ROME - A slight shiver of apprehension ran through the small group of Jewish leaders and Israeli diplomats who follow Vatican affairs closely as the white smoke rose over the roof of the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday evening. The timing of the appearance of the smoke, which signaled that a new pope had just been elected by the cardinals sitting inside, meant that it had taken them only five rounds of voting to reach the necessary two-thirds majority - just over 24 hours - a relatively brief conclave in terms of Vatican history.
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Nearly all commentators were unanimous about what that meant: A decision reached so quickly must have gone in favor of the candidate identified in advance as the frontrunner. No other cardinal could have gathered such a consensus in such a short time.
The Italian bishops conference was so certain of the outcome that it rushed to send an e-mail of congratulations to its member, Archbishop Angelo Scola, on his election as the new pope. As tens of thousands of believers were cheering in St. Peter's Square, ready to extend a rapturous greeting to whomever was about to appear on the balcony of the Basilica, there were those who were quietly muttering, "Just let it not be Scola."
It would be unseemly, of course, for any Jewish or Israeli public figure to openly express a preference for, or certainly an aversion to, a leading candidate for the next pope, and no one made this mistake. But over the last few weeks, since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, in off-the-record conversations with Jewish Vatican-observers, the existence of reservations regarding the archbishop of Milan were clear. Naturally, no one suggested that he has anything against Jews - certainly not like the Honduran Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, who in the past had spoken of the Jewish control of the media, but who in any event was not regarded by anyone in Rome as a serious papal contender.
The unease with Scola was based more on a lack of evidence. Aside from attending two or three events organized by the Jewish communities of Venice and Milan, he didn't seem very interested in engaging with Italian Jewry; certainly not as much as he engaged with Muslim leaders, with whom he founded an organization called the Oasis Foundation, to promote understanding between the two religions.
Some remember how in one of his few appearances before a Jewish audience, Scola spoke about the need to place Jerusalem under international jurisdiction. That, of course, was once official Vatican policy, but it has not been mentioned much since the Holy See and Israel established diplomatic relations nearly two decades ago.
"Let's face it - we don't really interest Scola," said one Jewish leader, "and even in this day and age, it's important for the pope to have an interest in the Vatican's relationship with the Jews."
Another veteran of dealings with the Catholic Church said, "It's not that we have anything to be worried about regarding Scola himself. It's just that the dialogue with Judaism will not be a priority for him, and we could lose a lot of the momentum created by the new pope's two predecessors."
Prominent Catholic intellectual George Weigel, himself not a great fan of Scola, put it more bluntly: "The new pope must continue the joint conversation with the Jews, a conversation that was broken off in the first century, and was restored by the last two popes, who were without doubt the most philo-Semitic popes in history."
In any event, it was not Scola who appeared on the balcony Wednesday evening, but a face that not only surprised nearly all the veteran Vatican-watchers, but is well known and liked by the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. The church bells were still tolling in Rome as the Internet was filled with photographs of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had just become Pope Francis I, lighting Hanukkah candles last year with local rabbinical colleagues, and stories of how he had shared in the community’s joys and also sorrows, offering his support after the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center. How he collaborated with rabbis and other Jewish thinkers on books and has been awarded prizes by Jewish organizations for his work in encouraging understanding between the two religions.
Here undoubtedly was a worthy successor to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who despite occasional disputes both did so much to improve the troubled relationship between Jews and Christians.
But isn’t all this a bit parochial? After all, the cardinals who voted for Archbishop Bergoglio were probably not very interested in his record on interfaith relations. His election is all about internal Vatican politics, the urgent need to reform the moribund Curia (the central governing body of the Church) and Roman Catholic bureaucracy, and the desire to raise the Church’s plummeting image worldwide.
Does the pope’s attitude toward the Jewish people really matter in the 21st century? Perhaps the best place to try and understand the complex and often painful history between Catholics and Jews is at the center of the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world.
