Israel: The Fog of Memory

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel has been haunted by the specter of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who was known for his positive initiatives toward the Jews. But, even in John Paul’s time, not every thing, not even his pilgrimage for the Jubilee in 2000, was free of problems.

At the start Israelis were mostly indifferent or skeptical of the late pope’s visit. For one, there was resentment that the Vatican’s reflections on the Shoah, part of the program of historical repentance that was a special feature of John Paul’ millennial observances, had not gone far enough to confess the Church’s responsibility for anti-Semitism. A month before the visit, moreover, the Holy See signed a memorandum of understanding with the PLO indicating its support for Palestinian national aspirations including hopes for sharing Jerusalem, which Israelis found provocative.

Ironically Israeli public opinion turned around only after the interreligious conference at Notre Dame Center, where the same Sheik Tamimi who interrupted Monday evening’s event when he seized the microphone, disrupted the event with a fiery tirade against Israel. As Tamimi walked off the stage and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Meir Lau refused to participate further, the Holy Father, impaired by Parkinson’s disease, continued by himself, planting three olive trees as symbols of peace and then watering them. The three were to have planted and watered them together. The next morning the conservative Jerusalem Post editorialized that in a land where religious leaders are forever engaging in politics, the pope had taught them all how to lead.

So, through the fog or memory John Paul II looks quite different than he did at the time. Indifferent, sometimes hostile responses from people who have just one thing they want to hear the pope say are not exceptional. Opinion can shift dramatically–with a grand gesture. John Paul was the master of grand gestures; Benedict is not. For that reason, we may have to attend all the more carefully to his message.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

8 years ago
I remember during Pope JP II's visit to the Middle East in 2000, there were some who where critical of him for gestures like planting the olive tree.  Some in the media mentioned his pre-presbyterate acting career and wondered if that helped him in essence put on a show.  Now Benedict is getting criticism for the opposing sin of not having enough emotion.  In the end though one wonders if more emotion and more drama- such as that initiated by Sheikh Tamimi (and certainly there are similar provocateurs on the Israeli side)- had done anything to increase the efforts for peace in the Holy Land.

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