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May 12, 2009
Israel parses pope’s words at Holocaust memorial

Pope Benedict XVI visited the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on Monday on a highly politicized visit, and quickly repeated his support for a Palestinian state, saying that he hoped a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would result in “a homeland of their own” for both sides. 

Later, the pope paid tribute to victims of the Holocaust. At Yad Vashem, the national Holcoaust memorial, the German-born pope spoke of the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis, saying the cries of the victims continue to reverberate more than six decades after World War II.

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner measures the pope’s words. 

“Del dicho al hecho, un gran trecho.”

Pope Benedict’s current trip to Israel brings to mind that old Spanish refrain, “There’s a big difference between what people say and what they do” — more simply translated, “Words are cheap.”

No question, you could apply the saying to many topics in the news: “We don’t torture;” “Iran possesses nuclear fuel cycle technology, a capability which it is using exclusively for peaceful purposes;” and “I never took steroids or human growth hormone.”

Sometimes, parsing words too carefully doesn’t lead very far, as in the efforts of analyzing how much and how little the pope said in Israel yesterday.

How carefully should we be analyzing the adverbs and adjectives used by the pontiff when he visited Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Nazi extermination of six million Jews during World War II? Some in Israel are all about scanning every dactyl and iamb.

Pope Benedict condemned the Holocaust in a speech at the memorial yesterday, saying:

“I have come to stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah. 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 Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Meir Lau — a Holocaust survivor — praised the speech for being “beautiful and well-scripted and very Biblical.” But he added that the pope could have cited the more precise number of those killed, instead of saying “millions.” Also, he noted the pope used the word “killed” instead of choosing to say “murdered.”

“There’s a dramatic difference between killed and murdered, especially when a speech has gone through so many hands,” Lau said. 

Such analysis might be more forgiving were it not for questions about the pope’s previous pronouncements and actions. 

There was the case of Richard Williamson, a Roman Catholic Bishop, who once said: “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”

Benedict brought Williamson back into the fold, 20 years after he was excommunicated during the reign of Pope John Paul II.

And there was a lecture Pope Benedict delivered in 2006, in which he quoted a 700-year-old papal text: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…”

He was roundly criticized for that, although the Vatican said he was quoting, rather than citing his own view.

There is evidence that the pope knows the weight and value of words. In 1985, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he silenced the prominent Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff, who had questioned the authority of the Church hierarchy. Boff was an early advocate of Liberation Theology, whose adherents were criticized for promoting social movements in impoverished parts of the Third World.

Regardless the intent of and reaction to the pope’s statements, his other declared message in the Middle East was to urge an end to violence among Jews and Muslims. It’s not certain how much weight his words or actions will have in that larger context.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user catholicrlf under a Creative Commons license.


1 comment


was the pope ever actually silent? is the media parsing that too?

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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