Pope Benedict XVI, Grand Imam Tantawi, and The Jews



Pope Benedict XVI and Holocaust Survivor Rabbi Arthur Schneier


Today, Wednesday April 23, 2008, National Review Online has published my comparison of Pope Benedict XVI and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University Sheikh Muhammad Tanatwi, vis a vis Jews, and the global Jewish community.
Below is a slightly extended version of the same essay:

This past Friday (4/18/08), Pope Benedict XVI stopped at Park Street Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, marking the first such visit by any Pope to a temple in the United States. The 81 year old pontiff—a native of Germany, whose father had been anti-Nazi—was forcibly enrolled in the Hitler Youth, and conscripted into the German Army during the final months of  World War II, before deserting in the War’s concluding days. With fitting poignancy, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who leads the Park Street Synagogue, greeted Pope Benedict. Rabbi Schneier, 78, is a Holocaust survivor, who as a teenager lost his family in the Nazis’ Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps. Schneier has headed the synagogue since 1962, while championing religious freedom and tolerance worldwide. He founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which promotes interfaith tolerance, and received the 2001 U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal for service to the nation.


Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, characterized the Pope’s appearance—one day before Passover (which begins at sundown on Saturday, April 19)—thusly: “By this personal and informal visit, which is not part of his official program, His Holiness wishes to express his good will toward the local Jewish community as they prepare for Passover.”


Indeed this is the pope’s second visit to a synagogue as pontiff. On his initial papal trip abroad, in August, 2005, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, which had been destroyed by the Nazis. Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, noted appositely, on that occasion, “The fact that in his very first foreign visit as Pope he went to the Cologne Synagogue is an indication of the importance that the Church attaches to its relationship with the Jews.” Within a year later, Benedict’s May 2006 address while visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp included a blistering rebuke and condemnation of those who would persecute the Jews, and a lucid presentation of the phenomenon of antisemitism, particularly as it was manifested in the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz:


Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone—to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.


And Benedict offered this concluding prescription if mankind wishes to avert such cataclysms in the future:


. . . in the words that Sophocles placed on the lips of Antigone, as she contemplated the horror all around her: My nature is not to join in hate but to join in love.


Earlier, writing in December, 2000 (published in L’Osservatore Romano December 29, 2000 as “The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas”), prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger affirmed his close alignment with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the ecumenical thought of his predecessor and dear friend Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger’s December 2000 statement reiterates this “…new vision of Jewish-Christian relations,” and does not shy away from historical mea culpa, which includes acknowledgment of a role for Christian Antisemitism in the Holocaust itself:


Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.


He then implores that a new relationship must be forged between the Church (Christians) and Israel (Jews) out of the tragic ashes of the Shoah, based upon overcoming “every kind of anti-Judaism,” and engaging in sincere, meaningful dialogue, not bavardage.


Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong “the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge.


As Pope Benedict, this commitment and its constructive impact were re-affirmed in a Passover greeting to the Jewish community, issued officially during his visit to Washington, DC Thursday, April 17, 2008.


At this time of your most solemn celebration, I feel particularly close, precisely because of what Nostra Aetate calls Christians to remember always: that the Church “received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles” (Nostra Aetate, 4). In addressing myself to you I wish to re-affirm the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on Catholic-Jewish relations and reiterate the Church’s commitment to the dialogue that in the past forty years has fundamentally changed our relationship for the better. Because of that growth in trust and friendship, Christians and Jews can rejoice together in the deep spiritual ethos of the Passover, a memorial (zikkarôn) of freedom and redemption… This bond permits us Christians to celebrate alongside you, though in our own way, the Passover of Christ’s death and resurrection, which we see as inseparable from your own, for Jesus himself said: “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4: 22). Our Easter and your Pesah, while distinct and different, unite us in our common hope centered on God and his mercy. They urge us to cooperate with each other and with all men and women of goodwill to make this a better world for all as we await the fulfillment of God’s promises.



