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Were The Popes Against The Jews?’

In response to:

Getting Jews and the Vatican Wrong from the November 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

I was astonished when told by Robert B. Silvers that my response to Kevin Madigan’s “Getting Jews and the Vatican Wrong” [NYR, November 21, 2013] shouldn’t exceed five hundred words—particularly since Madigan’s piece is nearly four thousand. Still, I had no choice but to abide by the Editor’s protocol, even though a year ago I had sent him this message about another kind of protocol:

In the Bulletin of Harvard Divinity School, the following item appears in the CV of Kevin Madigan: “‘A Nasty Piece of Work’: on J.G. Lawler’s Were the Popes Against the Jews? forthcoming in The New York Review of Books.” I am the J.G. Lawler referred to above, and I sent a copy of this to NYRB on 9/27/12, since it violates standard book-review protocol to have the subject of criticism in a given book chosen to review that book. (emphasis supplied)

Silvers replied: “Thanks for your letter, which we will be taking into account.” I thought, “At least we’re rid of ‘A Nasty Piece of Work.’”

I also applaud the use of the photo of Mendel Beilis, with Pius X’s statement: “I pray that the trial will end without harm to the poor Jews.” The Beilis trial along with that papal quotation has proven to be the pons asinorum of David Kertzer. Not the least of his embarrassments is the repeated assumption that the tsar wanted Beilis exonerated. For Kertzer the Holy Father is villainous; the Little Father is virtuous.

More significantly, that trial is crucial to my contention that Kertzer is an ideologue who rigs arguments and doctors texts—a contention that fans of Kertzer and Madigan reject, and that the general reader doubts. What they can all do in searching for truth is see for themselves the pertinent excerpts from my chapter 6, “Ritual Murder and the Villainy of Pius X.” An Internet search under the heading “Justus George Lawler” will immediately bring up the “official website” where the reader cannot miss the link, “Beilis Trial.” The background begins on page 125, but the crux is pp. 129–131. The texts show that a reference to “the Russian Ambassador,” who delayed the documents that would exonerate Beilis, was excised by Kertzer so that the blame would fall on the papal secretary of state. Readers will also note that Kertzer spurns Pius X’s touching declaration about his praying for the Jews.

Also, the reader can key the links “Kevin P. Spicer and Clerical Calumny” and “Robert Ventresca and the Harvard Charade,” studies that appeared originally in the academic journal US Catholic Historian. Spicer—a vowed priest—proves that Lawler is a deceitful anti-Semitic sympathizer. Ventresca anticipates Madigan’s NYR condemnation of my earlier book, Popes and Politics. The appendix in the Ventresca link contains the review of that book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner in The Jerusalem Post (August 10, 2002). The first paragraph refers to the book as a “profound and original meditation,” and to its author as “an experienced voice in Catholic theology and philosophy of religion for a generation….” The rest is so laudatory I blush to cite it.

Justus George Lawler
St. Charles, Illinois

To the Editors:

In his review of Justus George Lawler’s Were the Popes Against the Jews? Kevin J. Madigan takes issue with Lawler’s criticism of David I. Kertzer’s treatment of the Vatican’s reaction to the notorious trial of a Ukrainian Jew, Mendel Beilis, on a charge of ritual murder in 1913. However, Lawler is correct on one point—that Kertzer mischaracterizes the actions of the Vatican secretary of state, Rafael Merry del Val.

Kertzer holds Merry del Val responsible for delaying the transmission to Kiev of a document certifying as authentic a denunciation of the blood libel by Pope Innocent IV in 1247 and a very strong critique of the charge in a 1758 report by Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli, later Pope Clement XIV. Without Vatican authentication, these texts could not be presented in court. Lawler correctly points out that it was not Merry del Val, but the Russian ambassador to the Vatican, Dimitry Nelidov (or Nelidoff), who contrived to delay the arrival of the authentication to the court in Kiev. In a letter to Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov, the ambassador expresses his displeasure at the “readiness of the Curia [the papal court]…to please the Jews” and notes with satisfaction that Merry del Val’s missive “could have no significance, since it would arrive in Kiev after the verdict.”

But Lawler goes too far in charging Kertzer with “fabrication” and of having “intentionally excised” key information. He accuses Kertzer of having blatantly “fudged” the chronology to help his case. But it is Lawler who gets the chronology dramatically wrong by failing to take into account that the Julian calendar in use in the Russian Empire in that era lags thirteen days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West. Some of his attacks on Kertzer derive from this error. But I do not accuse Lawler of intentional distortion, just of an honest mistake.

