Monday, May 11, 2009

The Pope in Israel: Big News?

Would you believe that the Pope's visit to Israel was not automatic front page news this morning in Israel?

Ha'aretz was the only Hebrew paper today to lead with the Pope's visit. Other major stories over there include the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refused a request from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for a meeting (Ma'ariv), US intelligence warnings that Syria has renewed work at the nuclear facility that was bombed by Israel (Yidiot Achronot) and all three papers covered what was the truly biggest story of the day: Sunday night's concert in Ramat Gan of British rock band Depeche Mode, attended by some 50,000 fans.

But the Pope is indeed there this evening, and it is indeed big news. His visit was marked by a full page letter of greeting, published in this morning's Ha'aretz. It was signed by a lengthy list of rabbis and other Jewish leaders, marking the historical nature of the visit in the context of warming Catholic - Jewish relations. I'm glad to have had the chance to sign that letter, which you can see by clicking here.

Everything was going well on this first day of the visit.... until the Pope actually attended things.

He attended a conference supposedly on interfaith dialogue, but was treated to an anti-Israel diatribe instead (see Pope walks out after Muslim cleric accuses Israel of 'slaughter' ). He went to Yad Vashem, where is predecessor distinguished himself with his humility and his willingness to apologize for the Shoah in a handwritten note at the Western Wall. This Pope's public pronouncements have thus far suffered in comparison. But really, how could it possibly live up to emotion of that monumental prior visit?

(See Pope: Holocaust victims' cry still echoes in our hearts) Pope Benedict said "As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood."

"May the names of the victims never perish and may their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten," the pope added, in condemnation of Holocaust denial, a phenomenon that has recently raised tensions between the Church and the Jews when the pope reinstated a bishop who denied Nazis killed six million Jews.

According to Ha'aretz, the pope stressed the importance of preventing such atrocities as the Holocaust, saying "may all the people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man anything that could lead to tragedies such as this." "The Catholic Church feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here," the pope continued. "Similarly, she draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion - their sufferings are hers and hers is their hope for justice."

The article adds that the Chairman of Yad Vashem council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, expressed disappointment at the pope's speech, saying that "there certainly was no apology expressed here."

You can decide for yourself , by hearing the complete speech, just posted on the Yad Vashem site, Yad Vashem site. And here is the complete text, as released by the Vatican. The note he inscribed in the guestbook was a quote from the book of Lamentations (3:22), "His mercies are not spent..." See a photo here. That message may have lacked the oomph of John Paul's, but we haven't seen yet what Benedict will do at the Kotel. Of note is the fact that at Yad Vashem, Pope Benedict did not visit the main part of the museum, where a photo caption indicates that Pope Pius XII did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position," as reported by the A.P.

On the plus side, the Pope has already done the impossible, in uniting uniting Israel's far right and Gay communities. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

With all these tempests, we need to look at the bigger picture. The Vatican recognizes the Jewish State, Israel. The Pope pays homage to our martyrs. The path of dialogue is wide open to all who desire it. He desires it.

I'd say, it's been a good day.

Welcome to Israel, Pope Benedict!

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