offered the opportunity to leave Germany if other countries would accept them. Tragically, the United States and most Western countries would not. Yet, we revere FDR, who saved the Western world from Nazi domination. His defenders give reasons for his failure to do more to save Jews from death.
But looking to the future is more important than dwelling on the past. With this in mind, the Anti-Defamation League announced shortly after the pope's apology that it shares ''his commitment to enhancing Catholic-Jewish relations.''
The pope's anguish is apparent in his plea to God: ''We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.''
We are all children of God, none without sin. Each of us must ask whether we have done all required to be pure. While there is no moral equivalent to atrocities committed by the Nazis, ask yourself where were you when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. If you are white, ask what you do each day when African-American fellow citizens are subjected to indignities and discrimination.
How many of us can justly cast the first stone?
The refrain ''John Paul II, we love you,'' is well deserved.
(Koch, a former mayor of New York City, is a columnist for Newsday.)
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