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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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Economist package offers an upbeat slant on Islam in modern Europe and America

Economist package offers an upbeat slant on Islam in modern Europe and America

The shrinkage of U.S. newsmagazines, which at their best combined readable style with deep reporting and research, is as lamentable as the decline or death of so many dailies.

This makes Britain’s 176-year-old The Economist pretty much essential reading, especially for international affairs and (yes) economics. A yearly subscription runs – gasp -- $190, compared with the currently discounted $30 for U.S. competitor Time (where The Guy toiled for three decades).

Roughly once a month, The Economist  reaches beyond the current news to insert a hefty “Special Report” package of articles on some broader topic. The Feb. 16 edition offered a package about Islam in Europe plus  a bit about North America, 11 pages and seven articles in all, plus an editorial up front. Since the  material is behind a pay wall, here are some of the reports and contentions religion writers will want to keep in mind.

The “Here to Stay” headline announced the over-all theme, that Muslims are no longer temporary workers but a permanent sector of society. Though foreign-dominated Islam in Europe still expands, native-born Muslims will soon outnumber immigrants.

The weekly proposed that while second-generation Muslims often felt alienated, with some open to extremism, the third generation is becoming more moderate. We’re told this third generation is gradually “building a Western Islam” no longer beholden to the old countries and Mideast paymasters, and embracing a variety of forms ranging from ultra-traditionalist to revisionist. Important if this pans out

Muslims in America long considered themselves “a cut above” those in Europe, more middle-class or professional, more integrated in society, and having a more harmonious relationship with their chosen nation. But polling indicates reaction against jihadi attacks, and Trump-era nationalism, are changing that.

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Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.

The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.

Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.” He promised, once again, that “concrete” changes were ahead.

What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.

To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:

What has changed?

This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.

“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”

How concrete remains the big issue.

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The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

We have some real, live news coming out of the Vatican conference that is focusing on clergy sexual abuse of “children,” and maybe a few other kinds of victims.

It’s big news. But one or two of the most important facts in this story are still missing.

Looking at the coverage, it would appear that these holes are probably not the result of bad or shallow reporting. The holes may be intentional, in terms of a German cardinal’s remarks that were stunning, but also rather vague.

Let’s look at the top of a report in the National Catholic Reporter, which — as I typed this post at mid-day — had the most information in it. You can see the big hole right in the headline: "

Cardinal admits to Vatican summit that Catholic Church destroyed abuse files.

What, precisely, is the “Catholic Church”?

I realize that the Church of Rome is one church, with one leader in the Chair of St. Peter, but — at the level of administration and the supervision of priests — it is actually a complex network of ecclesiastic bureaucracies at the local, national and global levels. Let’s look at the overture in that story. This is long, but essential as journalists look forward:

VATICAN CITY — A top cardinal has admitted that the global Catholic Church destroyed files to prevent documentation of decades of sexual abuse of children, telling the prelates attending Pope Francis' clergy abuse summit Feb. 23 that such maladministration led "in no small measure" to more children being harmed.

In a frank speech to the 190 cardinals, bishops and heads of religious orders taking part in the four-day summit, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church's administration had left victims' rights "trampled underfoot" and "made it impossible" for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.

"Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created," said Marx, beginning a list of a number of practices that survivors have documented for years but church officials have long kept under secret.

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

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Failure of foresight? New York Times looks at globalization and the immigration backlash

Failure of foresight? New York Times looks at globalization and the immigration backlash

Funny thing about us humans. We persist in believing that we can have our cake and eat it, too -- notwithstanding the proof positive of an empty plate.

In its own complicated way, this also holds true for immigration, of course. (Have I mentioned previously that everything is connected to everything else and that this reality often involves religion? Repeatedly, actually.)

We delight in globalization’s immediate benefits -- cheaper foreign-made garments, instant international communications, exotic vacations that a generation ago middle-class travelers could only dream about, the transfer of capital across international borders to a degree previously impossible and more.

Yet we persist in ignoring that globalization is also a lure for those in the world’s poorest and most violent nations to seek a better life in the world’s wealthier and safer nations. They also want the good life that our globalized news and entertainment media have dangled before them.

We forget, or simply ignore, all this because as a specie we tend to prefer short-term material gains; quite frankly, the glitter blinds us. That is, until the day comes when we belatedly wake up and notice -- and then default into push-back mode -- that these globalized immigrants have different religious, social and political outlooks; that they speak foreign languages and have different skin colors, all of which are the stuff of massive demographic change.

This brings me to a recent New York Times business section piece that combined extensive graphics with solid reporting, a fast-growing online journalism trend.

The piece sought to explain the spreading trans-Atlantic backlash against the massive global movement of people over the last decades.

Here’s how The Times’  lede put the problem. This is long, but essential:

Immigration is reshaping societies around the globe. Barriers erected by wealthier nations have been unable to keep out those from the global South -- typically poor, and often desperate -- who come searching for work and a better life.

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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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