New controversy swirls around Jewish cardinal

April 26, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Soon after the outbreak of World War II, a 13-year-old Parisian youth named Aaron Lustiger converted from Judaism to Catholicism.

This week, that long-ago choice brought scathing criticism from Israel's chief rabbi, and the rabbi's rebuke has tainted with controversy tomorrow's Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel.

Aaron Lustiger is now Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris and said by some to be a contender for pope.

Israel's chief rabbi, Yisrael Lau, said this week that the Catholic official is a traitor who deserves condemnation.

"We are talking about someone who betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest periods of 1940," Rabbi Lau told Israel Radio.

"If we take Lustiger as a model, not one Jew will be left in the world."

Rabbi Lau said he would boycott tomorrow's ceremonies marking Holocaust Remembrance Day if Cardinal Lustiger, who is in Israel, is invited. The cardinal's mother was killed at Auschwitz.

The rabbi's threat has generated support and controversy. The Israeli minister of education and the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial both said the cardinal would be refused an invitation if he asked for one. He did not.

His address at a seminar at Tel Aviv University tomorrow conflicts with the ceremonies in Jerusalem, his university hosts said belatedly. He will visit Yad Vashem privately after the ceremonies.

Rabbi Lau thinks even his appearance at the university is scandalous.

"Lustiger's image and lifestyle only strengthen Jewish assimilation instead of helping us fight it," said Rabbi Lau, who survived the Buchenwald death camp.

Cardinal Lustiger yesterday offered to meet Rabbi Lau to discuss the matter. At the opening session of the Tel Aviv University seminar on "Why God Was Silent" during the Holocaust, Cardinal Lustiger defended his practice of calling himself a Jew.

"For me to say that I am no longer a Jew would be to deny my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am a Jew in the same measure as all my other relatives butchered in Auschwitz or in other camps," he told Israel Television.

The cardinal, 68, is no stranger to controversy -- from both faiths -- because of his unusual background.

He was born in Paris to Jewish, socialist, secular parents. At the outbreak of the war, young Aaron and his sister were sent to boarding school in Orleans, west of Paris.

He came across a Protestant Bible and found himself drawn to Christianity, Cardinal Lustiger wrote in an autobiography, "The Choice of God." His conversion in 1940 was a matter of personal spirituality, he wrote, not exigency of war.

His father disapproved, but eventually accepted his conversion. His mother was arrested in German-occupied Paris and sent to the Polish death camp in 1942.

He became a priest. As he rose through the ranks, the Catholic cleric visited Israel often, and once even considered immigrating here. But it is his visit this week, coinciding with the annual Holocaust observance, that has provoked controversy.

"There is something wrong about Jews in their own country currying favor from a senior Catholic official," said Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, yesterday. "Before we ask a church prince his opinion about God's silence during the Holocaust, we should first ask him to explain the church's silence."

Many Israelis have not forgiven the Catholic Church for its failure to oppose the Nazi oppression of Jews, and for holding Jews collectively guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus.

"It is a deeply felt conviction," Amnon Rubenstein, the Israel education minister, said yesterday in explaining why he supported the chief rabbi. "We don't forget [the Vatican's] thundering silence in the dark days of the Holocaust."

Observance of the Holocaust often creates arguments in Israel. Gay men have been jeered when they asked for recognition that homosexuals were put to death by the Nazis, also. Religious Jews have protested the nudity in pictures at the Yad Vashem memorial showing women stripped naked for the gas chambers.

This year, a high school principal in Tel Aviv stirred more debate when he wanted to include recognition of the genocide of Armenians in 1915-1916 in the program taught on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Mr. Rubenstein, among others, objected that no other tragedy should be compared to the Holocaust.

"These are traditional Jewish sensitivities, not just Israeli sensitivities," said Pinchas Zimer of the Center for Jewish and Zionist Education in Jerusalem.

Cardinal Lustiger's background touched on many raw nerves for Jews, he said.

"It's the worst thing that you can do, to stop being a Jew," said Mr. Zimer. Holocaust survivors -- such as Rabbi Lau -- equate converts with collaborators who joined the Nazis, he said.

But more generally, assimilation of Jews by other religions or cultures would eventually end their separateness, he said.

"It's a symbol to people like Rabbi Lau of what the Jewish problem is today," said Mr. Zimer. "What he's saying is that we must stay Jews."

Cardinal Lustiger's comments only inflame Rabbi Lau's fears.

"I always saw myself as a Jew, even if it's not the opinion of the rabbis," the cardinal told the newspaper Ha'aretz last week. "I was born a Jew and will remain a Jew."

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