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May 13, 2009: The Visit

July 6, 2009

Something less than a resounding success on several fronts, this visit from Pope Benedict XVI:

Yesterday, Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that, contrary to common impression, the pope was never in Hitler Youth. A strange statement, considering the pope himself had said so some years previous. But wait: What Lombardi explained is that Ratzinger (the pope’s family name) was in a German army anti-aircraft unit, and wore the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces — but was never a part of Nazi ideology. Well, then, this is all OK, apparently.


This statement followed a visit Benedict made to the Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Yad VaShem, where he spoke on Monday night. His words were disappointing on several levels. His talk was academic in nature, lacking the passion that was required. Reading like the statement of an uninvolved third party, it simply fell short.

“I have come to stand in silence before the monument erected to honor the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah,” intoned the pope. “They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names…

“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.

“I am deeply grateful…for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope.”

Some critics pointed to the fact that the word used was “killed,” and not a more evocative “murdered,” or “massacred.” I was bothered by his rush to make the issue a universal one rather than focusing on a uniquely Jewish one.

Lacking was apology, or remorse, or regret. Any or all of which would have been appropriate considering that he was in the Wehrmacht (or Hitler youth), that he recently lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop (although he was not totally reinstated), that serious questions are raised about whether Pope Pius XII might have done much more to save Jews during the Holocaust, and that centuries of endemic anti-Semitism in Church teachings set the tone that made the Holocaust more possible. As it was, neither positions of the Church, nor Nazis, nor Germany were referred to at all.


The pope’s visit was further marred by an outburst on Monday evening, when he was hosting an ecumenical evening of dialogue. In a tirade that was not anticipated by the organizers of the event, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, attacked Israel for war crimes in Gaza, confiscation of Palestinian land, and more, calling for Christians and Muslims to unite against Jews. The pope, who was visibly uncomfortable throughout, ultimately walked out. Criticism from several quarters followed.


But the visit was not all negative by any means.

Yesterday at Hechel Shlomo — next to the Great Synagogue –Pope Benedict had an historic meeting with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, at which he agreed to stop all Church missionizing among Jewish people.

This is no small matter.

Additionally, the pope addressed intention to continue Christian-Jewish dialogue and advance the process of reconciliation: “I assure you of my desire to deepen mutual understanding and cooperation between the Holy See, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Jewish people throughout the world.”


Rabbi Metzger asked the pope to identify Jewish children placed with Christian families during the Holocaust. I don’t know what the outcome here will be and I am frankly not optimistic.

This is a source of no small turmoil and contention. There were Catholic families in eastern Europe who accepted Jewish babies and children given to them by parents facing annihilation, and literally saved their lives. But many of these children were baptized and absorbed into the Christian community, lost, after the war, to their surviving families and the Jewish people. (There was a story publicized recently of a priest who did not know he had Jewish roots until he had been in the priesthood for 12 years and now wants to make aliyah.)


I share here the surprising take on the pope’s visit expressed by Caroline Glick in her column, “Opportunity is knocking.”


In the face of a downgrade in US-Israel relations, she says, it is important for Israel to move quickly to establish stronger strategic alliances in other quarters. It is a delicate and imperfect business, she acknowledges, often with parties each wanting more from the other than is possible. But one strategic alliance our government is now seeking, says Glick, is with the Vatican.

Our goal here would be “the strengthening of [our] international position as the sole sovereign in Jerusalem.” This particularly caught my eye, as there was a spate of panicked e-mail messages that came out before the pope’s arrival regarding the Church’s desire to acquire certain properties in Jerusalem — most notably on Mt. Zion — and the need to prevent that from happening, as Israel is and must remain sovereign here. I remained unconcerned because I had learned from an impeccable inside source that the Israeli government intended to turn over nothing to the Church.


“UNDER POPE BENEDICT XVI,” wrote Glick, “the possibility of winning the support of the Catholic Church for Israel’s position that Jerusalem will never again be partitioned and will remain under perpetual Israeli sovereignty is greater than it was under his predecessors. Unlike his predecessors, Benedict has been outspoken in his concern for the plight of Christian minorities in Islamic countries…Since he replaced Pope John Paul II, Benedict has made repeated calls for religious tolerance and freedom in Islamic countries – most notably in his 2006 speech at Regensberg where he quoted a Byzantine emperor from the Middle Ages criticizing Islam for seeking to spread its message by the sword.

