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The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism

by David I. Kertzer

Buy the book: David I. Kertzer. The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism

Release Date: 18 September, 2001

Edition: Hardcover

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Buy the book: David I. Kertzer. The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism


How the Roman Catholic Church Abetted the Holocaust

In 1987, Pope John Paul II requested the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to investigate what responsibility, if any, the Roman Catholic Church bore for the programmatic murder of millions of Jews during the Second World War. Eleven years later the Commission delivered its answer in a document entitled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." Perhaps not surprisingly, the Commission concluded that the Church bore no responsibility, resting its conclusion on the specious distinction between "anti-Semitism"--the doctrine that grew up in Europe in the nineteenth century and that motivated the Holocaust--and "anti-Judaism," the doctrine that the Church preached for hundreds of years. As David Kertzer summarized the intellectually painful semantic parsing of the Vatican Commission in his Introduction to "The Popes Against the Jews":

"According to the report, a crucial distinction must be made. What arose in the late nineteenth century, and sprouted like a poisonous weed in the twentieth, was 'anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church.' This they contrasted with 'anti-Judaism,' long-standing attitudes of mistrust and hostility of which 'Christians also have been guilty,' but which, in the Vatican report, had nothing to do with the hatred of the Jews that led to the Holocaust."

In "The Popes Against the Jews," Kertzer meticulously documents how the Vatican, and the Catholic Church throughout Europe, created fertile ground for the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany. Kertzer's factually-based historical argument demonstrates that, contrary to the 1998 conclusion of the Vatican Commission, a more credible statement of the Church's role was made in 1939 by Roberto Farinacci, a member of Mussolini's Fascist Grand Council, while speaking on "The Church and the Jews":

"We fascist Catholics consider the Jewish problem from a strictly political point of view. . . . But it comforts our souls to know that if, as Catholics, we became anti-Semites, we owe it to the teachings that the Church has promulgated over the past twenty centuries."

"The Popes Against the Jews" is a grim indictment of the Church's antagonistic relationship with the Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Kertzer shows how this relationship was particularly heinous in the Vatican states during the years prior to Italian unification, when the religious authority of the Church was combined with secular power. While seemingly little known today, as recently as the mid-nineteenth century the Church in Italy engaged in the kidnapping and forced baptism of Jewish children and the forced ghettoization of the Jews (including the requirement that Jews wear a yellow star). When Vatican political power began to wane in Italy, the Church directed its energies more strongly towards the propagation of the infamous myth of Jewish ritual murder-the "Blood Libel"-and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," fueling the atavistic fires of anti-Semitism and pogroms among the Catholic faithful in Europe. In all of this, the Catholic press was deeply involved, including, as Kertzer documents, the Vatican-approved "L'Osservatore Romano" and "Civilta Cattolica" (published by the Jesuits).

While there is a polemical edge to Kertzer's history, it is an edge that to this reader, anyway, is unavoidable given the heinous nature of the events and attitudes he documents. Far from a smear campaign against the Church, "The Popes Against the Jews" is a well-written, carefully researched and methodically documented historical argument that enlightens rather than misleads.

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Revolting and Revealing History

A report commissioned by Pope John Paul II three years ago had no criticism to give of past popes or past church actions which could have been connected to the Haulocaust. _The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism_ (Knopf) by David Kertzer, is a strong rebuttal of such a conclusion. Kertzer has mined church documents of the past two centuries (many of which, to its credit, the church allowed him access) to demonstrate inarguably that the church of into the early twentieth century was insisting on Jewish racial inferiority, perfidy, and sociopathy. It insisted on ghettoes and special clothing for Jews. It revived ancient legends of how the Talmud ordered Jews to mix the blood of tortured Christians (especially children) into the Passover matzah.

Such reading is distasteful, but Kertzer is an expert at letting facts speak for themselves, without rage or pedantry. This was true also of his excellent previous book, _The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara_, which told how Pius IX took a boy from his Jewish family because a Christian servant had supposedly baptized the child years before. The kidnapping gets a few pages in the current book, which is a much larger and more impressive scholarly feat. The examples which he gives are unassailable. Pope Leo XIII, for instance, never objected to the anti-Dreyfus campaign of _La Croix_, the daily newspaper of the Assumptionist Fathers who especially criticized the attempts to reverse Dreyfus's rigged conviction. Indeed, his official newspaper _L'Osservatore Romano_ insisted on Dreyfus's guilt, and literally defended the anti-Semitism of the mobs "attempting to rehabilitate a traitor," because "... we find the betrayal of one's country has been Jewishly conspired and Jewishly executed." The pope did, however, become distressed by the vehemence of the anti-Dreyfusards, and the paper changed its tone dramatically upon the retrial in 1899, but in a few weeks, it was reporting on the "Judaic ritual murder" of a little boy in Hungary whose blood had been drained by the Jews. Pius X refused to intervene in a Kiev trial of a Jew on the charge of ritual murder in 1913. The administration of Pius X (whose secretariat of state was one of the distributors of the rabidly anti-Semitic forgery _The Protocols of the Elders of Zion_) would not deny the myth, allowing it to continue unchecked.

This is a revolting record which Kertzer has exhaustively analyzed and set out. It is certainly true that the church for the past four decades has admitted anti-Semitic wrongdoing and mea culpas, even though it cannot officially acknowledge the role which Kertzer has documented. Anti-Semitism is now anathema to most Catholics and most Christians. But Kertzer has made clear that the sorry history of Catholic prejudices against the Jews was resurrected from its medieval roots when the church wanted to be on its guard against change, against freedom of religion or freedom of the press, or against loss of the Papal States. Thus when fascists came to power they could insist they were doing merely as the church had done. The Italian Catholic press and Church authorities had warned of the harm done by giving the Jews equal rights, and Mussolini's anti-Jewish campaign could point out that even the Jesuits had for four centuries denied membership to any man with Jewish ancestry as far back five generations. (The rule was changed in 1946.) When the German goons came to clear out the ghetto of Rome and send the inhabitants to Auschwitz in 1943, Pope Pius XII did nothing to stop it. He was following centuries of tradition.

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