The Pope in Israel

At the end of the day – a long “day” in that the Pope’s visit to Israel lasted barely 30 hours – the papal visit was short on substance and long on theatrics, unless one considers, and with some justification, that theatrics is substance in the thinking of many. Certainly, the Pope has influence but not power (still lacking the military prowess to enforce his will, to paraphrase Stalin), but even his influence is limited. As his public appearances here in Israel were limited to select audiences, and naturally heavily weighted to visiting official or Christian sites, the impact to the average citizen was mainly in the form of snarled traffic and closed roads, all due to the intense security generated by his brief stay.

While security is always warranted, and no one desires any unfortunate incident, from my vantage point it tends to be exaggerated. (Did the Kotel – the Western Wall – have to be closed to the public for five hours?) Much ado was made about the childish pranks of mostly young people spraying graffiti and making idle threats, with a handful of people even being placed in administrative detention to prevent them from indulging any negative inclinations. It does give them more attention than they deserve. But much of that even marginal hostility is just the legacy of a bitter and painful history that Jews have had with the Christian world for the better part of two millennia. And it is marginal. Jews properly remember the past, but we need not be paralyzed by it.

Such is easier felt by American Jews today whose experiences with Christians, especially for at least the last half century, have been amicable, if not even amiable. As noted here in the past, and citing the late Irving Kristol, “the danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.” That is even truer today than when he said it forty years ago. Thus, the American Jewish experience with Christianity is unique and unprecedented. It has much to do with the First Amendment’s proscription on an official national religion, and even more to do with how American Christianity has evolved.

That relationship never existed in Europe where the scars are real, and does not generally exist even today in Europe where Christianity is in decline due to rampant secularism and the rise of Islam. But for Jews of European background who endured only the hardships of life with Christians and never enjoyed the American experience, the history is still painful, even agonizing. Hence the fringe opposition to the Pope’s visit, which of course passed without any significant protest, but also the ongoing opposition to any cooperation with Christians on any project of joint interest and even the rejection by some of Christian charitable endeavors. The fears of past persecution and proselytizing loom that large.

Of course, the visit – simply by virtue of the fact that it took place – was not innocuous, and these celebrity summits always carry the potential for more mischief for Israel than for any meaningful achievements. And so it was here, aided by an exasperating moral equivalence that is the Pope’s (perhaps any pope’s) stock-in-trade. Anything that presents the Palestinian Authority in the guise of a state, or even as a reasonable interlocutor, hurts Israel. Worse, the Pope’s brief stop – for prayer – at the border wall that surrounds Bethlehem played into the Arab narrative as victims of an oppressive Israel. Certainly, Israel’s countermove by having Pope Francis make a similar stop at the terror victim’s memorial at Mount Herzl Cemetery was a brilliant stroke. But it didn’t quite erase the moral obtuseness implicit in lamenting a barrier that has aided in the prevention of Arab suicide bombings of Jews. Is such inherently unfair? Is it not sporting of Israel to give the Arabs a better shot at killing Jews? If indeed the Arabs seek an independent state, do not most states have borders with fences, walls and official crossings? Would the Pope also lament the imposition on mankind of searches at airports, all because of the threat of Muslim terror?

There is a certain unwordliness that surrounds the Pope’s pronouncements, but each call for a two-state solution is oblivious to the reality on the ground. Neither party wants two states, although Israel in its weakest and foolish moments would settle for two. But no one believes it would last, and so the call for the creation of a Palestinian state remains a codeword for the destruction of Israel, as it always has been.

Indeed, the greatest danger the Pope faced here was being inundated by the deluge of clichés and platitudes, much of his own making. The persistent desire to split the difference, to see everything in balance, and especially to never, ever distinguish between aggressors and victims does an injustice to Jews and to history. It reminded me of an encounter I had many years ago as an attorney, representing a young woman expelled from her Catholic high school because an ex-boyfriend showed up at her school carrying a knife and up to no good. She was expelled because her mere presence brought the boy with the knife into the building, even though she didn’t invite him, didn’t want him there and was likely to be the target of his wrath. When I said that she was the victim here and did nothing wrong, I was told by the chief nun: “Victim or aggressor, what’s the difference?” To which I responded: “If you do not distinguish between the victim and the aggressor, then that certainly explains a lot about our history.” (By the way, my entreaties fell on deaf ears.)

The call for peace, an end to war, violence, unfriendliness and the like is always welcome but ultimately meaningless when confronted by an evil enemy that literally sacrifices its own children to murder other children. “Turn the other cheek” is great advice in theory, but Christians have never practiced it and Jews have not fared well under those regimes which advocated it. Mourning the Holocaust and proclaiming “Never Again!” – as the Pope did, and even sincerely – will not prevent the murder of one Jew, or for that matter, the murder or terrorization of Christians who are also targets of radical Islam across the world, in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Yet, this new custom of every Pope visiting Israel will endure, and these encounters do buttress Israel’s self-image. Pope Francis is a man of contrasts – CEO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise who embraces a simple lifestyle, and yet advocates for a redistribution of wealth that plays well in the Third World but would undoubtedly harm his major donors. As an outsider, it is interesting for me to watch the aura that surrounds him, in which the faithful immediately ascribe perfection to him and deem him a welcome improvement over his predecessor – who of course received the exact same treatment when he was invested with the office. This is an observation, not a criticism. It is an office that is replete with symbolism, and at the top of the list of symbols on this trip was the Pope laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, a sort-of apology for the dismissal of Herzl and his vision by Pope Pius X in 1904. I am not sure the wreath did much good for Herzl, or, for that matter, for the course of Jewish history in the 20th century, but I assume he meant well.

It is fascinating that for all the disruptions and all the hoopla, nothing changes. The Pope has come and gone, the hopeful rhetoric enunciated but just as far from realization.

Ironically, for some Israelis less committed to Torah, the Pope represents a religion that they can take seriously. I still recall Leah Rabin visiting John Paul II in Rome, demurely covering her head with a scarf in his presence, a courtesy she certainly never extended to Israel’s Chief Rabbis. Shimon Peres actually fawned over Pope Francis, and it was somewhat unsettling to see that, on the receiving line at Ben Gurion airport, the only person wearing a yarmulke was the Catholic.

But perhaps, amid all the diplomatic theater, the Pope’s visit will cause some Jews to better tend to their own vineyards, take a second look at the Torah, and recall that G-d’s word emerges from Yerushalayim, and nowhere else. It is that word that shapes, sustains and enriches Jewish life, not the slings of our foes or the praise of our friends.

3 responses to “The Pope in Israel

  1. The Rebbe of Lubavitch expressed a clear Torah view of any papal meeting, here:

    Here’s another anecdote that relates to this issue: