The Pope’s Visit to Israel: A Jewish Perspective

Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world and what he says matters.

Praying at the Wailing Wall
The Pope’s Visit to Israel: A Jewish Perspective
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Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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It is a memorable moment when the Pope visits Israel. In some ways it’s a pilgrimage for a leader of faith to visit the birthplace of his religion, a chance to walk in the path of his prophet and lord, Jesus Christ. But we all know its so much more that simply a religious journey for the Pope. As the leader of 1.3 billion adherents, his visit is always political and strategic. This newest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been a source of humility and hope for not just Catholics but all faiths.

In fact for this particular trip to Israel, he brought along two of his close friends from Argentina, a Rabbi and an Imam. This was remarkable alone for his strong attachment to improving interfaith relations. A few days have passed now since the visit and everyone has had a chance to examine it.

“The pope is a symbol, a stand-in for a higher reality, and all his statements and actions are consciously undertaken as part of his symbolic role” –  Israeli columnist Haviv Rettig Gur

He started by landing in the territories and meeting with Palestinian leaders and even praying at the separation fence between Israel and the territories. Then he came into Israel and prayed at the Kotel. He met with various political and religious leaders and at the end of the day, according to Israeli columnist Haviv Rettig Gur, the rhetoric and imagery produced by the visit have been assessed and reassessed from every imaginable perspective, and something close to a consensus has developed: the pope didn’t make any mistakes.

This might appear like an odd conclusion, as though his visit was a test. But in many ways it was, his first visit to a volatile region,trying to bridge two warring sides and finding a middle ground where it appears he supports both sides and ultimately aspires for them both to achieve peace. Indeed it might be hard to convey the scale of this achievement, but it must be attempted because it reveals much about the conflict, about leadership, about Israel and about the pope.

Much like a chief Rabbi, The Holy See has no hard power. As Gur writes, “The pope can’t tax or arrest the estimated 1.2 billion adherents of the Catholic Church. His only influence over them is voluntary, driven by powerful images and narratives of redemption and belonging. In an important sense, then, the pope is a symbol, a stand-in for a higher reality, and all his statements and actions are consciously undertaken as part of his symbolic role.”

So when the Palestinian Authority brought the pope to a concrete-walled portion of Israel’s West Bank security fence, the pope was hardly confused by the intentions of his hosts. They wanted to create a symbol, and he, a master of symbolism, gave it to them willingly. And then he proceeded to offer prayers there.

According to the Huffington Post, the wall just happened to be on the path of his itinerary through Bethlehem, but the PA revealed that their plan all along was to create the image of the Pope at the separation wall. This was hard to watch for Israeli’s, especially hard line right wingers, but I think a moment of clarity that the Pope was literally straddling the fence on the issues that separate Israeli’s and Palestinians.

The pope’s visit to the PA together with the repeated mention of the “State of Palestine” in Vatican press releases and in the pontiff’s own speeches, quickly set people off with the predictable cheering and hand-wringing. Yet while the Palestinians claimed victory that the Pope was on their side, the Israeli’s could quickly point out that in the same press release and speeches, the Pope for the very first time explicitly recognized the justice of Zionism and made the first papal visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl.

The Pope also followed his visit to the Palestinian side of the separation fence with a visit to the Israeli national memorial for terror victims — with Israeli leaders noting that over 1,000 Israelis were killed in Palestinian suicide bombings by the time the government decided to build fences and walls between Israelis and Palestinians. The Pope delivered on live Israeli TV a brief but strident rejection of terrorism. How he managed to deliver for both sides, and all able to say that the Pope was on their side is a matter of excellent diplomacy and spiritual strength.

Israeli Security Wall

Located on the Jerusalem Bethlehem border, this massive wall was constructed by Israel for security. Four people are walking in front of it, making clear its immense size.

As Gur wrote in the Times of Israel, as Pope Francis left the region he had gone out of his way to accept both sides’ narrative. Unlike previous popes or more junior Vatican officials, Francis did not hedge or equivocate for a moment. He signaled without hesitation his belief that the Palestinians are traumatized by occupation and deserving of long-denied national freedom, and simultaneously that the Jews of Israel are victims of indiscriminate violence who also deserve to live as a free people in their land.

