Last week, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechay Lewy, made some confusing comments at a ceremony honoring an Italian priest who helped Jews during WWII, which seemed to amount to rare praise for Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 and 1958. Pius XII is infamous for his lack of action during the Holocaust, refusing Jews’ pleas for help on the grounds of maintaining neutrality. The Vatican claims that public protestation would have done no good, and that instead Pius worked behind the scenes to forestall further Nazi reprisals. Many Jews, however, disagree, saying that he was silent while he could have been saving lives.
It’s thus unsurprising that Pius XII is rarely praised. At the ceremony, however, Lewy lauded the many Catholic institutions that sheltered Jews during mass arrests in Rome in October 1943.
There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about steps to protect Jews,” Lewy said, according to RNS. ”So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”
The reactions harked back to the anger expressed by Jews after the current Pope, Benedict XVI, wrote in a book that Pius was “one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.” At the time, the president of Rome’s synagogue told Benedict that Pius’ “silence before the Holocaust” was unforgivable because, as the head of Europe’s most powerful religious institutions, he could have done far more to stop German atrocities.
Similarly, Lewy was immediately criticized by Holocaust survivors. ”For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’s silence,” said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents. He added that Lewy had “disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so.”
A day after the remarks, Lewy said that he was aware that his comments might ”raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community. But,” he added, “this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him.” Huh? It seems like Lewy is saying that Pius should be praised for the few he did save, and – well, let’s not talk about anything more he could have done. Understandably, this was not a satisfying response.
At least, after a few days, Lewy seems to have realized that his remarks were more than a little half-baked. Unfortunately, though, his explanation is just as difficult to explain. Saying that his comments were “embedded in a larger historical context,” he continued, “Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature.”
What on earth is Lewy trying to say? It’s even more confusing – and offensive – given that Lewy, as the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, is in charge of a fragile diplomatic relationship. Surely he should have realized that these remarks would be devastating to Holocaust survivors, even if they did endear him a little more to the Vatican. It will be interesting to see if Lewy issues another apology, or whether his critics simply allow the episode to blow over.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.