Israelis in general have not been overly enthusiastic with Pope Benedict’s visit to their country unlike most every country that he has visited in the last couple of years where he has been showered with attention for his efforts to give voice to peace and justice.
His call for peace and reconciliation in the land that gave birth to Christianity has been overshadowed by expectations from many Israelis who were looking more for contrition rather than reconciliation.
On Wednesday, an editorial in Israel’s most widely read newspaper Haaretz called the special visit to consecrate Church-Israeli relations a “missed opportunity.”
His important statements condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial lost their potency because of his lukewarm remarks at Yad Vashem,” the editorial said. “The pope’s visit shows that there is no real dialogue between Israel and the Vatican, and that it is difficult to erase centuries-old wounds.
The focus of many Israelis seems to be directed more to the past than to the future. They wanted to hear an apology and an expression of regret from the Catholic Patriarch for the Church not doing more during World War II to save six million Jews from perishing in the Holocaust, and they wanted it stated at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. So because Benedict did not use the correct words in the correct manner in the correct location, the old wounds between the Catholic Church and the Israeli psyche will perhaps not be soon mended.
And as Israeli officials had trained their ears for apologies for past ommissions by the Pope’s predecessors, they missed his call for correcting the present ills that confound their peace and security. Seemingly unheard was his message for Israel to end its embargo on the Gaza Strip which was probably taken less seriously than a former government official’s joke “The embargo is like an appointment with a dietitian. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won’t die.” Since Gaza was taken over by the Hamas led government, Israel has imposed a strict embargo on the strips ability to import construction goods and materials which the compound now badly needs to rebuild itself after the Israeli bombing in January. The Pope made a pointed reference to the plight of the confined Gaza population when he addressed a small contingent of Gazan Catholics at mass in Bethlehem and said, “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.
Nor was there any official government reaction to his humanitarian requests to ease restrictions on Palestinian movement within the occupied territories. “Palestinians, like any other people, have a natural right to marry, to raise families, and to have access to work, education and health care.”
The Pope also criticized the building of twenty five foot walls that surround part of Bethlehem and forms a barrier between Israel and the rest of the West bank, and later as he left the West Bank, he spoke out again on this issue and said of the walls, “They are tragic…separating neighbors and dividing families,” and they should be taken down.
And in what might put the Catholic Church at greatest odds with the present Israeli government was the Pope’s call for greater International pressure to create a Palestinian state. This appears to fly directly in the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has made it obvious that this is not a subject that he wants to discuss.
That the Benedict trip will be of any benefit for Vatican Israeli relations is doubtful, so what was this trip about? In expressing his concerns about the need for human rights to be granted to the Palestinians, it appears that he is making a strong statement advocating the Palestinian cause for justice and autonomy.
Does the Catholic Church have enough clout to move countries with significant Catholic populations to present a united front to confront Israel with a similar resolve that was necessary to bring South Africa into line? To do so the Church will have to make the transition from the spiritual realm to temporal instigator for human rights in a way that would change church state relationships for some time to come.
Christ was The Prince of Peace. As Christ’s deciple on Earth, can the Pope be anything less than the Prince of Peace?