For over a thousand years, since its founding in 792 C.E., Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, has served as the academic shrine—much as Mecca is the religious shrine—of the global Muslim community.  Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the current Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, was born in 1928 in Selim Al-Sharqiya, Egypt. He graduated from Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Religious Studies in 1958, and received his Ph.D. in 1966. Tantawi’s  Ph.D., thesis Banu Israil fi al-Quran wa-al-Sunnah (Jews in the Koran and the Traditions) was published in 1968-69, and re-published in 1986. Two years after earning his Ph.D., Sheikh Tantawi began teaching at Al-Azhar. In 1980 he became the head of the Tafsir {Koranic Commentary] Department of the University of Medina, Saudi Arabia –a position he held until 1984. Sheikh Tantawi became Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1986, a position he was to hold for a decade before taking on his current post, first assumed in 1996, as the Grand Imam.

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi On His Visit To Singapore Masjid Ba’alwie




My forthcoming book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism includes extensive first time English translations of Tantawi’s academic magnum opus, Jews in the Koran and the Traditions. Tantawi wrote these words in his 700 page treatise rationalizing Muslim Jew hatred:


[The] Koran describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e. killing the prophets of Allah [Koran 2:61/ 3:112], corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness…only a minority of the Jews keep their word {Koranic citations here]….[A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslims {Koran 3:113], the bad ones do not.


Tantawi was apparently rewarded for this scholarly effort by being named Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in 1996, a position he still holds. These are the expressed, “carefully researched” views on Jews held by the nearest Muslim equivalent to a Pope—the head of the most prestigious center of Muslim learning in Sunni Islam, which represents some 90% of the world’s Muslims. And Sheikh Tantawi has not mollified such hatemongering beliefs since becoming the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar as his statements on “dialogue” (January 1998) with Jews, the Jews as “enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs” (April 2002), and the legitimacy of homicide bombing of Jews (April 2002) make clear.


Tantawi’s statements on dialogue, which were issued shortly after he met with the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Jacob Lau, in Cairo, on December 15, 1997, provided him another opportunity to re-affirm his ongoing commitment to the views expressed about Jews in his Ph.D. thesis:


…anyone who avoids meeting with the enemies in order to counter their dubious claims and stick fingers into their eyes, is a coward.  My stance stems from Allah’s book [the Koran], more than one-third of which deals with the Jews…[I] wrote a dissertation dealing with them [the Jews], all their false claims and their punishment by Allah.  I still believe in everything written in that dissertation. [i.e., Jews in the Koran and the Traditions, cited above]



Unfortunately, Tantawi’s antisemitic formulations are well-grounded in classical, mainstream Islamic theology. The Koranic depiction of the Jews—their traits as thus characterized being deemed both infallible and timeless—highlights, in verse 2:61 (repeated in verse 3:112), the centrality of the Jews “abasement and humiliation”, and being “laden with God’s anger,” as elaborated in the corpus of classical Muslim exegetic literature on Koran 2:61, including the hadith and Koranic commentaries. The terrifying rage decreed upon the Jews forever is connected in the hadith and exegeses to Koran 1:7, where Muslims ask Allah to guide them rightly, not in the path of those who provoke and must bear His wrath. This verse is in turn linked to Koranic verses 5:60, and 5:78, which describe the Jews transformation into apes and swine (5:60), or apes alone (2:65 / 7:166), having been “…cursed by the tongue of David, and Jesus, Mary’s son” (5:78). Moreover, forcing Jews, in particular, to pay the Koranic poll tax “tribute,” (as per verse 9:29) “readily,” while “being brought low,” is consistent with their overall humiliation and abasement in accord with Koran 2:61, and its directly related verses.


