Thursday, May 14, 2009

Myths and Facts: The Pope's Visit

While I continue to feel that the Pope's visit can best be judged as another positive milestone within the larger context of improved Catholic-Jewish relations, "Myths and Facts" presents, as usual, a compelling case. I see the points made here and by so many disappointed Israelis this week, but when it comes to the Vatican, it's always best to take the long view. This Pope is clearly not the giant that preceded him, but rather he is the Isaac to Abraham, the one whose job is simply to keep things going, to consolidate the major changes made by his predecessor. I don't see any backsliding here, back to the pre John Paul II days.

Read some interesting reactions on the New York Times Blog, including this from Rabbi Danny Gordis:

The pope’s mistake was that he assumed the role of diplomat rather than religious leader. There was nothing technically wrong with what he said at Yad Vashem. But in choosing such carefully measured, tepid language, he said nothing that an ordinary diplomat could not have uttered. We heard none of the passion, the fury or the shattered heart that is the hallmark of genuine religious courage and leadership.

Missed opportunity, no doubt. But was it really a mistake? For a people called upon to judge someone by actions more than words, we're doing an awful lot of analysis of the words. The fact is, he was there, in the Jewish state, speaking of reconciliation between Christians, Moslems and Jews. What can be bad about that?

For another opinion, here is what "Myths and Facts" states:

“The pope’s trip to Israel shows that issues between Israel and the Vatican have been resolved.”

The Catholic Church has had a difficult relationship with the
Zionist idea since the early 20th century when Theodor Herzl sought the support of Pope Pius X for a Jewish homeland and was told by the pontiff that “the Jews did not acknowledge our Lord and thus we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Hence, if you go to Palestine, and if the Jewish people settle there, our churches and our priests will be ready to baptize you all.”269

In 1947, the Vatican voted in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 to partition Palestine; however, it did not officially recognize Israel until 1993. Since then, the Catholic Church has taken strides to improve its relationship with the Jewish state, including signing a diplomatic treaty and exchanging ambassadors with Israel.270

In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land and Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Israel was meant to follow a similar path to foster interfaith dialogue and improve Vatican-Israel relations. Unfortunately, a series of missteps by the pope have shown that past wounds are far from healed.

Pope Benedict XVI was born in
Germany and has said he reluctantly became a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II (a Vatican spokesman denied this during the tour and had to issue a retraction after it was pointed out that Benedict admitted it in his autobiography). This personal background made his May 11, 2009, visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial especially poignant. Though his address condemned Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, many Israelis expected him to go further. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chairman of Yad Vashem, expressed his disappointment following the speech, “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret.” Though the pope referred to the millions of innocent victims, he did not specifically mention the 6 million Jewish victims.271

The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has long been a contentious issue for Israel and the Vatican. At Yad Vashem, there is a plaque criticizing Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, for not doing more to save the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. The Vatican continues to limit access to archives that might shed further light on the actions of Pius. Furthermore, in 2008, Pope Benedict announced his intention to beatify Pius XII, a high religious honor of the Church that is the last step before sainthood.272 This decision angered some Jews as did his announcement in January 2009, that he was lifting the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier who believes that Jews are bent on world domination.273

Israelis hoped that the pope’s visit to Israeli sites and meetings with Israeli officials would be accompanied by positive statements about
Israel’s quest for peace and some recognition of the ongoing dangers it faces. Benedict, however, reserved his more political remarks for his tour of Palestinian areas. Speaking to a crowd in Bethlehem, for example, Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the policy of the Vatican on Palestinian statehood. While declaring their rights to a sovereign homeland, the pope lamented Palestinian losses suffered in Gaza. He told a crowd in Manger Square, “Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted.” Though he urged Palestinian youth to resist the temptation to resort to terrorism, he did not condemn Hamas for its acts of terror against Israel that made the embargo on the Gaza Strip essential to halting weapons smugglers and provoked Operation Cast Lead.274

The Palestinians also took full advantage of the propaganda value of the pope’s appearances in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, used the pope’s speech in Bethlehem as an opportunity to criticize Israel’s security fence, labeling it an “apartheid wall”.275 Later, on a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, the pontiff was photographed in front of one of the few sections of the fence that is actually a wall and lamented that it symbolized the “stalemate” in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. He expressed his wish that the wall would come down soon so that “the people of Palestine… will at last be able to enjoy the peace, freedom and stability that have eluded [them] for so long.”276

In addition to ignoring the Palestinian violence that killed more than 800 Israelis and prompted the building of the security barrier, the pope was also silent with regard to the ongoing persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and especially within the Palestinian Authority. This was another missed opportunity for the pope to show concern for the plight of his followers.

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to make a pilgrimage to
Israel was a welcome one and did show the distance the Vatican has traveled in the century that has passed since Herzl’s visit to Rome. The acts of commission and omission during the pope’s trip indicated, however, that there is still some distance to go before Israel will have the respect it deserves from the Holy See.

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