A former deputy prime minister of Australia attacked the “Jewish lobby” for what he considers unfair treatment of pope Pius XII, prompting Jewish groups to accuse him of anti-Semitism.
In an interview with Australian media, Tim Fischer suggested that a “Jewish lobby” controlled by Israel silences attempts to defend the wartime pope’s record. This lobby needed “momentum and profile” and had become “increasingly shrill” in its criticism of the pope, he said.
“The American Jewish lobby is run by hardliners who get their daily feed from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and will cut no slack in terms of Israel’s policies in the West Bank,” Fischer wrote in a new book about his term as ambassador to the Holy See, which ended last year.
Jewish groups often criticize Pius XII for his behavior during the Holocaust, lamenting that he did not vocally oppose the Nazis.
But Fischer, who served as Australia’s deputy prime minister from 1996 until 1999, contended that Pius did save thousands of Jews in Italy but “gets zero credit,” according to a report in Fairfax Media, an Australian media company.
“In fact, according to Mr. Fischer, Pius instructed Catholics to help Jews, hiding hundreds in convents, monasteries and the Vatican. The Nazis rounded up 1,002 of Rome’s 8,000 Jews in 1943 and sent them to Auschwitz, but the other 7,000 were saved,” the Australian media conglomerate reported.
In “Holy See, Unholy Me: 1000 Days in Rome,” which hit bookstands last week in Melbourne, Fischer identified Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev “as a key figure” regarding the Jewish lobby’s media power, according to Fairfax. The Jews’ prowess in manipulating public opinion beats that of the Vatican, Fischer reportedly said, adding that their tactics “are about representing a cause and maintaining influence and power.”
Regev, who was born and raised in Melbourne before he immigrated to Israel, said he had no comment about Fischer’s allegations.
“This is very standard anti-Semitic fare,” said Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. “This is one of the classic fundamentals of anti-Semitic propaganda: the notion of Jews controlling the world, either through financial markets or the media, or both. People conjure up a specter of nefarious international conspiracy run by Jews.”
Zuroff opined that Fischer was using the accusations as a way to drum up sales.
Fischer told Fairfax he expected to be criticized for his comments, “but hoped fair-minded people would read the book.”
In the book, Fischer wrote that “Jewish lobby’s” influence in sullying the name of the Vatican bubbled to the surface when an Israeli diplomat ostensibly defended Pope Pius’s wartime record but later partially retracted his statement after a huge backlash from Jewish organizations.
In 2011, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See Mordechai Levy said that “it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”
The comments were conceived to be surprisingly warm, since Israel and Jewish groups had hitherto accused Pius of not having used his prominent position to forcefully protest the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
“For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’s silence,” said Elan Steinberg, the vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. Other Jewish organizations made similar comments, prompting Levy to quickly issue a clarification.
“Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature,” the diplomat stated.
Fischer told Fairfax that he thought Levy was forced into a “humiliating backdown.”
“Further, the moment any suggestion is made to consider Pius XII for beatification and sainthood, they hit out at close to full power and use all media avenues to stamp it out,” he said.
Officially, Israel identifies with criticism over Pius’s alleged silence yet calls for more work to be done to better assess the historical facts. “It is the known position of many among Jewish communities and in Israel that Pius remained silent when a strong moral voice needed to be raised,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said. “His historical role, however, must be determined by historians who need free and full access to relevant archives [in the Vatican].”
Last year, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, based on new research, changed the wording on one of its panels to soften its criticism of Pius. It used to state that the pope “did not intervene” when the Nazis deported Jews from Rome to Auschwitz. Now it says that he “did not publicly protest.” The text further says that Pius “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews” in 1942.
The new text notes that critics consider the pontiff’s lack of public protest a “moral failure,” while defenders emphasize that his neutrality “prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church’s institutions throughout Europe, thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels of the Church.”
The panel at the museum now ends with this sentence: “Until all relevant material is available to scholars, this topic will remain open to further inquiry.”
Fischer, a 67-year-old Vietnam War veteran, is no stranger to controversy surrounding Israel.
In 1997, when he was deputy prime minister, he withdrew an invitation to Australia he had previously extended to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, because then-prime minister John Howard felt such a visit was “inappropriate.” At the time, the Palestinian representative in Australia said pressure from local Jewish groups was behind the cancellation, although senior community officials said they had nothing to do with it.
In 2006, Fischer stated unequivocally that an Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty during the Six Day War was “a deliberate attack by the Israeli air force.” Both Washington and Jerusalem investigated the incident and concluded that the attack, which killed 34 crew members, was an accident, although some survivors claim it was deliberate.
“By resurrecting this long discredited calumny, the only thing Fischer proves is his own deep-seated bias against Israel,” Ted Lapkin, the director of policy analysis at the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, responded at the time to Fischer’s assertion.