John Paul’s blow against a virus of the soul
Not the least of the historic achievements of Pope John Paul II was the healing he brought to relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. In Rome in 1986 he became the first Pope in many centuries to visit a synagogue. The words he used on that occasion were striking. He called the Jewish people our “elder brothers”. That one phrase threw a bridge across a deep historical abyss.
In March 2000 he visited Israel. He stood at the Western Wall, a place holy to Jews since the destruction of the Temple, and prayed for forgiveness for the suffering inflicted on Jews throughout the centuries. He called for “genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant”.
Seldom has a gesture been more powerful. Many Israelis were initially sceptical about the visit. Yet they too were moved by the sight of that frail, lonely individual standing by the wall of what was once the Temple, carrying with him the weight of centuries of estrangement, determined to repent for the past and chart a new way forward.
What drove him in this mission? As a child in Wadowice, Poland, the young Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends, and maintained contact with them throughout his life. Many years later, as Pope, he met Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and spoke of his memories of Lau’s grandfather walking to the synagogue in Piotrkow surrounded by his grandchildren.
He showed kindness to Jews during the war. Edith Schiere had miraculously escaped from a death camp. Wojtyla saw her staggering down the road, carried her to the train station on his back and gave her something to eat. He used to escort a Jewish girl, Anka Weber, in the street, to protect her from anti-Semitic attacks. Simple acts perhaps, but not so simple when done in the early 1940s close to a town called Oswiecim — now better known by its German name, Auschwitz.
John Paul II was not the first Pope to engage in reconciliation. For that, immense credit belongs to Pope John XXIII and his successor Paul VI. Reflecting on the Holocaust, they read the work of the historian Jules Isaac who showed how “the teachings of contempt” of the Church towards the Jews had given rise to a history of libels, false accusations, forced conversions, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, expulsions, ghettoes and pogroms.
The result was a historic change in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, initiated by the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965. Pope John Paul II deeply identified with that process and carried it forward. That took courage, honesty and humanity — the qualities that made him loved and admired within the church and beyond.
That work must continue. One of the most unexpected developments of my lifetime has been the global resurgence of anti-Semitism. The novelist Rebecca West once said that having seen so much suffering, Jews have an “unsurprisable soul”. Three years ago, having attended an anti-globalisation rally that quickly turned into a tirade against Israel and Jews, my daughter came to me with tears in her eyes and said: “Dad, they hate us”. That was when I discovered I had a surprisable soul.
Anti-Semitism is best understood as a virus. It has no logic. Jews were hated because they were rich and because they were poor; because they were capitalists and because they were communists; because they held tenaciously to an ancient faith and because they were rootless cosmopolitans, believing nothing. Hate needs no logic. It is a sickness of the soul.
Viruses mutate. That is how they defeat immune systems. They spread like epidemics and infect new populations. Today the instigators of anti-Semitism are no longer Christians. Yet what they repeat in updated forms are myths — from the blood libel to the protocols of the elders of Zion — that have their origins in Christian Europe.Anti-Semitism matters not just because it assaults Jews but because it assaults our common humanity. It is the paradigm case of fear of the outsider, the stranger, the one who is not like us. It resolves conflict within the group by projecting all evil on one outside the group. It is the world’s oldest hatred, and it has not died.
That is why the work of Pope John Paul II must continue and why organisations such as the Council of Christians and Jews are so necessary. For it was in the relationship between Jews and Christians that the wound began and where, if anywhere, it will be healed.