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Statement on the Pope's Silence in Syria By Rabbi Daniel Polish, Director, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and Mark J. Pelavin, Director, Commission on Interreligious Affairs


May 8, 2001

We speak with profound sadness and with concern about the silence of Pope John Paul II in the face of outrageously anti-Semitic statements made by the President of Syria in the Pope's presence and reiterated by the minister of religious affairs. These feelings are intensified by the refusal of the Vatican to address this issue even after it was called upon to do so.

Our sadness grows from knowing the great progress that has been made in relations between the Jewish and Catholic communities of faith in recent years. Together we have labored to build trust and understanding between our two communities.

This Pope himself has shown such powerful leadership in advancing understanding. He has been consistent in promoting understanding and conversations between Jews and Catholics. Indeed, he has made historic gestures toward the Jewish people. In all of his travels, he has made a point of meeting with Jewish leaders wherever he went. He crossed a threshold centuries high when he became the first pontiff to visit a synagogue - as he did when he attended the synagogue in Rome. Still later, he prayed at Auschwitz, and convened a moving and important concert in the Vatican in memory of those who perished in the Shoah. He oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel. To mark the new millennium, this Pope led the Church in statements of atonement against the wrongs committed by sons and daughters of the Church against Jews and the Jewish people. Most recently the Pope affirmed all his previous actions on his visit to Israel that has been described by some Catholic scholars as the strongest moment of his Pontificate. There he touched the hearts of Israelis and Jews around the world by acknowledging the reality of the State of Israel and by his words of repentance and teshuvah at Yad Vashem and again at the Western Wall.

As we consider the Pope's silence in Syria, and his continuing silence, we must take this opportunity to, again, urge own community to remind the public about the great strides in Catholic-Jewish relations under this Pope, and, specifically, the Church's recent teachings on anti-Semitism. In the past decades, which have seen greater progress in understanding between the Church and the Jewish people than the past score of centuries, the Church has called on its own members to set aside millennia of the teaching of contempt and to reject as false the teaching that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. At this very moment we are engaged in exploring together two sensitive questions: the extent to which the teaching of this pernicious doctrine in earlier generations led to the tragedy of the shoah -- the holocaust -- and the painful question of whether the church itself was silent during those dark days or did enough to save the Jewish people in Europe from destruction.

Yet today we see the picture of the Pope standing literally silent next to men propounding these very same destructive accusations against the Jews. Our concern grows from knowing that words of such incendiary quality can only have tragic consequences for Jews whether in the Middle East or through the impact on some disturbed person in other countries. The Pope's physical presence-and his refusal to reject these ideas, even after the fact-lends a certain authority and credence to them in the minds of uneducated people. We are aware that the Pope has made a consistent practice of not engaging in public debate with his hosts - not in Cuba, in Poland, or in Jerusalem, even on issues of critical importance - but it does not follow that it would be inappropriate for the Pope personally, or the Vatican corporately, to connect the teaching that anti-Semitism is a sin with these offense remarks.

We are not surprised by the primitive theology and the hatred expressed by the Pope's hosts. Nor are we shocked by their venomous character. We have become well acquainted with such statements over the years. We are dismayed by the political ends to which the Syrians have put the Pope's journey that was intended to be spiritual in nature. Although we do not hold the Pope accountable for President Assad's comments, we are deeply troubled by the Pope's silence in the presence of such words and the demurral of the Church hierarchy to say anything about the hateful ideas that were expressed. We are reminded of what Martin Luther King taught us, " we are dismayed less by the hateful words of our enemies than by the silence of our friends."

It is incumbent on the Church, which has rejected such teachings for itself and called on its own members to reject such destructive ideas, to denounce them when they are reintroduced onto the world stage. It is vital to be critical of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination in theory; it is just as vital, perhaps more so, to be critical of them in the specific. It is important to recognize anti-Semitism in the past; it is just as important, perhaps more, to do so when personally confronted with such filth.

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      The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1700 Reform rabbis.

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