Edmund Levin
New York City

Edmund Levin is the author of a forthcoming history of the Beilis case, A Child of Christian Blood—Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel (Schocken, February 2014)

Kevin Madigan replies:

George Lawler seems shocked that, having sown the wind, he is now reaping the whirlwind. In his book he promises a critique of Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews. Yet he delivers not a critique but a meandering, uninformed, unfair, extremely tedious philippic. And nasty. Very nasty. Not to mention terribly long: Lawler’s book is almost four hundred pages long—more than one-third again as long as the book at which it takes aim. It is also very poorly written. Reading it is like swimming through jello.

The historical community has agreed that, for this hatchet job, Lawler fully deserves the harsh judgment that reviewers have heaped upon him. Kevin Spicer, a distinguished historian of the Nazi period (who never stated or implied in his review that Lawler was an anti-Semite), found to his dismay that the flaws of Lawler’s “work were too numerous to detail in one review.” “Whenever Lawler attempts to take on the role of a historian,” Spicer concludes, “he fails miserably,” committing “outright misrepresentations” of Kertzer’s research.

Unfortunately, that is too true. Lawler repeatedly, even tiresomely charges Kertzer, a scrupulous historian, with “doctoring” or “fabricating” texts to fit some predetermined agenda. This is why Robert Ventresca, an expert on Italian anti-Semitism and the author of a fine new biography of Pius XII, could conclude in his review:

Lawler misfires badly—and repeatedly so—in an inflamed rhetorical exercise that excoriates more than it illuminates. So it is that the reader is subjected to a litany of Kertzer’s alleged interpretive and methodological sins of commission and omission, colored by thundering accusations of doctored texts, mistranslations, and outright fabrications by Kertzer and a cabal of ideologically driven fellow-travelers.

As if to pile shame upon humiliation, Lawler not only does not attempt to conceal but actually confesses to relying, in his final chapter, on the work of journalist William Doino, a remorseless papal apologist.

In responding to Spicer’s 1,500-word review, which appeared in the May 2012 number of Commonweal, the editor of US Catholic Historian gave Lawler fully thirty-seven pages for his reply. To Ventresca’s review, Lawler published a response of similar length in the same journal. Yet now we hear Lawler complaining about an imagined breach of editorial protocol. Will the editor of US Catholic Historian provide a platform for a third lengthy response now? Or concede that the professional historical community has come to a consensus, a profoundly negative one?

Lawler concentrates fire in his book not on me but on Kertzer; I get about ten pages of criticism, Kertzer nearly four hundred. That said, he reads my work with the same bad faith that characterizes his doctoring of Kertzer’s analyses. I respond to Lawler’s criticisms in footnotes 4 and 10 of the online version of my review. Let me just observe that Lawler’s remark on p. 187 that it was “quite clear [for Madigan] that Pacelli was indeed Hitler’s pope” is so far from the truth that it hardly deserves a response. (Readers interested in my actual views, which are highly critical of Hitler’s Pope, may access my review at www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=3984.)

Edmund Levin’s letter helps show that the Beilis trial is the pons asinorum not of Kertzer but of Lawler. On p. 133, Lawler writes, “it is literally preposterous for Kertzer to say that Rothschild advised the cardinal” about what he must do “before the letter could be used at trial, since,” Lawler haplessly concludes, “the trial had ended seven days earlier on October 28.” Lawler’s use of the Gregorian calendar led him to that thoroughly amateurish chronological mistake, which completely undermines his critique of Kertzer. The trial did not in fact end until November 10. The letter from Levin, an expert on the Beilis affair, does not, in my view, challenge the essential accuracy of Kertzer’s analysis of Vatican attitudes toward the ritual murder charge.

This takes us to the praise dispensed by Jacob Neusner. In the Middle Ages, the argument from authority was considered very strong; in the modern era, very weak. Neusner is a prolific scholar of ancient rabbinic literature. However, unlike Kertzer, he has not spent years in Vatican archives studying modern papal contributions to anti-Semitism from the original documents.

To Lawler’s concluding statement: I, too, should blush had I written so atrociously bad a book, one so widely and deservedly panned. On the final page of his book, Lawler promises to return to his “first love…the criticism of literature.” I will presume to speak on behalf of the community of historians when I say that we all cordially hope that Lawler, finally, will honor that promise.

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