Politics & Policy

A Study in Contrasts

Benedict, Tantawi, and the Jews.

Last Friday, Pope Benedict XVI stopped at the Park Street Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The 81-year-old pontiff — a native of Germany whose father had been anti-Nazi — was forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth, and conscripted into the German army during the final months of World War II, before deserting in the war’s concluding days. With fitting poignancy, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the Holocaust survivor who leads the synagogue, greeted Pope Benedict. Schneier, 78, lost his family in the Nazis’ Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps as a teenager. Schneier has headed the synagogue since 1962, while championing religious freedom and tolerance worldwide.

Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, characterized the pope’s appearance — one day before Passover — thusly: “By this personal and informal visit, which is not part of his official program, His Holiness wishes to express his good will toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover.”

Indeed this is the pope’s second visit to a synagogue as pontiff. On his initial papal trip abroad, in August 2005, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, that had been destroyed by the Nazis. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, noted appositely, on that occasion, “The fact that in his very first foreign visit as Pope he went to the Cologne Synagogue is an indication of the importance that the Church attaches to its relationship with the Jews.” Within a year later, Benedict’s May 2006 address while visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp included a blistering rebuke and condemnation of those who would persecute Jews, and a lucid presentation of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, particularly as it was manifested in the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz:

Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid.

Earlier, writing in December 2000, the future pope (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) affirmed his close alignment with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the ecumenical thought of his predecessor and dear friend, Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger’s statement reiterates this “new vision of Jewish-Christian relations,” and even acknowledges a role for Christian anti-Semitism in the Holocaust itself:

Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.

He then implores that a new relationship be forged between the Church and Israel out of the tragic ashes of the Holocaust, based upon overcoming “every kind of anti-Judaism,” and engaging in sincere, meaningful dialogue.

As Pope Benedict, this commitment and its constructive impact were re-affirmed in a Passover greeting to the Jewish community, issued officially during his visit to Washington, D.C. last Thursday.

In contrast to the pope, consider Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. For more than a thousand years, since its founding in 792 A.D., Al-Azhar, has served as the academic shrine — much as Mecca is the religious shrine — of the global Sunni Muslim community (Sunnis are about 90 percent of Muslims).

Tantawi’s Ph.D. thesis, Banu Israil fi al-Quran wa-al-Sunnah (Jews in the Koran and the Traditions), was published in 1968-69. In 1980 he became the head of the Tafsir (Koranic Commentary) Department of the University of Medina, Saudi Arabia — a position he held until 1984. Tantawi became Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1986, and a decade later he took his current post as Grand Imam.

My forthcoming book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism includes extensive, first-time English translations of Jews in the Koran and the Traditions. In the 700-page treatise, Tantawi wrote these words:

[The] Koran describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah [Koran 2:61/ 3:112], corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness. . . . Only a minority of the Jews keep their word [Koranic citations here]. . . . All Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims [Koran 3:113], the bad ones do not.

These are the expressed, “carefully researched” views on Jews held by the nearest Muslim equivalent to a pope. Tantawi has not mollified such hatemongering beliefs since becoming the Grand Imam, as his statements on “dialogue” with Jews (“I still believe in everything written in that dissertation”), the Jews as “enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs,” and the legitimacy of homicide bombing of Jews make clear.

Unfortunately, Tantawi’s anti-Semitic formulations are well-grounded in classical, mainstream Islamic theology. The Koranic depiction of the Jews — their traits deemed both infallible and timeless — highlights, in verse 2:61 (repeated in verse 3:112), the centrality of the Jews “abasement and humiliation,” and being “laden with God’s anger.” Koranic verses 5:60 and 5:78 describe the Jews’ transformation into apes and swine (5:60), or apes alone (2:65 / 7:166), having been “cursed by the tongue of David, and Jesus, Mary’s son” (5:78). Moreover, forcing Jews, in particular, to pay the Koranic poll tax “tribute” (as per verse 9:29), “readily,” while “being brought low,” is consistent with their overall humiliation and abasement in accord with Koran 2:61, and its directly related verses.

An additional, much larger array of anti-Jewish Koranic motifs build to a denouement (as if part of a theological indictment, conviction, and sentencing process) concluding with an elaboration of the “ultimate sin” committed by the Jews (they are among the devil’s minions [Koran 4:60], accursed by God [Koran 4:47]), and their appropriate punishment: As per Koran 98:6, “The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures.”

However, the Koranic origins of Islamic anti-Semitism are not a justification for the unreformed, unrepentant modern application of these hateful motifs pace Tantawi. Within days of the Netanya homicide bombing massacre on a Passover seder night in 2002, for example, Tantawi issued an abhorrent endorsement of so-called “martyrdom operations,” even when directed at Israeli civilians.

And during November 2002, consistent with his triumphant denial, Tantawi made the following statement in response to criticism over the virulently anti-Semitic Egyptian television series Horseman Without a Horse, based on the Czarist Russia forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion:

Suppose that the series has some criticism or shows some of the Jews’ traits, this doesn’t necessitate an uproar. . . . The accusation of antisemitism was invented by the Jews as a means to pressure Arabs and Muslims to implement their schemes in the Arab and Muslim countries, so don’t pay attention to them.

Finally, just this past January 22, it was reported that Tantawi cancelled what would have been a historic visit to the Rome synagogue by Ala Eldin Mohammed Ismail al-Ghobash, the imam of Rome’s mosque. The putative excuse for this cancellation was Israel’s self-defensive stance — a blockade — in response to acts of jihad terrorism (rocket barrages, attempted armed incursions) emanating from Gaza. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, commenting aptly about these events, observed that the cancellation proved “even so called Muslim moderates share the ideology of hate, violence and death towards the Jewish state.” Al Azhar, Corriere della Sera further argued, which in the absence of a central Muslim authority constituted a “Vatican of Sunni Islam,” had in effect issued “a kind of fatwah.” The paper concluded by noting that “what the Cairo statement really means is that Muslim dialogue with Jews in Italy is only possible once Israel has been eliminated.”

Tantawi’s case illustrates the prevalence and depth of Jew-hatred in the contemporary Muslim world. Tantawi embodies how such hatred remains firmly rooted in mainstream, orthodox Islamic teachings, not some aberrant “radical Islam.”

Indeed, the modern pronouncements and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church — personified by the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI — stand in stark relief. Professor Phillip Cunningham summarized the principal features of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration of the Relationship of The Church to Non-Christian Religions,” issued in 1965, as follows:

Nostre Aetate rejected key elements of the ancient anti-Jewish tradition. ‘The Jews’ were not guilty of the crucifixion, had not been renounced by God, were not under a wandering curse, and their covenantal bond with God endured.

Thus it is unimaginable that Cardinal Ratzinger, 20 years prior to being elected Pope Benedict, could have written a 700-page treatise detailing and rationalizing the most virulent anti-Jewish motifs extant in Christian theology, and then continued to extol these motifs unashamedly while pope. Sadly, what is unimaginable in Christendom has not only occurred, but passes virtually without recognition, in the Islamic world.

— Andrew Bostom is author of The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History.


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