Kertzer asserts that "... the highest Church authorities, including the popes," contributed to the systematic denigration and demonization of Jews and Judaism that helped provide the seedbed for the Holocaust.
He supports his claim by drawing on material from previously closed Vatican archives. His analysis starts with Pope Pius VII, who returned to Rome from exile following Napoleon's defeat in 1814, and concludes with the German roundup of Rome's Jews in 1943, during Pope Pius XII's reign.
While some of the 10 Italian popes during those 130 years were friendly toward individual Jews or the Jewish community, Kertzer asserts this friendship was outweighed by negative papal actions.
One example is Pius IX, who began his pontificate (1846-1878) by lifting some restrictions against Rome's Jews including the requirement to listen to sermons aimed at converting them to Christianity. However, the same pope reinstituted the Roman Jewish ghetto, which was finally abolished by Italian republican forces in 1870. A year later, Pius IX publicly complained: "We have today in Rome unfortunately too many of these dogs (Jews), and we hear them barking in all the streets, and going around molesting people everywhere." On Sept. 3, 2000, Pius IX -- along with John XXIII -- was beatified, the penultimate step to sainthood.
Unlike the authors of two other recent books -- James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword" and John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII" -- Kertzer is neither a former priest writing about the Church's anti-Semitism nor a Catholic layman who concentrates on the World War II activities of Pius XII.
Instead, Kertzer, a rabbi's son who teaches Italian studies and social science at Brown University, writes from an academic venue outside the Catholic community. Kertzer's scholarly research presents religiously radioactive material with a coolness that makes his findings devastating.
He explores the Vatican's finely crafted distinction between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism. The former, it is claimed, was the result of misinformed Christians who had an insufficient knowledge of the Jewish roots of their faith, while the latter, which led to the Holocaust, originated outside the Church.
That dichotomy was a major feature of the Vatican's 1998 document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah": "In the 19th century, a false and exacerbated nationalism took hold. ... Thus there began to spread in varying degrees throughout most of Europe an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious. ... The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity."
Kertzer rejects this concept: "As modern anti-Semitic movements took shape at the end of the 19th century, the Church was the major player in them, constantly warning people of the rising `Jewish peril.'" He adds: "Such a distinction (between religious anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism) also permits the Roman Catholic Church to argue it played no role in spreading the hatred of the Jews in Europe that helped make the Holocaust possible."
"The Popes Against the Jews" is painful reading. Its descriptions of forced conversions, ritual murder charges and the stream of hostility that issued from the Vatican filled me with anger and sadness. However, the book also reveals how far the Church has recently come in confronting its long-standing "Jewish Problem."
Since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, there has been a revolution in Catholic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism that is especially evident in the United States. Positive declarations and pronouncements from the Vatican have been accompanied by significant liturgical changes and new guidelines for teaching and preaching within the Church. But future generations of Jews and Catholics still face the unfinished task of curing the 2,000-year-old Christian anti-Jewish cancer.
Kertzer has performed an important service by documenting just how sick the patient was. His book is a necessary corrective for those who mistakenly believe the task of eradicating Christian hostility toward Jews and Judaism is completed. It is a benchmark by which other books on the subject must now be judged.