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Halevi, Yossie Klein
In a little-noted but telling phrase from his speech at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Pope John Paul II envisioned a future “in which there will be no more anti-Jewish feeling among Christians or anti-Christian feeling among Jews.” Though the implied symmetry between the two hatreds is historically absurd, the pope’s basic point was right: Jews generally, and the Jewish state especially, have a Christian problem. Israeli schools teach children to substitute an inverted capital T for the plus sign, to avoid evoking a cross. An Israeli hotel that displays a Christmas tree risks losing its kosher certification. Fear of Christianity remains one of the few emotions secular and religious Israelis still share.
And so watching the Israeli media’s coverage of the pope’s visit felt almost illicit. Never before had Israelis been exposed so intensively and so positively to Christianity. The government TV channel’s logo for the visit featured a cross. News segments described the Sermon on the Mount, newscasters quoted from the New Testament, and the Hebrew press discovered that monks and nuns actually live among us. Suddenly Christianity became part of the Israeli landscape. The Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, but only last week did the Israeli public reciprocate. Like the rapprochement with Germany in the 1950s and the peace process with the Arab world in the 1990s, the normalization of relations with Christianity is easing the traumas of exile and making Israel a healthier society.
Israeli commentators didn’t anticipate a warm welcome for the pope. Many Israelis assumed that the church still preached deicide; most had never heard of Vatican II. Yet, when the pope slowly descended at Ben-Gurion Airport and stood before the Israeli flag as the national anthem played, Israelis began to soften. TV documentaries about the Pope’s Jewish friendships turned his hometown, Wadowice, into an extension of Israelis’ geography. Legends spread about how the pope had carried a teenage Jewish girl out of a ghetto during the Holocaust. (Apparently, he found her lying on the ground just after liberation, fed her, and then carried her on his back.) Several columnists even expressed “pope envy” – noting the difference between John Paul, with his devotion to reconciliation, and Ovadiah Yosef, Israel’s most powerful rabbi, who had just denounced the secular education minister, Yossi Sarid, as Haman and wished for his death.
Ironically, the pope’s decisive break-through with Israelis occurred during his visit to Yad Vashem – the very event the Israeli media assumed would highlight his refusal to condemn Pius XII’s silence during the Holocaust. But, as the pope moved among the elderly Holocaust survivors from Wadowice, Israelis forgot the apology issue; suddenly “Christian love” didn’t seem an oxymoron. The next morning’s headlines in the Hebrew press all focused on the pope’s solidarity with Jewish suffering; none emphasized the absence of yet another apology.
Indeed, the image of the young Israeli prime minister standing erect as a soldier beside the elderly pope bent in prayer reminded Israelis how much has changed since the Holocaust. Perhaps it was that combination of Jewish vigor and Christian brokenness that allowed Israelis to accept Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s remarkably conciliatory speech. There was no public criticism of Barak for failing to rebuke the pope. Like David Ben-Gurion forcing a traumatized Jewish people to reconcile with Konrad Adenauer’s Germany, Barak in effect told the Jewish world that it was time to stop the historical scorekeeping and begin treating the church as a friend. That message of Jewish self-confidence could have come only from the leader of a sovereign Jewish state.
Both Barak and John Paul offered the essential gestures each side needed for reconciliation. At Yad Vashem, Barak implicitly told the church that Jews would stop linking it to the evil of the Nazis. And at the Western Wall – where Christian pilgrims once came to gloat about the fall of the temple – the pope implicitly told the Jewish people that he welcomed their return home. When the pope placed the text of his March 12 apology in a crevice of the wall, Israelis finally grasped its significance. What had been considered inadequate in Rome was embraced in Jerusalem.
The exception was the Orthodox, who mostly remained inconsolable. Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was the most conciliatory, saying that “the Jews have a friend in the Vatican.” But even that statement revealed a medieval mentality that seeks the protection of the “good goy” – as if the Vatican itself hadn’t reversed its theological contempt. And for the ultra-Orthodox, committed to preserving the pre-Holocaust world of Eastern Europe, a philo-Semitic church challenges their defiance of time: for Jews to remain the same, so must Christians. Religious nationalists, desperate for symbols of hostility, focused on the image of
John Paul holding hands with Yasir Arafat – on Purim, no less, the festival of Jewish survival. It confirmed what they needed to believe: The church remains the enemy. Of the Cabinet’s seven Orthodox ministers, only one – Rabbi Michael Melchior, from the small liberal religious party Meimad – bothered to greet the pope at the airport and then again at the Western Wall.
Still, Melchior’s presence proved that Orthodoxy is at least struggling with itself. And the pilgrimage put the isolationists on the defensive. The widely reported ultra-Orthodox campaign to prevent the pope’s Saturday Mass in Nazareth abruptly ceased once the government made clear it wouldn’t give in. When the Israeli majority repudiates the ghetto, the isolationists are left to grumble on the sidelines.
One consequence is a new Israeli sensitivity to Christian concerns. An editorial in the newspaper Ma’ariv noted the importance for Israel of a vigorous Christian Arab presence – the first time in memory that any public Israeli voice seemed to care whether Christians stayed or emigrated. If the scandal over the construction of a mosque beside Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation had broken after the papal visit, the Israeli government would almost certainly have responded more sympathetically to the Christian position.
For me, the defining “Israeli” moment of the pilgrimage was watching the live broadcast of the Mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli flags rimmed the area; an Israeli helicopter brought the pope to the site. Suddenly I realized: I am hosting the papal Mass. Watching the tens of thousands of pilgrims waving their national flags, I found myself unexpectedly feeling gratitude for Jesus. Jews traditionally blamed Jesus for their woes; but, as an Israeli, I could appreciate him for connecting the Christian world to my country, enhancing this land with prayer. I thought of the secular Zionist pioneers who’d founded the first kibbutzim along the Sea of Galilee; little did they realize that welcoming Jesus home would be Zionism’s final gift of healing to the Jews.
* Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior writer for The Jerusalem Report, is chair of the Open House board and is writing a book about the three faiths in the Holy Land. His essay is reprinted, with permission, from The New Republic, April 10, 2000.