Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Pope Francis at the Vatican. According to the DPA news agency, Netanyahu brought with him a slightly unusual gift: A book about the Spanish inquisition.
The leader of the world's only Jewish state giving the leader of the Catholic Church a book that largely revolves about Spanish Catholics questioning, torturing, and punishing Jewish converts to Catholicism is certainly noteworthy. The Spanish inquisition is widely held up as one of the worst excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, and thousands of people were expelled from Spain or burned at the stake. Worse still, the inquisition of Catholic converts (and the use of torture to discover heretics) was first legally sanctioned by Pope Innocent IV.
So, Netanyahu's gift may seem passive aggressive (or maybe just aggressive), and perhaps it is. But it is important to think of the context of the book, which is written by Netanyahu's father Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a well-regarded historian who worked at both Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Cornell University.
The elder Netanyahu's impact on his politician son is well-known within Israeli circles. In 1998, David Remnick of the New Yorker wrote that while Ben-Zion Netanyahu's opinions frequently differed from his son, the pessimism of his right wing worldview influenced his son's hawkish policies. “His dilemma is always to what degree he can, or should, remain true to the ideals, the stubbornness, of his father," Remnick observed.
The book given to the pope, titled "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain," is considered Netanyahu's most important work, and it reflects that deep pessimism. The book argues that, contrary to the widely held view that the Jewish converts persecuted by the Catholic church were secretly practicing Judaism, they were in fact devout Catholics who had forsaken their religious heritage. As such, the book argues, the persecution of the Jews was not truly based on religious grounds, but on a racial prejudice and financial envy that would be echoed years later in the Holocaust.
As Ben-Zion Netanyahu died just last year at the age of 102, it seems likely that Netanyahu meant the gift to be a personal touch. Given the reported inscription ("To His Holiness Pope Francis, great guardian of our common heritage") and the other reported gift — a carved panel of Saint Paul, an apostle who holds a special place in the relationship between the two religions — it seems also to highlight the inescapable link between Judaism and Catholicism, for better or worse.
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