Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

The announcement by Pope Francis that the Vatican had decided to open up the its archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII — long criticized by many for staying largely silent during the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis — flooded the internet.

Got news? Words like “secret” and “files” are catnip for editors looking to fill news budgets at the start of the week.

That’s why the so-called “Friday news dump” has become such a thing in recent years, especially among politicians attempting to bury bad news at the start of the weekend when people pay less attention. In the case of Pope Francis, there’s no hiding an announcement that could forever alter Catholic-Jewish relations going forward.

Lost in all the intrigue of these Holocaust-era archives was the chance by mainstream news outlets to give some broader context for what all this means regarding Catholic-Jewish relations and the complicated history between these two faith traditions. There are several factors as to why the news coverage didn’t feature more depth. The lack of religion beat writers (an issue discussed on this website at great length over the years) and the frenetic pace of the internet to write a story (and quickly move on to another) are two of the biggest hurdles of this story and so many others.

A general sweep of the coverage shows that news organizations barely took on the issue — or even bothered to give a deeper explanation — of past Christian persecution of Jews and the efforts made since the Second Vatican Council, and later by Saint Pope John Paul II, to bring healing to this relationship.

The news coverage surrounding the announcement that the archives would be released in 2020 — eight years earlier than expected — was largely collected from an article published in Italian by Vatican News, the official news website of the Holy See. In it, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, she loves it and would like to love it more and better, just as she loves God.”

What would have triggered a “sidebar story” or a “timeline” in the days of newspapers, is largely lost in the digital age. Both would have certainly included the name and work of John Paul II.

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Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

We hear a great deal these days, and appropriately so, about rising anti-Semitism across Europe, much of it masquerading as anti-Israel political rhetoric. For years we’ve known about the virulent anti-Semitic attitudes that permeate the Arab world and neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Nor is there any lack of probing news coverage about the spike in anti-Semitism here in the United States. Look no further than the recent Women's March on Washington for evidence.

Still, I urge you to read this recent analysis by Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholar par excellence Deborah Lipstadt to better understand this ominous state of affairs.

Lipstadt notes how even Israel’s government and some Jews unwittingly make the situation worse.

What we hear very little about, however, is the Jew hatred — and its geopolitical twin, the hatred of all things Israeli — that emanates from Malaysia.

This past Sunday — which coincided with international Holocaust Remembrance Day — the International Paralympic Committee cancelled a top-level swimming competition set for Malaysia later this year because of that nation’s refusal to allow Israeli athletes to compete in, or even enter, the Southeast Asian country.

Did you see anything about this in the mainstream media?

Speaking at the Oxford Union [in England] a week ago, prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamed confirmed that the visa-denial was punitive but restated his country’s right to bar visitors from countries whose policies he disagreed with, adding that if the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) wanted to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the tournament, “they can do so”. He has also previously described Jews as “hook-nosed” and suggested four million, rather than six million Jews, were killed in the Shoah [Holocaust].

The above paragraph is from London’s Jewish News, as carried by the Times of Israel news website.

As you might imagine, the Malaysia story has been followed closely by Israeli and Jewish diaspora media, along with Asian and Muslim-world news outlets.

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Why has anti-Semitism persisted throughout history?

Why has anti-Semitism persisted throughout history?


How did anti-Semitism originate and why has this prejudice been so persistent throughout history?


It’s often said that history’s longest-running prejudice is anti-Semitism, hostility toward Jews as individuals or as a group. (The term was coined in 1879 by an anti-Semitic German journalist!)  This is no bygone social affliction but an ever-present problem made pertinent by numerous recent events.

Though the U.S. champions religious freedom, not so long ago its prestige universities limited Jewish enrollment while realtors and elite country cluhs drew lines against Jews. More recently, in a 2014 Trinity College survey, 54 percent of U.S. Jewish college students nationwide said they’d personally “experienced” or “witnessed” anti-Semitism. Since only 23 percent identified as religious, this was largely socio-ethnic prejudice. In a similar 2011 survey in Britain, 51 percent of collegians said they observed anti-Semitism.

