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Chabad Reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel

Rabbi Sholom DovBer Wolpe, leader of Chabad’s messianist faction in Israel, condemns the Church and Pope. As Israel prepares for Benedict XVI’s historic visit, head of SOS Israel believes ‘rabbis must not meet with the pope because the Catholic Church tortured and murdered Jews and helped the Nazis annihilate the Jewish people’ (Efrat Weiss, Ynet).

Question: What is your opinion about this reaction?

Answer: Rabbi Wolpe is an outspoken Habad rabbi who believes that the deceased Rebbe of Lubavitch is going to come back from the dead and redeem the Jewish people. His perspectives on a variety of Jewish and political issues are regarded by many Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews as provocative–even fanatical.

Personally, I think you need to look back at the eulogies Jewish leaders gave in honor of Pope Pius XII shortly after his demise.

Numerous Jewish leaders, including Albert Einstein, Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog (who was a brilliant rabbinic scholar), expressed their public gratitude to Pius XII, praising him as a “righteous gentile,” who had saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

In his meticulously researched and comprehensive 1967 book, Three Popes and the Jews, the Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide, who had served as the Israeli Counsel General in Milan, and had spoken with many Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors who owed their life to Pius, provided the empirical basis for their gratitude, concluding that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” To this day, the Lapide volume remains the definitive work, by a Jewish scholar, on the subject.

“December of 1940, in an article published in Time magazine, the renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, paid tribute to the moral “courage” of Pope Pius and the Catholic Church in opposing “the Hitlerian onslaught” on liberty:

“Being a lover of freedom, when the Nazi revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom: but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.”

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, tributes to Pope Pius came from several other Jewish leaders who praised him for his role in saving Jews during the war.

In 1943, Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president, wrote that “the Holy See is lending its powerful help wherever it can, to mitigate the fate of my persecuted co-religionists.”

Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel’s first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister, reinforced these feelings of gratitude when he met with Pius in the closing days of World War II: “I told him [the Pope] that my first duty was to thank him, and through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public for all they had done in the various countries to rescue Jews…We are deeply grateful to the Catholic Church.”

In 1945, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, sent a message to Msgr. Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII), expressing his gratitude for the actions taken by Pope Pius XII on behalf of the Jewish people. “The people of Israel,” wrote Rabbi Herzog, “will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion, which form the foundation of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.”

In September 1945, Dr. Leon Kubowitzky, the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, personally thanked the Pope in Rome for his interventions on behalf of Jews, and the World Jewish Congress donated $20,000 to Vatican charities “in recognition of the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecutions.”

Dr. Raffael Cantoni, head of the Italian Jewish community’s wartime Jewish Assistance Committee, who would subsequently become the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, similarly expressed his gratitude to the Vatican, stating that “six million of my co-religionists have been murdered by the Nazis, but there could have been many more victims had it not been for the efficacious intervention of Pius XII.”

On April 5, 1946, his Union of Italian Jewish Communities, meeting for the first time after the War, sent an official message of thanks to Pope Pius XII: “The delegates of the Congress of the Italian Jewish Communities, held in Rome for the first time after the Liberation, feel that it is imperative to extend reverent homage to Your Holiness, and to express the most profound gratitude that animates all Jews for your fraternal humanity toward them during the years of persecution when their lives were endangered by Nazi-Fascist barbarism. Many times priests suffered imprisonment and were sent to concentration camps, and offered their lives to assist Jews in every way. This demonstration of goodness and charity that still animates the just, has served to lessen the shame and torture and sadness that afflicted millions of human beings.”

So in the end, will Pope Pius XII be judged harshly for not saving more? Who can truthfully answer this question? However, we should give credit to the Pope for saving the large numbers he managed to help through his loyal representatives and influence.

However, let’s say just for argument’s sake, regardless whether the Pope did or didn’t do enough to save European Jews is a matter that historians–Jewish and Christian—will argue, but there can be no argument that Chabad did absolutely nothing to assist their dying brethren. I believe that the Rebbe started his outreach program to revitalize Judaism in order to help atone for what his movement failed to accomplish during the years of the Holocaust.