A cardinal, an atheist and phony media outrage
by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Oskar Svadkovsky
"Australia's most senior Catholic Archbishop sparks outrage after saying Jews are 'intellectually and morally inferior," reported the Daily Mail on April 12.
Cardinal George Pell said "the little Jewish people" were shepherds who lacked intellectual development during a debate with atheist Richard Dawkins.
Pell is known in the Australian Jewish community as a good friend. Nevertheless, the Australia Jewish News was flooded with email from upset readers. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, an umbrella group that represents the country's Jews, expressed "serious concern," finding the cardinal's remarks "problematic" from the Jewish perspective and in general.
In the next few days, Pell tried to defuse the fury, saying that no offense was intended and pointing out that his record in promoting friendly relations with the Jewish community and respect for the Jewish faith is "a matter of public record."
The Executive Council of Australian Jewry welcomed Pell's clarifying statement but said it was still looking for more dialogue with the cardinal and bishops to clear up all unresolved issues..
The cardinal has had less luck with the UK-based Jewish Chronicle. The Chronicle slammed his "attack on 'little Jewish people'" for "publicly labelling the Jewish population as intellectually limited."
Even the "Vatican Insider" thought its input was missing. "Those who know Pell also know that this is not the first time he has taken an ultra-conservative stance," stated the Insider, going so far as to highlight the following part of its report in bold, "Jews are intellectually inferior to Egyptians" he had said without a shadow of a doubt."
Watching the relevant parts of the debate, however, leaves one scratching his head in disbelief at the sheer audacity of the media's riding the wave of out-of-control political correctness. The cardinal's remarks might be awkwardly formulated, but the context doesn't leave a lot of space for misinterpretations.
Pell walked into a minefield after the host asked him "Why would god randomly decide to provide proof of his existence to a small group of Jews 2,000 years ago..."
It's not that Pell argued with that particular point. For some extraordinary reason, God chose the Jews, he readily admitted, the poor Jewish people were originally shepherds who were stuck between the great powers of the past. They weren't intellectually the equal of either the Egyptians or the Persians.
Admittedly, Pell could have found a better way to express himself. Saying that the Jewish civilization lacked the intellectual sophistication of its mighty and heavily hellenised neighbors would conform better to the strict code of speech imposed on modern Western society by the watchdogs of political correctness. Nevertheless, historically the cardinal was right.
Two thousand years ago the Jews were busy with stuff rather different from winning Nobel Peace Prizes. The Jewish tradition believes that the destruction of the Second Temple, which happened shortly after Christ, was inflicted on the Jews as a punishment for sinatchinam, which can be roughly translated as "hatred for nothing" or "senseless hatred." Examples of this senseless fratricide abound in Flavius Josephus' chronicles of the Jewish-Roman wars.
Jewish philosophy of the time was rather undeveloped. It had no equivalents to Aristotle and Plato and even the Talmud did not exist in written form. The Jewish ascendancy into the ranks of the intellectual elite of the world would begin much later. In contrast, Egypt had the Great Library of Alexandria and had been a flourishing centre for intellectuals like Eratosthenes.
Pell's misstep led the host of the debate to repeatedly try and implicate Pell into claiming that the Jews of antiquity were not as intelligent as the ancient Egyptians, which culminated in the host suggesting to the cardinal that as part of the same Jewish community, Jesus himself was "intellectually not up to it."
In truth, the cardinal drew a distinct line between intelligence and intellect. Being very clever does not make one pass for an intellectual, nor does it foster a culture for the intellectually developed. So when asked whether Jesus himself was "not (as) highly intellectual" as the rest of his fellow shepherd nation, the cardinal did not budge. "Jesus did not come as a philosopher to the elite, " he said.
"Leaving aside the fact that Jesus is a son of God, Jesus is the greatest man that has ever lived. And the Jews are now an intellectual elite, but we don't need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days," Pell said. Only the latter phrase was quoted in the media, but at this point the host of the program ran out of ammunition.
What the host couldn't put into the cardinal's mouth in the studio was compensated by media headlines. Saying that 2,000 years ago the Jews weren't the equal of either the Egyptians or the Persians doesn't lend itself easily to interpretations that the Jews "are intellectually and morally inferior" in the present, particularly if the speaker considers the Jews an intellectual elite of our time. Nevertheless, this is what the Daily Mail and others seem to have achieved.
It may come as a surprise that Jewish community leaders don't mind finding themselves on the same side as the Daily Mail, whose audacity in fabricating misleading headlines and manufacturing scandals seems to have spiraled out of control. Pell is not an enemy of the Jews. In his address at Mandelbaum House in 2001, the cardinal affirmed:
"For the Jubilee last year we had a memorial service for the victims of the Holocaust in St. Patrick's Cathedral and a number of Jews who were present claimed it was among the most beautiful they had attended.
We need to keep talking together; something that will remain a minority activity. But the attitudes of leaders, official or unofficial, are important in shaping the underlying attitudes of many others, community members and fellow travelers."
Jeremy Jones, writing on the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council website, noted: "Cardinal Pell has a well-earned reputation for his actions in support of a positive and constructive Jewish-Catholic relationship."
Certainly, the cardinal himself seems to have been taken aback by the reaction. But there was one man in the studio who might have plainly see it coming. Richard Dawkins smiled mischievously as he watched Pell getting bogged down in a senseless exchange with the host. The cardinal's opponent in the debate certainly thinks he knows a thing or two about the Jewish media power. You can expect it from a person who once famously said this:
"When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told -- religious Jews anyway -- than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."