Books: The End of a History of Hatred? ; UNHOLY WAR David Kertzer Macmillan, Pounds 20, 400pp: For Centuries, the Roman Catholic Church Demonised Jews, and Even Stole Their Children. Peter Stanford Finds Reasons for Shame - and Signs of Hope
Stanford, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
It took the Catholic church a shockingly long time to forgive the Jews for crucifying Christ, especially since, in Christian thought, the cross was inevitable and preordained. Jesus had to die to be revealed as divine.
Only in 1965 did the Jews' official pardon for deicide come from the Vatican. Having got that out of the way, Catholic-Jewish understanding has been coming on apace ever since, as logically it should - since the two faiths are branches of the same family. Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Rome's synagogue. In the late 1990s, he opened up the Vatican's secret archive so that an honest assessment could be made of Catholic complicity in the virulent anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Holocaust.
An official church commission reported on the documents in 1998 and tried to make a distinction between the traditional but reprehensible anti-Judaism that dated back to medieval times, and the more modern disease of anti- Semitism. Anti-Judaism had taken the form, in the last 200 years, of a social and political antagonism to Jews, the commission said, and on this count found Catholicism guilty as charged. On the count of anti-Semitism, which it defined as a racist hatred of Jews as promoted by fascists, it deemed the church innocent.
It was not a universally acclaimed verdict. Already John Cornwell in Hitler's Pope has savaged the wartime pontiff, Pius XII, for abandoning Jews to their fate without a murmur of public protest. Now David Kertzer, a Jewish scholar from Brown University, has widened the attack. Unholy War details unambiguously the official Catholic hostility to the Jews from the 19th century until the Holocaust.
For any Catholic, the book makes profoundly uncomfortable and shameful reading. Faced with the remorseless brutality, inhumanity and wickedness of men who purported to be doing God's will, talk of the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism seems almost insulting to the memory of those who died.
The story Kertzer tells falls into two main parts. For the period from 1814 until 1870, when the popes still clung on to temporal power in the Papal States, covering a large swathe of central Italy, he provides chapter and verse gleaned from secret archives on the prejudices of church officials. While the rest of Europe was abandoning restrictions on Jews, the popes kept their Jewish subjects locked up in ghettos, banned from the professions, and forced to attend lectures by priests on how misguided were their beliefs.
Worst of all were the efforts to convert Jews. It is a subject Kertzer examined to chilling effect in his 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, about a small boy forcibly baptised and taken from his Jewish home in Bologna by Catholic zealots.
Here that sorry tale is multiplied tenfold. Any Jewish man, often eager only to escape the ghetto, who enquired about conversion would find his wife and children seized. If he changed his mind, or if his wife refused to take the Pope's shilling, they were eventually released, but their children would have been baptised at the moment of seizure. …