Benjamin Netanyahu Met with Pope Francis, Gave Him a Book on the Inquisition

Hot off a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin last week, Pope Francis met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday at the Vatican, no doubt in order to discuss what’s going on in the ever-volatile Middle East. Perhaps they talked about the nuclear deal with Iran (which Israel opposed) and the peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians (which Israel’s hard-right is trying to make impossible). The duo spoke for about 25 minutes, and Bibi presented the pope with some gifts, one of which — Bibi’s father’s book on Jews and the Inquisition — seemed like a particularly odd gift. Because, remember: the accepted narrative says that Jews were persecuted by the Catholics. Awkward, right?

Except that Ben Zion Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Inquisition was anything but the accepted narrative. Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg unpacked the complex book, explaining that “Netanyahu’s argument shifted the root blame for the Inquisition from religion to ingrained racial animus–from the spiritual to the secular.” The Catholics didn’t hate the Jews because they were religiously Jewish, in other words, but just because they were a wildly successful different ethnic group. (So much better, we know.) Rosenberg argued that this interpretation of the Inquisition might even give the pope a new view on Europe’s rising anti-Semitism today.

The New York Times devoted a sizeable part of Ben Zion Netanyahu’s obituary to the book:

As a historian, Mr. Netanyahu reinterpreted the Inquisition in “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” (1995). The predominant view had been that Jews were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion after pretending to convert to Roman Catholicism. Mr. Netanyahu, in 1,384 pages, offered evidence that most Jews in Spain had willingly become Catholics and were enthusiastic about their new religion. Jews were persecuted, he concluded — many of them burned at the stake — for being perceived as an evil race rather than for anything they believed or had done. Jealousy over Jews’ success in the economy and at the royal court only fueled the oppression, he wrote. The book traced what he called “Jew hatred” to ancient Egypt, long before Christianity.Though praised for its insights, the book was also criticized as having ignored standard sources and interpretations. Not a few reviewers noted that it seemed to look at long-ago cases of anti-Semitism through the rear-view mirror of the Holocaust.

And even if it was a snub, Pope Francis is sure to turn the other cheek when he’s expected to visit Israel in May. After all, the pontiff might just be the holiest man alive at this point (sorry, Dalai Lama), and is certainly always in the news. He recently told a working-class parish about working as a bouncer (Yes! Really!) and offered prayers for child victims of the church’s sex abuse (although those kids are more likely to need therapy, and lots of it).

Still, Pope Francis continues to make some real progress.