Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Criticizing Pope Benedict's Yad Vashem speech misses the point
By Anna Ekstrom

These are strange, almost Kafkaesque times in Europe: Many find it more offensive to call someone an anti-Semite than to act like one and the Shoah has been drafted as a tool of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. Iranian President Ahmadinejad's latest Hitlerian speech got semi-positive reviews in parts of European mainstream press, some of which said he was "sort of right."

A critical mind is one of the most important assets for moral and physical survival - but there are times when one's verbal battles must be chosen with more than usual care. This is certainly true of the pope, whose words in the Holy Land are being scrutinized under a microscope, much

The pontiff's speech at Yad Vashem on Monday was philosophical. It is true that he did not make apologies for historic crimes in his speech. But he did something else, something urgent: He reminded the world that anti-Semitism is still rearing its ugly head, and he committed the Catholic Church to combating it worldwide - today and tomorrow.

In his speech, Benedict departed from the notion or concept of the name. In Latin, "nomen" means both 'name' and 'word of substance.' According to the Bible, the word preceded matter. The Book of Genesis describes God as a creative author. And the name was so important that Adam's first task as keeper of Eden was to name the creatures. Faith aside, this imagery is pertinent. We know what results from the reverse of naming. The boy in Imre Kertesz's novel "Man Without a Fate" was defined by others as a Jew.

Before then he had been a human being, an individual with a name. The drowning of the person within the collective was, and still is, a prerequisite for the reification of the human being. Once that is achieved, one ugly connotation after another can easily be linked to the word that labels a mass of nameless entities. Soon enough, you find yourself incapable of recalling that "number so-and-so" was once your neighbor Miriam.

The late pope John Paul II also understood the importance of the name, and lifted individuals out of anonymity. Among them was Edith Zierer, whom he had helped when his name was still Karol Jozef Wojtyla and he was a young priest in Poland. They reunited when he visited Yad Vashem in 2000. The young Joseph Ratzinger had quite another wartime youth experience, and he lacks his predecessor's direct link between heart and speech.

But Benedict made some noteworthy clarifications during his Middle East visit. In Jordan, he said that religion, like science, can be perverted for political purposes. The distinction is interesting. Most certainly those hungry for power are opportunistic in their choice of ideological justification; the fact that Nazism used biological theory neither means that Nazism is right nor that biology is to be condemned.

Knowledge, Benedict said, can broaden the mind and lead to tolerance when it is united with faith. The academic attitude is not uncontroversial and it is certainly no guarantee for moral action. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel even said that it was not the scholars who tried to help his family - it was their illiterate housekeeper.

The Bishop of Rome does seem to have chosen the road of reason over that of the heart. But it would be hard to claim that he is not making a supreme effort to explore it for heart-felt causes: to promote peace within and between human beings, and to purify the meaning of vital words such as human, freedom and rights

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