The Anti-Defamation League reported 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. during 2017, a 57 percent increase over 2016. There’ve been verbal attacks from figures in the Women’s March and the Nation of Islam, and President Trump’s odd response to an infamous neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. Bizarrely, a Washington, D.C., Council member even blamed a legendary Jewish clan, the Rothschilds, for “controlling the climate.”

Overseas, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated in April that modern Israel was a colonial plot that “has nothing to do with Jews,” as though they lacked any presence in the Holy Land the past 4,000 years. He blamed the Holocaust not on Nazi anti-Semitism but the Jews’ own “social behavior, [charging of] interest, and financial matters.”

At a March “global forum for combating antisemitism” in Jerusalem, speakers cited growing concern over developments among right-wing parties and Muslim immigrants in Europe, within Britain’s Labour Party, and Iran, ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah.

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Anti-Semitism in Germany: Prime your sources, Israel-Iran conflict could make it far worse

Anti-Semitism in Germany: Prime your sources, Israel-Iran conflict could make it far worse

The supreme irony of German anti-Semitism is that it took the horrors of the Holocaust and the near-total destruction of German Jewry to banish it from wholesale public acceptance.

These days, anti-Semitism still has a bad name in Germany, at least under the law. It's illegal there to incite hatred against Jews (and other ethnic and religious groups) or to deny and even minimize the nation’s Nazi-era Holocaust crimes.

But that hasn't been enough to keep anti-Semitism from reemerging in Germany in a big way of late, particularly among the far-right and Muslim immigrants. I’ll say more below, but for now just keep this in mind: the Israel angle.

Germany, of course, isn't the only European nation to fall prey to a re-run of what many over the years have labeled the world’s oldest hatred. Examples abound in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and elsewhere.

Nor is rising anti-Semitism in the West confined to Europe. It's being more freely expressed in the United States -- remember Charlottesville? -- and in Canada, as well.

By way of illustration, here’s a bit from a recent story from Poland by JTA, the global Jewish news wire service. (Journalists and others with an interest in Jewish-related news should read it regularly; it's free.)

Things went from bad to worse following a row between Poland and Israel over Warsaw passing a law in January that criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes. The dispute unleashed the worst wave of anti-Semitism since the fall of the Iron Curtain, according to Rafal Pankowski, co-founder of the Polish anti-racism group Never Again.

In the wake of the fight over the law, he told JTA: “In the space of one month, I have seen more anti-Semitic hate speech than in the previous 10 years combined.”

Ah, another Israel-angle tease. But first, a personal aside to make my bias clear.

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Tale of two French stories: Beltrame's Catholicism, Knoll's Judaism, and why press covered them differently

Tale of two French stories: Beltrame's Catholicism, Knoll's Judaism, and why press covered them differently

The news business involves lots of subjective judgements. For starters, what constitutes a legitimate story and what are its most important aspects? How do journalists know the heart of a complex story?

Here at GetReligion, we pay particular attention to the journalistic judgements associated with questions of religion -- including, when are they key to a story and when are they peripheral?

Two recent events in France -- a nation that prides itself on holding to secular public standards -- underscore the trickiness involved in answering questions concerning religion. In short, why did French and international media generally agree that religion was a peripheral issue in one story while putting religious identity at the center of the second?

Some background is due.

The first story was about a French policeman who volunteered to switch places with a woman being held by an ISIS-connected terrorist in southwest France -- he put himself in danger while allowing the woman hostage to go free. Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame -- who died in the encounter — was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism who was soon to remarry his wife Marielle in a Catholic ceremony, two years after they wed in a civil ceremony.

GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly twice posted on the tragedy last week. His main point: News media gave Baltrame’s faith short shrift. He argued that the French and elite international media -- while appropriately emphasizing Baltrame’s selfless heroism -- had ignored the voices of friends, priests and others who thought his faith helped influence his actions. Click here and then here to read tmatt's posts.

The second story -- here’s a Reuters version to help you catch-up -- concerned the murder in Paris of an elderly Holocaust survivor. Authorities have painted it as a robbery attempt that turned into a case of murder with clear anti-Semitic overtones. The alleged killer was a Muslim man who the victim had long known (his alleged accomplice was a homeless man; his religious affiliation, if any, has not been reported, as far as I could ascertain).