This is something many Jews – from Israel and the Diaspora – have been saying for years, this Rabbi included, but it comes across loud and clear when an impartial leader with great weight behind him, such as the Pope, says it.

What more could a Jew, or anyone, ask of the Pope. Tens of thousands of articles, if not more, have been written about the new ideology that Pope Francis has brought to the papacy. While he has not compromised on any aspect of dogma or ethics — he is as intransigent on contraception, homosexuality and abortion as his two famously conservative predecessors — he has brought a new “style” and a new rhetoric to the post.

Last July, Francis gave a remarkable interview to journalists aboard his flight back to Rome from Brazil. In talking about homosexuality he said, “When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The [homosexual] tendency is not the problem…they’re our brothers.” He brilliantly moved it from dogma to a personal approach. Indeed, who are you, who is anyone, to judge someone based on their sexuality or gender or orientation. It’s the most incredible line I have heard from a Pope since 1964 when the Pope officially said the Jews did not kill Jesus.

The Pope has railed again the troubled global financial system, called for a new theology for women, and brought new standards to the pomp and circumstance of the Vatican, himself moving into a humble guesthouse instead of the papal residence. Non-Catholics have also started talking about him, even the American pro-gay magazine The Advocate named Francis their “Man of the Year” on the grounds that his acceptance of gays as human beings is the most important thing to happen to gays last year.

  He isn’t there to negotiate, especially over generations’ long conflict and heels dug in mutual suspicion – rather he came to ask God to help us all find Peace.

“Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world,” the magazine noted. “There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference.”

Thus the man who vociferously opposed the introduction of gay marriage in his native Argentina became a hero of the gay community in the United States simply for stating that gays must be treated as human beings.

There is a unifying thread in all these statements, an ideology summed up in the official motto of his papacy: “Miserando atque eligendo,” a Latin quote from the seventh-century English monk Bede that means, roughly, “By having mercy, choosing.”

That, in short, is Francis’s message to the world, and the mission of redeeming humanity, of evangelizing and elevating, cannot be conducted through political partisanship or theological bickering, Francis has said. It must evangelize as Jesus did, by seeing past the discord and sinfulness with which people interact with the world to the suffering and brokenness at the core of the human experience.

This is the backdrop for Pope Francis coming to Israel in the spirit of harmony and brotherhood and peace. Both the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ tried to get him to legitimize and magnify their narratives, and in response he refused nothing. He recognized every symbol, stood at every wall and memorial, recognized both Palestinian suffering and Israeli victims of Palestinian violence, Zionism and the State of Palestine. As Gur writes, in doing so, he wasn’t being a “pawn.” He was simply but emphatically refusing to play the Israeli-Palestinian game. Humility, Francis has taught, especially in the face of conflict, is the only way for the church to offer guidance to those who suffer war or deprivation. That is what Israeli and Palestinian leaders must learn if we are to move forward towards peace.

For Israelis, what might have been the highlight was the Pope as leader of a billion Catholics with Peres the president of the only Jewish state. But Francis did not seem to share the Israelis’ enthusiasm for the symbolic event, wearing a bland, tired expression, and walking slowly through the grounds. It was only when a choir of 120 Jewish, Christian and Muslim children sang Hallelujah, did he smile and make contact by shaking the hands of all the participants.

Pope Francis is not as foolish as Israelis and Palestinians believe. He did not invite Abbas and Peres to the headquarters of the church to negotiate — but to pray. That was the point of his visit, and before leaving the country, the pope extended an unplanned invitation to President Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to join him in the Vatican for a prayer for peace.

The invitation, which the two leaders immediately accepted, was soon the subject of much head-scratching. Abbas and Peres have met hundreds of times. Abbas is forming a government with Hamas, which continues to openly advocate terrorism against Israeli civilians, while Peres holds a symbolic post from which he is in any case retiring in July.

The pope “doesn’t know Peres doesn’t make political decisions at all,” PLO official Hanan Ashrawi explained in comments echoed by officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who were embarrassed by the pope’s favoring of Peres over the prime minister who holds the actual power to broker peace. That is because the Pope is smart and it’s a lesson we can all learn. He isn’t there to negotiate, especially over generations’ long conflict and heels dug in mutual suspicion – rather he came to ask God to help us all find Peace.

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