An additional much larger array of anti-Jewish Koranic motifs build to a denouement (as if part of a theological indictment, conviction, and sentencing process) concluding with an elaboration of the “ultimate sin” committed by the Jews (they are among the devil’s minions [Koran 4:60], accursed by God [Koran 4:47]), and their appropriate punishment:  If they do not accept the true faith (i.e., Islam), on the day of judgment, they will burn in the hellfire (Koran 4:55). As per, Koran 98:6: “The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures”


However, understanding and acknowledging the Koranic origins of Islamic antisemitism is not a justification for the unreformed, unrepentant modern application of these hateful motifs—with predictably murderous consequences—pace Tantawi. Within days of the Netanya homicide bombing massacre on a Passover seder night, March 27, 2002, for example, Sheikh Tantawi issued an abhorrent endorsement (April 4, 2002) of so-called “martyrdom operations,” even when directed at Israeli civilians.


And during November, 2002 (“Tantawi: No Antisemitism” Associated Press 11/19/2002), consistent with his triumphant denial, Sheikh Tantawi made the following statement in response to criticism over the virulently antisemitic Egyptian television series (“Horseman Without a Horse”), based on the Czarist Russia forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”:


Suppose that the series has some criticism or shows some of the Jews’ traits, this doesn’t necessitate an uproar…The accusation of antisemitism was invented by the Jews as a means to pressure Arabs and Muslims to implement their schemes in the Arab and Muslim countries, so don’t pay attention to them


Finally, just this past January 22, 2008, it was reported that Tantawi cancelled what would have been an historic visit to the Rome synagogue by Ala Eldin Mohammed Ismail al-Ghobash, the imam of Rome’s mosque. The putative excuse for this cancellation was Israel’s self-defensive stance—a blockade—in response to acts of jihad terrorism (rocket barrages; attempted armed incursions) emanating from Gaza. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, commenting aptly about these events, observed that the cancellation proved, “…even so called Muslim moderates share the ideology of hate, violence and death towards the Jewish state.”  Al Azhar, Corriere della Sera, further argued, which in the absence of a central Muslim authority constituted a “Vatican of Sunni Islam,” had in effect issued “a kind of fatwah.” The paper concluded by noting that “What the Cairo statement really means is that Muslim dialogue with Jews in Italy is only possible once Israel has been eliminated.”


Tantawi’s case illustrates the prevalence and depth of sacralized, “normative” Jew hatred in the contemporary Muslim world. Arguably Islam’s leading mainstream cleric, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi, embodies how the living legacy of Muslim anti-Jewish hatred, and violence remains firmly rooted in mainstream, orthodox  Islamic teachings, not some aberrant vision of “radical Islam.”  


Indeed, the modern pronouncements and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church—personified by the words and actions of Pope Benedict XVI—stand in stark relief. Professor Phillip Cunningham (in, “Education for Shalom: Religion Textbooks and the Enhancement of the Catholic-Jewish Relationship,” 1995, p. 39) summarized the principal features of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration of the Relationship of The Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostre Aetate), issued in 1965, for example, as follows: 


Nostre Aetate rejected key elements of the ancient anti-Jewish tradition. ‘The Jews’ were not guilty of the crucifixion, had not been renounced by God, were not under a wandering curse, and their covenantal bond with God endured. 


Thus it is now unimaginable then Cardinal Ratzinger, twenty years prior to being elected Pope Benedict, could have written a 700 page treatise detailing and rationalizing the most virulent anti-Jewish motifs extant in Christian theology, which he continued to extol unashamedly (and for eternity), while Pope. Sadly, what is unimaginable in Christendom, has not only occurred, but passes virtually without recognition in the Islamic world of today.  


The intellectually honest assessment and understanding of Islamic antisemitism, and the anti-Jewish violence it begets must begin with an unapologetic analysis of the motifs of Jew hatred contained in the foundational texts of Islam (i.e., Koran, hadith, and sira), while identifying those, like Sheikh Tantawi, who continue to preach and sanction this religious bigotry, regardless of their “stature.” Jewish leadership, in particular, must also acknowledge that the chasm between modern, ecumenical Christian teachings with regard to the Jews, and their hate engendering Islamic “equivalents,” couldn’t be wider.




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