Saturday, May 16

The Pope's Visit to Israel

As expected, Pope Benedict XVI's visit was filled with much hype. The Pope made a gaffe against Islam about 3 years ago. He may not have the sensitivity of his predecessor. Many Jews were against the Pope's visit for a number of reasons. He supported the beatification of Pope Pius XII who did not take a strong line against the murder of Jews in the Holocaust during his papacy. As a young person he was a member of Hitler Youth. He was conscripted into the German wehrmacht. The Pope claims that he was conscripted as were many other Germans and that he deserted later on to study for the priesthood. The same applied to his membership of the former.

He received a warm welcome on arrival in Israel. Most Shas MKs boycotted his arrival. This was expected.

The Pope visited Yad Vashem-the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where he made a speech condemning anti-Semitism and the "killing" of Jews rather than their "murder" during the Holocaust. He was criticized for his semantics. The speech was considered lukewarm and unapologetic by his critics. Some people in Israel usually right wing religious extremists seek to find anti-Semitism in every nuance uttered by the Pope. They did this during the late Pope John Paul II's visit in 2000 as well.

Those who had no argument with the speech are viewed as being anti-Israel - even anti-Semitic! What do people expect the Pope to say? It is expecting too much to dictate what the Pope should be saying and to expect him to apologize for the actions of the Nazis because he is German. Many Jews who came to Israel from the ex-Soviet Union and from repressive regimes such as apartheid South Africa were conscripted into the army of these countries. They were not expected to apologize for atrocities that these armies committed against people of different races. Why is this expected of the Pope? Is it because he is non-Jewish and German?

It is as if some Israelis, especially the religious extremists, seem to adopt a "holier than thou" attitude or they suffer from paranoia and view every non-Jew as a potential anti-Semite. They examine every non-Jewish utterance with a fine tooth comb and are almost euphoric when they find a hint of what they are searching. This national paranoiac hysteria over what the Pope should have said or the lack of empathy illustrated by apologies unuttered was unjustifiable.
While it is true that Pope Benedict XVI may not be as warm in his approach to Jews as his predecessor, this does not make him anti-Semitic. He never had close contact with Jews as his predecessor who had many Jewish friends murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. If he were an anti-Semite, he would not have agreed to come to Israel or visit Yad Vashem.

Most of his speeches during his visit to Israel were devoted to reconciliation between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Peace, brotherhood and coexistence have been the basic message of all his speeches. The Pope is diplomatic and correct in his approach as well as unemotional in sharp contrast to his predecessor. This gives a feeling of being disconnected from the people to whom he is supposed to reach. People forget that the Pope is a human being no less than anyone else. His intentions are good despite his gaffes or the things that have remained unsaid during his visit in Israel. Future history will judge his legacy.

The Pope is a German - part of the generation that was in Germany during the terrible Nazi terror years. Maybe this is the reason why he will always be suspect of being a part of the Nazi regime by many concentration camp survivors. This could also explain the antagonism towards him. Despite this, there were concentration camps survivors present at Yad Vashem during his speech delivery who had no objection to what was said or the so-called omission of not having sought forgiveness from the Jewish People for the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

The Pope also visited Bethlehem and conducted mass at the Church of Nativity. Here he made similar speeches of reconciliation as well as reiterating the justness of the Palestinian cause of two states for two peoples. He made a great effort to be fair to both sides of the conflict while both sides emphasized the justice of their causes. It is obvious that the Pope tried to please all sides to the conflict by saying the right things that would not cause controversy. This balancing act can only be played in the volatile Middle East where the wrong word could set the whole area alight.

The Pope did lack charisma which could have at least brought both sides closer to peace negotiations. In this potentially explosive part of the globe with its peculiar mix of politics and religion makes a solution so difficult to attain

It appears that the Pope's visit was a big disappointment to many Israelis, Palestinians and Christians. Many had hoped that the Pope would pay greater lip service to their respective causes. Instead, he kept aloof from it all and made general statements.

Perhaps the visit could be summarized as a “missed opportunity” to all sides. Perhaps the main reason is the Pope’s inability to facilitate bringing the sides to the conflict together. He made general speeches that were good to hear but he no hint of ideas of building trust between Palestinians and Israelis.

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