Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the Bronfman Professor of the History at NYU and the author of such seminal works as The Zionist Idea and The French Enlightenment and the Jews, who in the 1970’s served as the chairman of the conference of presidents of major Jewish organizations in North America. Now 79, Hertzberg looks back at a career in which he has distinguished himself as a pioneer in the field of interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue. Given Hertzberg’s career-long predisposition to keep a door open to non-Jews who relate to the state, people and land of Israel, it may seem surprising to some observers of the interfaith issues in Israel that Arthur Hertzberg would be the first major figure to raise doubts and difficulties with the impending arrival of the Pope, expected To arrive in Israel on March 21, on a day that coincides with the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Hertzberg took the podium of the World Assembly of Jewish War Veterans who were convening in Jerusalem this week to deliver a stinging lecture, in which Hertzberg observed that that there should be no euphoria or celebration in anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s expected arrival to Jerusalem.
Hertzberg’s position: there are too many unanswered questions and too many black holes that the Pope must respond to, beginning with the Pope’s own Polish background and the Pope’s advocacy of Sainthood for the pontiff of World War II, Pope Pius XII.
Rabbi Hertzberg remarked that he and the Pope are the same age, born only a few miles from one another in Poland. Although Hertzberg was brought up in the US, thirty seven of his close relatives remained in Poland and were murdered during World War II. As a scholar of modern Jewish history, Hertzberg has had the occasion to conduct scholarly research concerning the fate of Polish Jewry during the war, and he has recently been studying the activity of the Polish Catholic Church during those fateful years. “In the weekly reports of the Polish bishops filed to the Vatican during the war, there is not a single report on record that relates to the fate of the Jews”, said Hertzberg. When Hertzberg has asked to review the eleven volumes of records that the Vatican itself maintained concerning the mass murder of the three million Jews of Poland during World War II, the Vatican has denied access to those files to historians of that period.
Meanwhile, Hertzberg notes, Pope John Paul II will not say what he was doing during the war, when he was a young priest in Poland, except to say to TV producer Marek Halter that “I lived too quiet a life”. While the record showed that after the war the future pontiff indeed helped to bring some Jewish children out of hiding in monasteries back to their families, Hertzberg asks questions that the Pope should be addressing: What were his activities during the war? What did the future pontiff know of what was happening to the Jews of Poland? As Hertzberg commented on a recent TV documentary concerning the Pope’s life, “This pope will go to his death, wishing that he had behaved differently during the war”
Hertzberg raised another question: What was the current Pope’s relationship to Pope Pius XII, whose record of possible collaboration with the Nazis is still in question to this day? And what would inspire Pope John II today to launch a campaign to bestow sainthood on Pope Pius XII?
Hertzberg’s critique of the Pope’s visit was not limited to the past. Hertzberg asked why, for ecample, does the Pope insist on conducting a mass on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Hertzberg called this a “slap in the face of Jewish dignity”.
And although Hertzberg is a dove, a charter member of Americans for Peace Now and an enthusiastic supporter of the peace process, he doubts the appropriateness of the accord signed by the Pope and Yassir Arafat – only a month before the Pope’s visit – which challenged Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.
In short, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg says that the Pope should be received by Israel with the respect due to a world leader, yet without the enthusiasm of any red carpet treatment.