Polish and American Jewish leaders say last week’s “Mr. Pope” incident between Poland’s chief rabbi and Pope John Paul II has damaged Jewish-Catholic relations in Poland, and could undermine negotiations involving the controversial Auschwitz cross.
And adding to the Auschwitz cross controversy is Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss, who on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in Washington for violating his First Amendment rights by barring him from speaking at this week’s biannual board meeting.
Rabbi Weiss, president of Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, said he wanted “to warn” the board that a Jewish coalition team led by Holocaust Memorial Council chairman Miles Lerman is taking positions in negotiations with the Polish government that would, among other problems, leave the controversial 26-foot cross standing at its present location, on property adjacent to the main Auschwitz camp.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to allow the rabbi to speak at future meetings of an organization that receives millions in federal funds and whose chairman and board is appointed by the President of the United States.
A council spokeswoman said Rabbi Weiss’ topic was not on the board’s agenda and that he was permitted to speak at last December’s meeting. A June 11 letter by council attorney Gerard Leval stated that the meetings are forums for council members only, and that Rabbi Weiss failed to “use the established communications channels of the Council” for his request.
No court decision was expected this week.
Meanwhile, leaders of Poland’s resurrected Jewish community told The Jewish Week they are especially furious with the 79-year-old Chief Rabbi Menachem Joskowicz, who took it upon himself to ask the Pope to remove the Auschwitz cross in the most public and embarrassing way: speaking in slang Polish in a seemingly disrespectful way on live television broadcast across the Catholic-dominated country.
“He transgressed all normal and diplomatic ways,” declared Stanislaw Krajewski, a board member of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. “Many Jews here say that it will take years before we overcome that.”
Rabbi Joskowicz, an Auschwitz survivor and member of the Ger chasidic sect, held the title of Poland’s chief rabbi since 1989 after being appointed under the communist Polish government. He retired under a cloud last Sunday after years of tension with Poland’s Jewish community.
Krajewski said Rabbi Jokowicz’s encounter with the Pope “has strongly decreased the chances to find a solution, and certainly to relocate the cross in the foreseeable future.”
He said most Catholics believe the rabbi was the main spokesman for Polish Jews, but insisted “he does not represent us, the majority of Polish Jews.”
The Jewish negotiating team was expected to meet in New York Thursday for a strategy session on how to proceed with negotiations with the Polish government over the Auschwitz cross, weeks after Polish officials removed 300 smaller crosses erected by Polish Catholics opposed to the removal of the large icon, a memorial to slain Polish World War II patriots and a symbol of the Pope’s 1979 visit there.
Lerman said the Pope incident “definitely will make our negotiations more difficult.”
Lerman said Rabbi Joskowicz’ action came at “the wrong time, the wrong place and the wrong manner. The fact that it was on live television, the [newspaper] picture of him pointing his finger in the Pope’s face, makes it worse. I wish it had never happened.”
Krajewski said the rabbi used his title to gain access to the Pope in what was supposed to be merely a receiving line.
“The Pope was just shaking hands and receiving hand kisses from a series of VIPs, and some said one sentence,” Krajewski recounted. “[The rabbi] started a whole speech. He was addressing him by ‘Mr. Pope,’ which in Polish at least sounded horrible. He was behaving in a way that showed disrespect, although I am not saying it was intentional.”
Rabbi Joskowicz had urged the Pope directly “to bring his people to take the last cross out of the camp so that Jews who come here can say their final prayer before dying.”
John Paul did not appear taken aback by the incident and reportedly treated the rabbi with respect and whispered a response.
Jewish officials did not question the sincerity Rabbi Joskowicz’s appeal. Many told The Jewish Week they agree with its substance — that the Auschwitz cross needs to be moved.
“It’s hard to condemn the chief rabbi for doing what he did,” said Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Here is his one opportunity to meet with the Holy Father. What was on his heart was on his tongue.”
Nevertheless, Foxman said the manner was inappropriate. “People do not challenge the Pope in public, especially in Poland.”
But several American Jewish officials strongly approved of Rabbi Joskowicz’s conduct. “I applaud what the rabbi did,” declared Rabbi Weiss. “This was a Jew who was a patriarchal individual who spoke truth to a person he viewed as an equal, as he should.”
Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress said the Polish rabbi “was respectful and open with the Pope, and it is disgraceful that his plea should be so excoriated by other Jews.”
But Polish Jewish authorities explained that the “Mr. Pope” incident was the last in a long series of faux pas by the white-bearded, well-dressed rabbi, who routinely spent half the year in Israel running a pharmaceutical company.
They noted that he once advocated that Auschwitz be made an international site — a political blunder that both upset the Poles and Jews concerned with Jerusalem.