March 3rd, 2011
10:09 AM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
Jewish groups and leaders around the world are welcoming a clear declaration from Pope Benedict XVI that the Jewish people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped to soon offer his "deep appreciation" to Benedict for his "forcefully rejecting ... a false charge that has been a foundation for the hatred of the Jewish people for many centuries."
"My fervent hope is that your clarity and courage will strengthen the relations between Jews and Christians throughout the world and help promote peace and reconciliation for generations to come," Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Benedict, which the prime minister's office made public.
A key Jewish envoy to the Vatican said the declaration - which she called "an excellent gesture" - shows that Benedict is "very committed" to the "deep connections between Christianity and Judaism" and to fighting anti-Semitism.
Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the American Jewish Committee's liaison to the Holy See, recalled a long conversation she had with Benedict in the 1990s, before he became pope, and said he made "overwhelmingly clear... the bond between Christians and Jews, the harmfulness of theological anti-Semitism."
"I know that this pope has been committed to all this progress that we have made" in Catholic-Jewish relations, said Palmieri-Billig.
The pope says in a new book, due out next week, that the Jews are not to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus, underlining a key breakthrough in Catholic-Jewish relations.
Many Catholics and other Christians blamed Jews for Jesus' death for hundreds of years - a doctrine which many Jews believe directly fueled anti-Semitism.
The Catholic Church formally repudiated the assertion that the Jewish people had committed "deicide," or the murder of God, in the 1960s.
Jewish organizations including the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League praised Benedict's new comments on the death of Jesus.
"Pope Benedict has rejected the previous teachings and perversions that have helped to foster and reinforce anti-Semitism through the centuries," ADL national director Abraham Foxman said.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, lauded the "critically important and timely statement by his Holiness, particularly at a time of increased mainstream anti-Semitism worldwide," calling it "a very important tool in the fight against Jew-hatred."
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, welcomed the pope's book, but urged him to go farther.
"Many in the Catholic world have continued to espouse ideas of Jewish guilt. Refuting their fallacious arguments in a personal book, whilst right, is probably insufficient. This must become official Church doctrine, from top to bottom," he said in a statement.
Benedict discusses the death of Jesus in his new book "Jesus of Nazareth," which is to be released next week. CNN has obtained excerpts.
"Who has insisted on the condemnation of Jesus to death?" he asks in the book, referring to scenes in the Gospels in which the people of Jerusalem demand that Roman governor Pontius Pilate have Jesus crucified.
The Gospel of John says the people in question were "the Judeans," but the pope says the term "does not refer to - unlike the modern reader may tend to interpret - the people of Israel as such, and it doesn't even have a 'racist' connotation."
Far from meaning all Jewish people, Benedict writes, "the circle of prosecutors pursuing the death of Jesus" is the "aristocracy of the Temple," or the priesthood.
"Even that is not without exception," he adds in the book.
He also addresses accounts of the trial of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, saying Mark's account blames the "mass" or the "mob," "not the Jewish people as such."
He dismisses Matthew's laying the blame on "all the people," saying the phrase does not represent "a historical fact."
"The real group of the accusers are the circle of the people from the Temple," he reiterates.
Benedict has had a sometimes difficult relationship with Jews during his six-year papacy.
He infuriated many by welcoming back into the church a rebel bishop who is on record as saying that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did not have a systematic plan to murder Europe's Jews. The bishop also minimized the role of the Auschwitz death camp in the Holocaust.
Benedict later ordered the bishop, Richard Williamson, to recant his views, saying the Vatican was not aware of them when it decided to lift his excommunication.
Benedict also put his predecessor, Pius XII, on the path to sainthood, further antagonizing many Jews, who believe the World War II-era pope did little to save Jews from Hitler.
But Benedict also last year became the first pope to visit Rome's main synagogue since 1986, trying to smooth feathers on an annual "Day of Dialogue" with the Jewish community.
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