The Great Synagogue of Rome, on the banks of the Tiber River by the old Jewish ghetto, was completed in 1904, but its corridors are filled with ornate relics from synagogues dating back to medieval times. In his office, the chief rabbi of Rome, Dr. Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni, reminds me with a smile that there was an established Jewish presence in the city long before the first Christians arrived.
“We were here first − 200 years earlier,” he says, “and we are still very connected to this place.”
Speaking while the conclave was still in session, he was careful not to express any preference, but has no doubt that the identity of the new pope, is “very important for the Jews. The pope decides the tone, the music.” The Vatican no longer has powers to issue edicts regarding the Jews, but di Segni believes that, “in a media age, the way a pope acts creates a much wider atmosphere. The broader public isn’t interested in theology, they watch television. They saw Pope John Paul II going to the Western Wall and praying there − he showed the world that this Jewish symbol was a holy place. It has a huge effect.”
John Paul’s successor was less of a media star, but Pope Benedict, who visited the Rome synagogue in 2010, had his ways of showing his affinity. “He loves biblical scholarship,” says di Segni, “and whenever a Jewish commentary is mentioned, he shows huge interest and respect.” Yet despite the distance covered by the last two popes, nearly 2,000 years of animosity is hard to overcome in two generations.
“It is a very complicated process, on both sides,” says di Segni. “We still have to ask them what they want from the Jews, and as Jews we are always redefining our perspective of Christianity. We must be very cautious: So much of this relationship was defined by conflict.”
The Jews of Italy are dealing now with a much more immediate issue than the future of their relations with the Vatican. Three weeks after the country’s parliamentary elections, there is still no prospect of a stable government in Rome. That, of course, is not a rarity in Italian politics. But what is unique in the current situation is the emergence of a new political power, the Five Star Movement, known as 5SM, which succeeded in capturing 25.5 percent of votes for the Chamber of Deputies and 23.8 percent for the Senate. Headed by the stand-up comedian Giuseppe Piero “Beppe” Grillo, 5SM is not really a political party of the left or right. It presents itself as a movement for all Italians who have lost faith in the country’s corrupt politicians.
5SM is causing a great deal of concern among Jews in Italy now, due to the presence of members of neofascist groups in its ranks, and chiefly because of the anti-Semitic views expressed in the past by Grillo, who has spoken in interviews about Jewish control of the media and Hollywood. He has also called Israel “frightening.” There are those who fear that Grillo is resurrecting the spirit of Italian fascism with his talk of 100 percent of Italians supporting him. Grillo’s legislators are so far an anonymous bunch, unknown even to the local Italian press.
On Monday, Israel’s ambassador to Rome, Naor Gilon, arrived for a meeting at the parliament, only to find himself besieged by eager camera crews. Not recognizing Gilon, they thought that he must be one of the 5SM representatives they had been trying to hunt down, and were deeply disappointed to discover that the man they mistook for him was not even Italian.
Despite Grillo’s incendiary views, neither the Jewish community nor Israel’s Foreign Ministry has officially criticized him. One-quarter of Italian citizens voted for the party and they can’t all be anti-Semites. So far, his attitude towards Jew and Israel has not been part of his party’s political platform, and Israeli diplomats, anxious to protect the valuable strategic and financial ties their country has with Italy would like to keep it that way.
In Italy’s volatile political arena, today’s fascists or radical leftists often become tomorrow’s centrists, and while Grillo probably won’t be invited to Jerusalem anytime soon, other members of his party could become allies. Over the next few months, Israel’s Foreign Ministry will observe and try to learn who makes up 5SM’s wider leadership, and whether there are representatives not tainted by fascism who can become partners in a dialogue. Italy is too important both in Europe and the Mediterranean basin for Israel to disregard, nor can Jerusalem afford to marginalize Italy’s new political force.
In talking about Grillo and his party, Rabbi di Segni is even more cautious than he was in speculating about the next pope. He certainly doesn’t want the Jewish community to become mixed up in the current political quagmire. All he is prepared to say is that, “the Italian public feels both the political and economic crisis very deeply. Italians believe that the system no longer works, so the public is rebelling against the system, and when there is rebellion and instability, that’s a time for the Jews to worry.”