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Friday Five: Nassar victim forgives, nuclear Mass, #WeRemember, KFC halal and more

Friday Five: Nassar victim forgives, nuclear Mass, #WeRemember, KFC halal and more

I'm a Christian.

Jesus tells me I'm supposed to forgive people. 

He also says I'm supposed to love my enemies and pray for people who persecute me.

In cases such as someone cutting me off in traffic or rooting for the Evil Empire, I'm (eventually) all about that W.W.J.D.

But I wonder: If a gunman had just shot up my high school, would I be concerned for the soul of the 15-year-old whom police took into custody? 

That's why I found these words from a student at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky. — site of a mass shooting this week — so remarkable:

"The shooter needs prayers. What he did is absolutely awful, and you can’t justify it to make it OK at all. But he is still a child of God, and he obviously needs God very badly in his life."

I also find it hard to comprehend how a victim of Larry Nassar — the molester sports doctor who abused countless girls and women — could talk in terms of grace and forgiveness.

More about that in just a second as we proceed with today's Friday Five:

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Question for the Gray Lady: What did other Jews think of the 'Jewish Billy Graham'?

Question for the Gray Lady: What did other Jews think of the 'Jewish Billy Graham'?

The last time I checked, it was accurate to say that the Rev. Billy Graham had spoken in person to more people -- as in crowds at mass rallies, as opposed to on television -- than any other person.

That's a hard thing to calculate over history, but no one else comes close in the modern era, at least. That would make Graham a rather famous individual.

Thus, calling someone the "Jewish Billy Graham" is a significant statement, as in this New York Times headline the other day: "Esther Jungreis, ‘the Jewish Billy Graham,’ Dies at 80."

This story intrigued me for several reasons. I had heard this woman's name but knew little or nothing about her, which is interesting since I have always been interested in issues of Jewish outreach to secular Jews (and the religious and demographic impact of intermarriage, which is a related subject). My interests date back to a University of Illinois graduate-school readings class on post-Holocaust Jewish culture.

So who was Jungreis? Here is the Times overture:

Esther Jungreis, a charismatic speaker and teacher whose enormously popular revival-style assemblies urged secular Jews to study Torah and embrace traditional religious values, died on Tuesday in Brooklyn. She was 80. ...
Ms. Jungreis (pronounced YOUNG-rice), a Hungarian Jew who spent several months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as a child, was often called “the Jewish Billy Graham,” and her artfully staged rallies, with theatrical lighting and musical accompaniment, were in fact inspired by Mr. Graham’s Christian crusades.
She styled herself “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish honorific bestowed on wives of rabbis. Her husband, Rabbi Theodore Jungreis, led the Congregation Ohr Torah, an Orthodox synagogue in North Woodmere, N.Y., on Long Island.

So that explains the origin of the Billy Graham comparison. However, I still wondered how famous this woman was, not among Americans in general (like Billy Graham), but among modern American Jews. Also, what did the leaders of other Jewish movements think of her work?

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Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?

However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.

I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."

What does this have to do with Francis?

Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?

With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:

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Really? A Starbucks cup is news and a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration isn't?

Really? A Starbucks cup is news and a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration isn't?

Let's start with some basic questions.

Raise your hands if you're familiar with the recent story about a Starbuck's coffee cup. You know, the red one. C'mon, keep them up. I'm counting. (Play along. Someday there'll be an app for this.)

Ah-ha. Quite a few of you, I see.

Now, how many of you are aware of the story about how the Swedish city of Umea marked the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht last week but didn't invite local Jews because city officials thought it too dangerous for them to attend?

Not many hands in the air this time, I see. I'm not surprised.

Last question: What does it say about the American news media that a silly non-story about a Starbucks' cup shows up everywhere, but a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration passes largely unreported?

I'd say a great deal. None of it good.

So I just said "last question," but here's one more. Why does it take a Paris massacre for journalists to pay close and continued attention to the individual dots that when connected lead to mass terrorist assaults?

Here's some background -- not on the cup. What's left to say? Let's talk about the incident in Umea.

The following is excerpted from The Daily Beast, one of the very few American news outlets to report the story, even if it did so with an incomplete and poorly edited story.

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