Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Concluding an Appalling Silence

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2000 --  

For weeks before today's much-touted visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel, pressure has been building for the pontiff to atone for the Catholic Church's silence during the Jewish Holocaust of World War II. Vatican critics and Jewish leaders have consistently denounced the wartime complacency of Pope Pius XII, who -- according to some limited evidence -- may have held anti-Semitic and other racist beliefs.1 These accusations have helped keep relations between the Vatican and Israel strained for the past 50 years. A little millennial papal groveling might be just the trick to improve relation between Jews and Catholics around the world.

But John Paul shouldn't stop there. After gaining the moral high ground through a statement of contrition, the pope should take Israel to task for its discriminatory treatment of Israel's Christian minority, its severe repression of Christian Palestinians in the West Bank, and its terrorist attacks against neighboring Christians in Lebanon. As a world leader of Christians, John Paul has both the responsibility and the moral authority to stand up to Israel's leaders and demand an end to the following practices:

  • Israel officially denies the right of its Christian citizens to fill many government jobs because they are non-Jews.2
  • Palestinians -- both Christian and Muslim -- have been subjected to military rule and a suspension of civil liberties in the West Bank for over 30 years. Those who fled as refugees during the many wars have been denied the right to return to their homes, and their property has been confiscated.
  • In retaliation for Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerilla attacks against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon, Israel last month sent warplanes to attack a civilian power generating plant in Beirut -- a completely unrelated target hundreds of miles away. This intentional use of violence against Christian and Muslim civilians in Lebanon can accurately be described as Israeli terrorism.

Such harsh criticisms of Israel's abysmal leadership would normally only inflame relations between Jerusalem and the Holy See. But with all the world's media attention focussed on the first papal visit to the Holy Land since the birth of Israel, such statements could carry great weight, if combined with a sincere apology for the Catholic Church's failure to speak out against Nazi attacks on Jews.

By accepting the challenge of Jewish leaders to apologize, John Paul could then legitimately state that he has an equal responsibility to speak out against Israeli repression. In the context of such a dramatic gesture, criticisms of the Israeli regime could be difficult to ignore.

Of course, one of the main reasons that such criticisms might lead to results is that Israel -- for all its faults -- has a largely open, democratic system. This is something that Israel's defenders will likely stress in response to any criticism the pope may give. But just because Israel's respect for human rights far exceeds that of its neighbors, it should not be excused from criticism for its trespasses. As members of a liberal society, Israel's leaders frankly should know better.

It is this kind of not-so-subtle reminder that is sorely needed in Israel's political climate. By seizing the moral high ground through an apology for wartime transgressions, John Paul may be just the one to give it.

  1. 60 Minutes, March 19, 2000
  2. The Washington Post, Christians Make Exodus from Land of Jesus' Birth, March 17, 2000