Mr. Smith challenges the pope

He’s enjoying lunch in the lobby of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem, speaking casually but knowledgably about Jewish suffering. He’s wearing a “Shema Israel” pendant and recalling the “awe-inspiring” experience of visiting the “Kotel” (Western Wall) during a family to visit to Israel when he was 13. But Stephen D. Smith is not the typical Jewish tourist.

Smith, the son of a Methodist minister and a religious education teacher from Nottinghamshire, England, is the founder and director of the United Kingdom’s Holocaust Centre and a passionate advocate for Christian-Jewish relations. He is here to promote his latest project, No Going Back, a collection of essays directed at Pope Benedict XVI that Smith collected and co-edited for the occasion of the pope’s visit to the Holy Land.

The essays come from some three dozen Christians, Jews and Muslims from all over the world who answered the simple question, “If you had five minutes with Pope Benedict XVI, what would you say to him?” They reflect, Smith says, a great sense of concern that this papacy is much more hardline than that of John Paul II, and that the current pontiff’s conservative views on internal church matters are harming relations with the Jews.

In addition to the threat of Islamic extremism, the book focuses on concerns about three recent developments and what they mean for Christian-Jewish relations:

* The recent restoration of four excommunicated priests – especially Bishop Richard Williamson, whose anti-Semitic comments and Holocaust denial embarrassed the church and strained Vatican-Jewish relations.

* The Good Friday prayer, a rather negatively worded prayer for the conversion of the Jews that had been diluted in recent years, which Benedict XVI decreed may be restored to its earlier language.

* The advancement of the beatification process of World War II-era Pope Pius XII, whom Jewish groups claim did too little to combat or condemn the Holocaust.

“If a priest were excommunicated for consecrating gay marriage, he would not be accepted back into the fold. Yet a bishop who espouses anti-Semitism has been welcomed back into the fold,” Smith says, referring to Williamson. “So what message is the church trying to send? That gay marriage is not okay, but that anti-Semitism is okay?”

In light of all these events, Smith continues, “Views of this pope are forming as someone for whom fostering and enhancing Jewish-Christian relations are of less importance than in decades past. Our book… seeks to address these growing and legitimate concerns on His Holiness’s visit.”

“Many of our authors are people who sit between the communities; that is, they may be Catholics who are working positively on Jewish-Christian relations, or Jews working on engaging with Catholics. And when they see that kind of internal change going on, it sends all the wrong signals,” Smith says. “Because nothing that the church does internally is ever a purely internal matter.”

Smith, 42, has been delving into Christian-Jewish relations for two decades now. He studied Christian theology with an emphasis on Jewish studies and that, he says, is where he began to confront the issue of Christian anti-Semitism.

“I became extremely troubled by it,” he says, “especially because it didn’t seem like it was really being dealt with.”

So in 1995, Smith and his brother James built the Holocaust Center “to challenge Christians.”

Later, in response to the Rwandan genocide, he founded the Aegis trust. The organization educates about genocide, commemorates such atrocities and supports the victims of genocide.

He was also introduced to Carol Rittner, a Roman Catholic nun who is a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, editor of various Holocaust journals and author of several books about the Holocaust.

“She focuses a lot on the nexus between Christian ethics and conflict resolution, and she’s quite demanding in her thinking on that,” Smith says.

The two teamed up with Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer in 2000 on the book The Holocaust and the Christian World.

Since then, and in particular since the passing of John Paul II, who guided the church to an unprecedented rapprochement with the Jewish world, Smith and Rittner have grown increasingly wary of the church’s conservative bent. That’s why they collaborated again on No Going Back.

“Just as Jews try to ‘build a fence around the Torah,’” Smith says, “Pope Benedict XVI appears to be trying to build a fence around the church. The church is saying, ‘This is who we are, and we’re going to wear it on our sleeves, and whatever anybody thinks about that, we don’t really care.’

“That’s the wrong signal to be giving – particularly in the Middle East,” Smith feels. “That doesn’t give Jewish partners any confidence. It certainly gives no right to be able to come and say, ‘Let’s all make peace and Israelis and Palestinians reconcile with each other.’”

If Benedict XVI does not make bold statements on anti-Semitism, Smith says, what remains will be merely “vacuous statements that will make people wonder what, if anything, the church has to offer.”

The pope did address the issue of Holocaust commemoration upon his arrival in Israel on Monday, saying, “It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude.

“Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable,” he continued. “Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found.”

Those comments should go a long way toward soothing worries about the pope’s position in light of Williamson’s Holocaust denial. But the rest of the Christian world, Smith says, will still have to prove its resolve in the face of Islamist groups whose aims include the destruction of millions of Jews. As a man who has spent so much of his life raising awareness about the Holocaust, he is very worried that that danger is being overlooked.

“The big threat [of Jewish mass murder] is not past!” Smith says with great gravity. “I don’t think the Jewish people are past the threat of genocide at all. And the issue goes way beyond whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons that it can drop on Tel Aviv. The problem is the ideology of the Islamist groups around the world, for whom hatred of the Jews is a central tenet.

“People often say, ‘Well, this is a conflict between the state of Israel and other states, and Israel is strong, etc. But what people don’t appreciate is that the threat is not really against Israel, per se. It is against Jews, many of whom live in Israel. People conflate statehood and military conflict with a threat against people because of their ethnic background…”

“What were the four main elements in the Holocaust? A racial ideology; a target; the stated intent to harm that target, and the means to carry out that threat. The same pieces were in place in Rwanda. And they are in place with the Islamists, too – all, that is, except the means. And that is only so because they are not coordinated.”

In World War II Europe, Smith says, “churches protected their own institutional survival at the cost of their moral credibility.” He shutters to think the Christian world may let the same thing happen again.

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