A kind of ghetto mentality afflicts some American-Jewish leaders. Hats symbolically in hand, they met with Pope John Paul II in Miami and expressed themselves pleased. He had acknowledged the obvious about the Holocaust: it was awful, it must not happen again, and Jews were its primary victims.
But when it came to apologizing, even to expressing regret, about his meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, the pope had nothing to say. Waldheim stands accused of complicity in the Holocaust itself, and the evidence is hard enough to satisfy the U.S. Justice Department. It has banned his entry into the United States. Waldheim is a man with an odious past.
One must not exaggerate Waldheim's crimes. For the Nazi period, they were petty. He was a mere lieutenant. But he covered up his record when he should, instead, have acknowledged his past and drawn some lessons from it. It is the very ordinariness of Waldheim that makes him so important. He was the "everyman" who, when asked, put his shoulder to the Nazi wheel.
It is for these reasons that Jews were appalled that the pope broke the diplomatic embargo on Waldheim. It was always taken for granted that certain states would welcome him. Jordan has and so has Egypt, but then these are Arab countries where anti-Zionism sometimes blurs into anti-Semitism. At any rate, the leaders of both countries are secular, not religious, figures. No one looks to them for moral instruction.
But that is not the case with the pope. He is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church -- a universal institution without parallel. And it was in that capacity that John Paul II met with Waldheim. That, at least, is the way Waldheim chose to interpet the audience and that is the way the world saw it.
The pope, any pope, commands respect. He represents a great religion and he should be treated accordingly. Moreover, this particular pope is a charismatic figure, a kindly man of immense dignity and strong views. When it comes to the Jews, his record is mostly laudable. He visited the main synagogue in Rome; he has met with Jewish leaders and he has denounced anti-Semitism.
But respect is one thing, false gratitude something else. Some Catholics have strongly protested the pope's position on everything from birth control to celibacy for priests. Of course, they are his coreligionists, and so prejudice cannot be impugned. But the vigor of their protest is also a mark of respect for the pope -- for his knowledge, intellect and humanity. By contrast, the deference of some Jewish leaders seemed almost patronizing. Their statements expressing gratitude for being heard by the pope and the satisfaction they took in his historic platitudes can neither reflect their real feelings nor, for that matter, do the pope honor. He deserves the respect of vigorous criticism.
Pope John Paul II got little of that. Instead, Jewish leaders accentuated the positive. "It was a good start, a moving start," said Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. "A new era in Catholic-Jewish relations," said Burt Levinson, an official of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League. Indeed, their optimism was not without foundation. Jewish leaders had asked for a papal meeting to express their outrage over the Waldheim audience. In Italy, they got it. They insisted on raising the Waldheim issue with the pope in the United States. Once again, they were accommodated.
But what they did not get was any change in the pope's position on Waldheim -- not even a public explanation (offered in private) that Austria insisted on the audience and that it was granted because the pope sees all heads of state.
The pope's audience with Waldheim represented a virtual papal pardon for the Austrian head of state. As such, it is an insult to Jewish and non-Jewish Holocaust victims. But instead of reacting with outrage and criticism, Jewish leaders seemed downright grateful just to have yet another meeting with the pope -- even though it was one at which the insult was effectively repeated. They thanked the pope for his time. What he gave them was more like the breeze.