The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI formulated a mighty defense against Jew-hatred in all its forms.
(JNS) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who passed away this week at the age of 95, was a historically significant figure for many reasons: He was the first pope in six centuries to retire, rather than die in office. He was the first German pope in postwar history. He was also a friend of the Jews.
To be sure, Benedict’s restoration of the Latinate mass, which includes a prayer for Jews to convert to Christianity, raised the hackles of many American Jewish leaders. But in a fundamental way, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in his condolence remarks, Benedict XVI was “a true friend of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Speaking of Benedict, Netanyahu recalled the former pontiff’s 2009 visit to Israel as a meaningful testament to his commitment “to the historic reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”
“In my meeting with him,” Netanyahu said, “he spoke warmly about the common heritage of Christianity and Judaism and the values that this heritage gave to all of humanity.”
At least for non-Christians, Benedict’s most historically significant expression and defense of the basis of Judeo-Christian heritage was his address at the University of Regensburg in Sept. 2006. There, Benedict used an obscure dialogue between the long-forgotten 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim to discuss the basis of modern Christianity and Western civilization.
In Benedict’s telling, Paleologus challenged his Muslim interlocutor, “Show me what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Benedict then quoted Lebanese Catholic theologian Theodore Khoury saying, “For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent, his will is not bound up with any of our categories.”
Khoury’s claim was that, unlike Christianity, Islam is entirely based on faith, untethered to reason. Benedict’s fundamental point was that meaningful interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims can only be predicated on faith tempered by reason. And in the absence of reason, no meaningful dialogue is possible. His was a challenge to Muslims to show that reason has pride of place in their faith.
Muslim fanatics in Judea and Samaria responded to Benedict’s speech by burning churches. In Iraq, they beheaded a priest. In Somalia, they murdered a nun. The Pakistani parliament passed a unanimous resolution condemning the pontiff. Calls to murder Benedict were heard throughout the Islamic world. In other words, the jihadists proved by their own actions that jihadist Islam rejects reason and anyone who advocates on its behalf.
They weren’t the only ones condemning Benedict. The international left—including its representatives within the Catholic Church— harshly criticized Benedict for what progressives viewed as politically incorrect, culturally insensitive and Islamophobic remarks.
The response to Benedict’s statement by both sides of the Red-Green alliance was notable because it showed that what binds woke progressives and Islamists isn’t a shared vision of what the world should look like, but their common rejection of reason. Progressive identity politics, victim culture and hatred of the West form the basis of a faith just as powerful—and unreasoned—as jihadist Islam.
And this brings us to why Benedict was a friend of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. Notably, and not incidentally, one of the common foundations of cultures characterized by a rejection of reason is Jew-hatred.
Regardless of its source or manifestation, Jew-hatred is a form of unreasoned faith—of fanaticism. Scapegoating Jews, blaming Jews as individuals, as a community, a religion, a nation or a state for all the ills suffered by whatever particular group, is a powerful tool for political mobilization. Jew-hatred is a source of political power because anti-Jewish leaders are able to tell their followers an easy story: The Jews are our misfortune. I’ll punish or get rid of the Jews. I’ll get rid of the misfortune.
The notion is both stupid and insane. But that is part of its power. If you reject reason, you don’t need proof. You act on pure faith. You believe.
The basic illogic of Jew-hatred makes it elastic and enduring. Jew-haters take the zeitgeist of whatever age they live in or creed they live by and define Jews as its antithesis. In Christendom, Jews were the anti-Christ. Religion went out of fashion in the era of Enlightenment. Racism became the rage. So, Jew haters in the era of racism redefined the Jews as a race, called the “Semites.” Out of touch Christian Judeophobia of yesteryear was relaunched as the fashionable and sophisticated “antisemitism” and voila! A proto-Nazi political movement was born.
In the meantime, capitalists said Jews were communists, and communists said Jews were capitalists.
In our post-Holocaust era, antisemitism is unfashionable. Post-nationalism and anti-Western anti-colonialism are all the rage. So, a few decades ago, the new sophisticates repackaged old-fashioned Jew-hatred to align it with the new zeitgeist. Anti-Zionism was launched as a pillar of the post-nationalist, anti-Western creed. For Jew-haters, the beauty of anti-Zionism was its utility as a political defense. The new, refined Jew-haters protest: We don’t hate Jews, per se. Indeed, some of our best friends are anti-Zionist Jews. We just reject the morality of the very existence of the largest Jewish community in the world, and the legitimacy of secular Jewish identity across the world.
In this rejection of the Jewish state, and the notion that Jews have a right to national self-determination, the progressives find allies in Islamic Jew-haters. Both have worldviews and creeds defined by their rejection of reason. And both use Jew-hatred as an instrumental means to rally the faithful and demonstrate their faith. As they have been throughout history, Israel and its Jewish supporters are an easy bogeyman, because there is only one Jewish state, and less than ten million more Jews worldwide.
Benedict’s speech at Regensburg was both a defense of reasoned Christianity and a strike at unreasoned fanaticism—Islamist or otherwise. As such, it was a profound defense against Jew-hatred in all its forms. Since the beginning of the current century, the Red-Green alliance has been the most powerful force assaulting the Jewish state and Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. Our greatest allies in the fight against both radical Islam and post-nationalist woke totalitarians are men and women like Benedict, who reject the culture of fanaticism.
For his courageous efforts to combat that culture, most memorably expressed in his speech at the University of Regensburg, and to cultivate a world of reasoned belief, Benedict deserves our enduring appreciation and respect.