Pope at Yad Vashem / Benedict's Speech Showed Verbal Indifference and Banality

The pope is aware of the historical responsibility on his shoulders as both a German and a Christian.

Pope John Paul II was received in Israel with enthusiasm that sometimes bordered on the excitement generally reserved for pop stars. He radiated warmth. Pope Benedict XVI, in contrast, comes across as restrained, almost cold.

In the best-case scenario, Benedict will leave behind indifference, not hostility. The speech he gave yesterday at Yad Vashem was surprising mainly because one would have expected the Vatican's cardinals to prepare a more intelligent text for their boss. Someday, maybe in 500 years, when the Vatican archive is opened to researchers examining the preparations for this visit, we will be able to learn from early drafts how the final speech came to appear so forced.

There is nothing easier than expressing real horror when talking about the Holocaust, than identifying with its suffering, pain and grief. If that is not done, it is a sign that there was a deliberate decision not to do so. No church bell would cease to ring had the pontiff said something about Christian anti-Semitism, even if he fell short of explicitly saying that without it, the Nazis would not have won the support of the German people. What he said about the Holocaust sounded too calculated, too diplomatic and professional - he advised "compassion," a prescription that is to priests what aspirin is to general practitioners.

Yad Vashem officials rushed to express "disappointment" at Benedict's failure to mention the Germans, and naturally they attributed that omission to his own background. The truth is that the Israeli culture of memory has itself struggled hard with the question of whether and how to identify the murderers.

Sometimes this identity is not mentioned at all, as in the "El maleh rachamim" funeral prayer recited before the pope's address. Yesterday, President Shimon Peres referred to the genocide as "Hitler's Holocaust," a highly problematic term he would do well not to use again. The intention, of course, is to avoid insulting the German people as a whole. Yad Vashem ceremonies generally use the term "the Nazi Germans and their helpers." How simple and fitting it would have been had the Vatican adopted that terminology, just as it inserted the Hebrew term "Shoah" into the pope's text, a tribute to the Israeli view of the destruction of the Jews.

Benedict is aware of the historical responsibility that rests on his shoulders as both a German and a Christian. He supports annulling the statute of limitations on prosecuting Nazi criminals in Germany and has visited Yad Vashem once before. On more than one occasion, he has expressed empathy for Jews and for Israel.

But in last night's speech, he inexplicably said Jews "were killed," as if it had been an unfortunate accident. On the surface, this may seem unimportant: Israelis often use the same term, and they do not need the pope to tell them about the Holocaust, which today is a universal code for absolute evil.

But the word the pope used is significant because someone in the Holy See decided to write "were killed" instead of "murdered" or "destroyed." The impression is that the cardinals argued among themselves over whether Israelis "deserve" for the pope to say "were murdered" and decided they only deserve "were killed." It sounded petty. Even the recurring use of the term "tragedy" seemed like an attempt to avoid saying the real thing.

The verbal stinginess Benedict displayed last night also diminishes the impact of anything he might say about Palestinian suffering. Had he said what he needed to on the Holocaust, he could have said more to condemn Israel's systematic violation of the human rights of residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Yad Vashem speech emphasized the Holocaust's universal lessons, which are obviously important. Israel has yet to learn to do this sufficiently well. The legacy of the Holocaust obligates every person to fight racism and protect human rights. It obligates every soldier to refuse a patently illegal order.

But Benedict chose to phrase even the universal lessons of the Holocaust in abstract terms. These may still have a place in the lecture hall of a German theology professor, but in the Internet age, they are little more than empty banalities.