Pope Benedict XVI spent several days in Israel and the Middle East this week, and accomplished… exactly what ? There are world leaders who travel regularly, especially when their domestic popularity is waning, because mere presence in the company of other world “leaders” is inherently legitimating. And no doubt that a visit to Israel is fraught with symbolism, as Christianity itself was incubated in the Land of Israel, and the visits of previous popes were respectively sour (Paul VI) and amiable (John Paul II). So how did Benedict XVI fare on his visit ?
He can be graded on style and substance.
STYLE: Resplendent in his white robes and surrounded by an entourage, the Pope certainly cuts an exotic figure. He visited all the right places and spoke to all the right people – even if, in truth, most Jews are discomfited by his presence. The sight of a cross at the Kotel remains jarring, but it would be unseemly to ask him to conceal it.
But it is the fact of his visit rather than anything he says or does that carries some weight, especially for Jews who look for international recognition of Israel as the source of its legitimacy rather than merely a reflection of its legitimacy. That he comes to a sovereign Jewish state as the leader of a Church that has had a long and bloody history with the Jewish people and for too long declined to recognize Israel’s existence, and stands and listens to the playing of Hatikva – even if that was not his preference – speaks volumes about the progress of recent years, but not many volumes.
We should not get too carried away by symbolism, which is all the rage today and is often lauded at the expense of concrete achievements or concessions. For example, reports abound that for the last several years Israel has been negotiating with the Vatican the surrender of several Christian sites in Israel, including parts of Mount Zion – which all would be transferred to the sovereignty – yes, sovereignty – of the Vatican. This, of course, is absurd, dangerous, and against the Torah. Jews need not make concessions – certainly not barter away the land of Israel, and the heart of Jerusalem – for the crumb of recognition, or for the brief stay of a distinguished tourist who doesn’t even stay in Israeli hotels or shop on Ben Yehuda.
So, for mere presence, the Pope’s style merits a B+.
SUBSTANCE: Clergymen generally talk a lot, and the Pope is no different, so his visit was filled with speeches that called for peace, brotherhood, friendship, etc. – in other words, the Platitudes on the Mount. To paraphrase Stalin, the Pope has very few divisions left, as the majority of Catholics today inhabit the Third World and Christian Europe is in a free fall approaching collapse. Nothing he said really matters, except that his endorsement – again – of the partition of the Land of Israel into two states is unhelpful and unworkable, but part of the world consensus that, sad to say, Israel itself is at fault for inspiring through the Oslo debacle.
Many Jews were further annoyed that, at Yad Vashem, the Pope neither apologized for the Holocaust nor even mentioned Germans, Nazis or the word “murder” (he used “killed” instead). Nor did he relate at all to his own small role as a soldier in the German Army late in the war. I suppose he could have begged for forgiveness, pleaded for mercy, and accepted the responsibility of the Church for 19 centuries of atrocities against the Jewish people. But did we really expect that to happen ? And, if he did, would we have said “OK, now we can let bygones be bygones” ? I think not.
A Rabbi once used as a description of the impossible “sending the Pope a shtreimel and hoping he’ll wear it.” Well, certain statements are impossible – for several reasons:
1) The Pope is limited by the ideology of his church, and pleading guilty for past sins undermines his own legitimacy. Americans grew too comfortable in the 1990’s with the spectacle of President Clinton apologizing across the world for American sins (as President Obama has recently begun doing himself). But there is something hollow about apologizing for the sins of others; inherently, it lacks sincerity and often sounds more like a cheap stunt,
2) He may not believe himself that the Church is liable for anything, that assuredly there were bad actors, and “mistakes were made” – but none that require his personal apology. Do not forget that this Pope was the longtime head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – that monitors Catholic doctrine and roots out dissenters. Whatever else he is, he is a true believer. And, as we saw recently, the Catholic obsession with forgiveness – even of evil and evildoers – induced the Pope to temporarily welcome back into the fold a Holocaust-denying bishop. And who knows what true feelings towards Jews lurk in the unconscious of this proud German Catholic.
3) Germans today generally feel shame, but no guilt, over the Holocaust, as they have effectively – perhaps sincerely – distanced themselves from the perpetrators. So he may feel no guilt – and perhaps not even shame, and may further feel – as some do that the Holocaust was an assault on and a distortion of Christianity rather than a natural consequence of it. Would the Pope ever embrace the latter formulation ? Let us send him a shtreimel and we will see.
So, the Pope inevitably said what he wanted to say, and many Jews inevitably found fault with it – and in the end, does it really matter ? Did the pomp, ceremony, speeches, or the fawning accolades strengthen Israel in the least ? I think not. And providing the Arabs with the aura of statehood sounds a dissonant but not unexpected chord.
These types of visits are unfortunate political and diplomatic necessities, mostly forgotten after they are over – but we would be upset if the Pope bypassed Israel or refused to visit. So, come in peace and go in peace – but on substance, the Pope’s visit to Israel merits a C-.