Getting Jews and the Vatican Wrong

The arrest of Mendel Beilis (center), a Ukrainian Jew who was accused of the ritual murder of a thirteen-year-old boy, tried, and acquitted in Kiev in 1913. Pope Pius X said of Beilis, ‘I hope that the trial will end without harm to the poor Jews.’


In responding to questions about its part in the tragedy that befell Europe’s Jews in the twentieth century, the Vatican—most importantly in its 1998 “reflection on the Shoah,” entitled “We Remember”—makes a crucial distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. In “We Remember” the Vatican describes anti-Judaism as discrimination rooted in religious differences:

Erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability [for the death of Jesus Christ] have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people.

It describes anti-Semitism not as religious in nature, but rather as

sociological and political…based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on the unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and peoples.

The Vatican’s statement points particularly to the rise of National Socialism as being instrumental to the development of anti-Semitism. In this account, it was anti-Semitism rather than anti-Judaism that made the Holocaust possible.

In his widely praised book The Popes Against the Jews (2001), David Kertzer, the Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science at Brown University, argued convincingly that the Vatican’s account of the development of anti-Semitism “is a history that many wish had happened, but it is not what actually happened.” The distinction made by ecclesiastical writers in the late twentieth century was, rather, “an article of faith,” Kertzer contended, “that relieved the Church of any responsibility for what happened” during the Holocaust. In fact, he found that almost all of the elements of modern anti-Semitism—including allegations of racial difference—were “not only embraced by the Church but actively promulgated by official and unofficial Church organs.”

The Popes Against the Jews begins with a sobering account of the treatment of the Jews in domains under papal power beginning in the nineteenth century when, despite appeals from his own secretary of state and the government of Austria following Napoleon’s fall, Pius VII (1800–1823) reestablished some of the more odious conditions for Jews in the Papal States, including ghettos. Kertzer goes on to argue forcefully that far from resisting the rise of modern anti-Semitic ideas, some Catholics (including diplomats, priests, journalists, and writers) helped promulgate many anti-Semitic slurs and libels about Jews and their “Talmud-based religion”; and popes lent them the sacred imprimatur of the Vatican.

Grounded in extensive archival work, Kertzer’s book was also based on published materials. He found evidence from Vatican-linked periodicals to suggest that the Church’s writers had described Jews in racial terms. For example, in 1898, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper (founded in 1861), complained, in a generic reference,…

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