The choice of a German cardinal with links to the Nazis of World War II (search) as pope worries some Jews in Israel, especially when they compare him to the pope he succeeds — while others say Joseph Ratzinger's (search) record in the last 60 years is more important than his affiliations as a youth.
To some extent, the concerns are based on the automatic Jewish revulsion for anything linked to the Nazis, who killed 6 million Jews and tried to wipe out all the Jews of Europe before their defeat in 1945. Any association with the Nazis (search) turns on a red light of concern among Jews.
Israel's government wrapped a positive statement around a barb concerning Ratzinger's youthful affiliation. "Israel is hopeful that under this new papacy, we will continue to move forward in Vatican-Israel relations and we are sure that considering the background of this new pope, he, like his predecessor, will be a strong voice against anti-Semitism in all its forms," said a statement from Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
The contrast with the late Pope John Paul II is too stark to ignore. He was hailed as one of the pontiffs friendliest to Jews in modern history, apologizing for Catholic wrongdoing, promoting interfaith dialogue, establishing Vatican-Israel diplomatic relations and helping Jews during the Nazi era. Some Israeli experts tried to point out that his record was not entirely positive, but the nay-sayers were washed away in a flood of adulation after his death.
Exchanging a Polish pope with a recognized record of relatively warm feelings for the Jewish people with a German cardinal of severe countenance and a blot on his past is bound to rankle among Jews, at least at first glance.
But Ratzinger's membership in the "Hitler Youth" was compulsory, as he pointed out in an interview in 1997, and though he was drafted into a German anti-aircraft unit, he never fired a shot. Even Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter and director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"Membership in the Hitler Youth doesn't disqualify someone from being pope," Zuroff said. "If he had committed war crimes, the situation would be completely different. The issue is his record afterward, and he was never involved in any war crimes as far as we know."
Zuroff said he is an expert on Nazis, not on Jewish-Catholic affairs, but he added, "His (Ratzinger's) record is reasonable, he's involved in dialogue."
Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, whose field of expertise is interfaith relations, dismissed the concerns. "There are historical reasons for Jewish paranoia," Rosen said, but "the mark of the man is the adult Ratzinger, not the child. As an adult he has shown a deep understanding of our concerns."
Rabbi Ron Kronish, head of the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council in Israel, said he expected Ratzinger to continue in his predecessor's footsteps.
"On the Jewish-Christian dialogue, I think this pope will pretty much continue what was laid down over the past 30 to 40 years, I don't think there'll be a reversal there," he said. "I heard him speak in Jerusalem at a conference about 10 years ago and he gave a very positive talk about Jewish-Christian relations.
Under the headline, "Ratzinger a Nazi? Don't believe it," the Jerusalem Post newspaper, an English-language daily, took issue with criticism of the new pope's past.
The Israeli paper noted that Ratzinger was instrumental in forging Israel-Vatican ties and prepared the 2000 church document, "Memory and Reconciliation," which listed Catholic wrongdoing toward the Jewish people.
"If he were truly a Nazi sympathizer, then it would undoubtedly become evident during the past 60 years," the Post wrote in an editorial. "Yet throughout his service in the church, Ratzinger has distinguished himself in the field of Jewish-Catholic relations."
But Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a veteran representative of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel's parliament, reflected the apprehensive feelings that are bound to surface among Jews in such circumstances.
"We are very concerned," he said. "I don't know to what extent his participation in the Hitler Youth left an imprint of animosity toward the Jewish people."
Ravitz said that the pope, as a moral leader, has a critical role in reducing world anti-Semitism or exacerbating it. "One word from the pope — or silence — can be critical," he said.
But even Ravitz appeared open to persuasion. "This pope will have to take up where the former one left off," he said, referring to Catholic-Jewish rapprochement. "It will not be enough for him to leave everything where it is."