“After his words sparked murderous violence throughout the Islamic world, Benedict expressed his regret for the hurt his statement caused. But he never retracted it. Moreover, during his visit to the King Hussein Mosque in Amman on Saturday, Benedict indirectly reasserted his 2006 message…

“The pope’s obvious recognition of the danger jihadist Islam constitutes for Christians puts the Vatican, under his leadership, in a position where it could be more interested than it was in the past in working with Israel to secure the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem by supporting Israeli control of the city.”

Glick maintains, in fact, that statements by the pope make it clear that he “views the preservation of Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem as essential for Christian heritage” — Jewish holy sites that would be at risk under Muslim control.

A fascinating thesis, and one that should be followed. The power of the Catholic Church is not to be dismissed.


Whether Pope Benedict knows it or not, whether or not he is willing to acknowledge this reality publicly, the bottom line is that only Israeli sovereignty will guarantee Christian and Jewish holy places. The Palestinian record in this record is abysmal.

But I’ve yet to be convinced that he will support full Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. I’ve already expressed concern about statements made by the pope or his representatives that seemed to me to indicate a pro-Palestinian tilt (e.g., that there has not been justice in this part of the world for 60 years).

What is certainly the case is that the PA would like to utilize the pope’s visit, manipulate his presence, toward their ends.

This morning, when the pope meet with PA president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, Abbas gave him as a gift a concrete piece of the security wall.

“We have been suffering since the Nakba (“catastrophe”) 61 years ago,” Abbas said to him. “On this holy land, there are people who continue to build separation walls instead of building bridges for connection.”

Never mind that on this holy land it is necessary to build a separation that prevents Arab terrorists from killing innocent Jews.


And I cannot let this pass without an observation: This, above all else, is how the Palestinians represent themselves — as victims, eternally suffering and in need of succor. No attempt to show the pope what a determined people has been able to accomplish in terms of academics, social services or anything else that would indicate their readiness to have a state. There is no pride, no dignity. This is how they play it and how the world receives them.

A piece of concrete as a gift to the pope?


Responded the pope: “The Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbors, within internationally recognized borders.”

He cautioned young people to “have the courage to resist any temptation you may feel to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.” But in the same breath he sanctioned their sense of grievance, which might lead to terror: “Do not allow the loss of life and the destruction that you have witnessed to arouse bitterness or resentment in your hearts…I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades.”

And as I write, the visit to the nearby refugee camp is still to come, where the “right of return” will be highlighted.

Not good enough to give me any reassurance. Not by a long shot.


Yet another alliance Glick anticipates that Netanyahu will be working on is with Egypt. And here I see it. The focus strategically is with regard to Iran, which, as I’ve been writing, Egypt is considerably worried about.

She cites a statement by Netanyahu for the AIPAC conference that sets the tone:

“For the first time in my lifetime… Arabs and Jews see a common danger… There is a great challenge afoot. But that challenge also presents great opportunities. The common danger is echoed by Arab leaders throughout the Middle East; it is echoed by Israel repeatedly… And if I had to sum it up in one sentence, it is this: Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu has just returned from a meeting with Mubarak, and, while statements were made regarding peace with the Palestinians (during which Netanyahu still did not utter that “two state solution” phrase), we don’t know what went on behind closed doors with regard to Iran.

Whatever transpires is likely to be discreet, as Mubarak would not be expected to assume an overtly pro-Israel stance.


Glick also makes mention of something that has been of concern to me for some time now: The changing tone of Jordan’s King Abdullah, who now embraces the Obama theory that we have to make peace with the Palestinians in order to deal with Iran — a position very different from the one he had previously embraced. As she puts it, “the Obama administration has clearly enlisted King Abdullah II to act as its proxy in the Arab world.”

Indeed, as Abdullah’s tone changed after his visit to the US.

Additionally, what we see coming next is an Obama visit to Egypt, from where he will deliver his speech for US conciliation with the Muslim world.

A troublesome picture.


Our prime minister has his work cut out for him and needs our prayers and support.


Personal considerations are likely to prevent my posting again until after Shabbat. There is a great deal more that must be looked at, all in due course.




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