What was Netanyahu thinking this week when on an official visit to the Vatican he presented the Pope with a book his father wrote about the Inquisition? Doesn’t he understand that proper etiquette requires presenting expensive gifts? Was it such a good idea on their first meeting to give the newly-seated Pontiff a $42 book reminding him of the Church’s torture and destruction of the Spanish Jews?
Netanyahu’s father, Ben Zion Netanyahu, wrote the hotly debated book “Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” in 1995. Netanyahu’s history of the Inquisition was so controversial that an April 2012 obituary in the New York Times highlighted his perspective of the notorious destruction of Spain’s Jewish community. From the Times:
"As a historian, Mr. Netanyahu reinterpreted the Inquisition in 'The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain' (1995). The predominant view had been that Jews were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion after pretending to convert to Roman Catholicism. Mr. Netanyahu, in 1,384 pages, offered evidence that most Jews in Spain had willingly become Catholics and were enthusiastic about their new religion.
"Jews were persecuted, he concluded — many of them burned at the stake — for being perceived as an evil race rather than for anything they believed or had done. Jealousy over Jews' success in the economy and at the royal court only fueled the oppression, he wrote. The book traced what he called 'Jew-hatred' to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity."
Netanyahu is arguing in his book that it was not religion per se that initiated the brutal massacre of Jews, but rather an inherent "Jew-hatred." While the Church must certainly be held responsible for her role in the many atrocities against the Jews, the book which his son presented to the Pope this week tries to show that the roots of anti-Semitism run far deeper than Church doctrine.
In recent years the Church has made significant strides in reconciling itself with the Jewish people. Christian and Jewish dialogue is improving. The violent and unmitigated anti-Semitism of the past is in recession in the Church. The new Pope inviting Netanyahu to the Vatican is clearly another step in pursuing friendly relations with Israel.
But giving the Pope his father’s book was not only conciliatory. With all these positive moves in the right direction, radical anti-Semitism continues to be on the rise, especially across Europe. A recent survey by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights concluded that one quarter of all European Jews are afraid to publicly identify themselves as Jewish.
Like father like son, Prime Minister Netanyahu wants people to realize, and the new head of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics to understand, that modern, radical and secular anti-Semitism is still very much alive, with or without Church involvement. More than that, the book now in the Pope’s hands ought to stir him and his Church beyond mere reconciliation toward active participation in the struggle against anti-Semitism.