Ebensee concentration camp prisoners 1945.jpgThe Vatican’s chief spokesman on justice and peace issues, Cardinal Renato Martino, has made waves (and added to doubts over a May papal visit to the Holy Land) by comparing the Gaza Strip to “a big concentration camp.” (CNS has fuller quotes here.)
Needless to say, Israeli and Jewish leaders are not happy, and there’s no question that the choice of analogy was not a happy one, given images like the one at right of the Ebensee camp. One diplomatic way out of this will be to paint Martino as a trigger-happy Lone Ranger, and indeed he can shoot off his mouth, as Reuter’s longtime Vaticanista, Phil Pullella, writes in this blog post, “Cardinal Martino does it again”: Comparing Saadaam Hussein’s treatment at his execution as that of a cow going to slaughter, or calling Washington’s plan to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexican border part of an “inhuman program” are two well-known examples. I think the other examples may have been undiplomatic but pretty much on target. Still, Pullella notes that Benedict XVI wanted Martino to hold his tongue:
Gaza scene.jpg

“Martino had more of a free rein during the papacy of Pope John Paul, who was not shy himself about speaking out,” Pullella writes. “But Vatican sources have said Pope Benedict wants his cardinals to keep a lower profile and that Martino had been told by Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to keep the lid on and not be so controversial.”
“The cardinal obviously disregarded the advice when he gave his interview with the Gaza=concentration camp comparison to the Italian on-line newspaper His comment only added to the speculation Israel’s military operation in Gaza is putting Benedict’s tentatively planned trip to the Holy Land in May in serious doubt. While both the Vatican and Israel have officially said the trip is still on, diplomats are not so sure.”

But it would be a mistake to restrict the Israel-Vatican dust-up just to Martino’s mouth. Pope Benedict himself is deeply upset at the violence (a scene above from yesterday), and the president of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Rodriguez of Honduras, added to calls for a cease-fire. just as Muslims and Arabs identify with Palestinians in Gaza, Catholics identify with their fellow believers there, like the parish priest who at Mass described Gaza as “drowning in blood” while the world ignores their cries. This story of the funeral of a 21-year-old Gazan Catholic is deeply affecting, and feeds the growing chorus of international voices calling on Israel to stop the incursion. Catholics in other parts of the world where they are a minority are also speaking up with words that may surprise U.S. Catholics. A Pakistan diocese, for example, denounced Israel’s actions, with one church official saying “The blood of innocent people is being spilled for fun in Gaza.”
Warsaw Ghetto.jpgStill, a “concentration camp”? No. If Catholic leaders are looking for a parallel that would pierce the Israeli conscience with a more historically appropriate analogy (aware as always that every analogy limps), perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto (pictured at right) would be more apt.
Then again, I don’t think any of this language is going to help–Israelis can see the Jewish State as an embattled enclave in the wider perspective of the Middle East. And Jews in the ghetto were never shelling the Nazis, though of course Gazans would say they were invaded first (that’d be 1948).
The search for historical parallels is always dodgy, and as this conflict drags on, Godwin’s law will inevitably come into play and make the argumentation just another weapon rather than a means to resolution.
Yes, consciences need to be shocked, to bring an halt to it all. But by going down the Holocaust route, the Catholic Church will only ensure that a further casualty will be hard-won interreligious bonds. Cardinal Martino could surely find some other chapters of history, or perhaps this Gordion Knot of a conflict is an analogy all its own.

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