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Israel Praises Pope Despite Past Nazi Ties

Associated Press/PETER ENAV | April 20 2005

JERUSALEM -- Israeli politicians and rabbis on Wednesday praised new Pope Benedict XVI for his strong condemnations of anti-Semitism despite the pontiff's ties to the Nazi Party as a youth.

Benedict's appointment received mixed reactions from Arabs in the Holy Land. Muslim leaders urged him to take a more active role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Greek Orthodox officials voiced hope he help unify various Christian denominations.

As a German, Benedict sets off alarm bells for many Israelis, whose memories of the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews remain painfully vivid. Many wondered whether he would embrace Jews as warmly as his predecessor.

"There are good relations with him," Oded Ben-Hor, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, told Army Radio. "Israel can certainly coexist with him. But the real test will come over the course of time."

Israelis widely admired the late Pope John Paul II for his unstinting efforts to promote Jewish-Catholic reconciliation. John Paul won many Israeli hearts during a trip to the Holy Land in 2000 by apologizing for Roman Catholic wrongdoing over the centuries. He also was praised for promoting interfaith dialogue, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and aiding Polish Jews during the Nazi era.

As a young man, the new pope served in the Hitler Youth -- compulsory for young Germans at the time -- and during World War II was drafted into a German anti-aircraft unit, although he says he never fired a shot. Though Benedict has been a leading voice in the church in battling anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish-Catholic relations, his past raised suspicions in the Jewish state.

"White smoke, black past," said the headline in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot. "From the Nazi youth movement to the Vatican."

Nonetheless, Jewish leaders said they were encouraged by the special interest by the new pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in coexistence.

"Though as a teenager he was a member of the Hitler Youth, all his life Cardinal Ratzinger has atoned for the fact," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish group that battles anti-Semitism. Foxman himself was saved during the Holocaust by his Polish nanny, who had him baptized and raised him as a Catholic, until his Jewish parents reclaimed him at the end of the war.

Moshe Zimmerman, a professor of German history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, played down the importance of the new pope's membership in the Hitler Youth.

"He was 18 years old when the war ended, so everything that he had to do with the Nazi regime was as a very young man," he said. "I don't believe that there is any room for doubt that (the pope) of today is very different than the days he belonged in the Hitler Youth."

Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israeli Meir Lau -- a Holocaust survivor and a former chief rabbi for Israeli Jews of European backgrounds -- said his many meetings with Benedict while he was a cardinal have convinced him of his good record on matters of concern to Israelis.

"(The last meeting) was last year, in New York, in the Museum of Jewish Heritage of all places," Lau told Israel Army Radio. "There was a meeting of two or three rabbis with some 20 cardinals .... His entire speech was given over to a condemnation of anti-Semitism, in the strongest and most unambiguous terms."

Writer Zvi Gil, also a Holocaust survivor, said he expects Benedict to continue John Paul's favorable attitude toward Jews, precisely because of his German past.

"His attitude to Jews in Israel will to a very significant extent be influenced by that of his predecessor John Paul II, whose steps are well known to us," Gil told Army Radio. "And as a German I don't think he will want to move backward from these steps toward Israeli Jews."

For some Israelis, the new pope's condemnation of abortion, same-sex marriage and his embrace of other conservative stands has raised concerns of closed-mindedness -- an attitude they fear may be connected to residual anti-Semitism.

However, commentators say the new pope's theology mirrors that of many Jewish religious leaders, and should not be seen as a sign of prejudice.

"He's much more traditional, and his positions are a lot tougher than Jewish law," said Lau. "And Jewish law is my law."

A top Muslim leader, meanwhile, urged Benedict to follow John Paul's efforts to promote interfaith relations and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We hope that the new pope will give the church more roles in trying to solve the problems that the world is facing," said Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf, or Islamic Trust. "We hope that he will continue the policy of John Paul II, who opposed the wall around the Palestinian territories and called for peace between the two peoples."