It’s disappointing that Pope Benedict XVl will not visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum on his upcoming trip to Israel. And it’s equally disappointing that his decision is such a big deal to so many people. Both realities point to the way communities fight over different understandings of the past when they should be addressing real challenges in the present.
I appreciate that the Pope will visit the memorial on the grounds of Israel’s national site devoted to Holocaust memory and education, and I note that his decision is no different from that of his predecessor John Paul ll, who was heralded as a kind of inter-religious hero. But it still disappointing that Pope Benedict will skip the museum because of a single display which questions the role of war-time Pope Pius Xll in saving Jews from the Nazis.
Is there really no room for disagreement on this matter of historical interpretation? Is any alternative reading of the past such a threat to the Church of the present that the Pope will avoid the museum altogether? Must any disagreement between people always be interpreted as denigration?
I fear that in attempting to preserve the good memory of a previous Pope, Benedict is sending the wrong message — one which lacks precisely the kind of intellectual nuance for which he is rightly famous.
On the other hand, I wonder why it matters so much. It’s not as if the Pope will avoid the topic of the Holocaust on his trip. He will participate in the same wreath-laying ceremony in which all heads of state participate. He will acknowledge the epic human suffering that was the Shoah, and he will do so standing in the capitol of the State of Israel. Isn’t that enough?
In fact, one could reasonably ask why, with all of the issues confronting people of faith in the Middle East especially, some members of the Jewish and Israeli community are making so much of this. Must the Church agree with everything that is said by Yad Vashem in order to be deemed appropriately sensitive to Jewish suffering in the Shoah? Has the “Jewish version” of the Pope Pius story factored in the real pressures faced by the war-time pontiff? Or, do we simply assume that since he failed to do all that we would have hoped for, he failed to do anything meaningful at all?
Instead of bickering about Pope Benedict’s itinerary, I suggest that we use his trip and the inevitable frustrations on both sides that are evoked by it, to reach out to those on the other side of whatever issue divides us and better understand the thinking of those with whom we disagree. We may not reach a shared conclusion, but we would actually contribute to a world that was safer, saner and more civilized. And the last time I checked, that was a pretty central claim to both Judaism and Catholicism.