Papal visit to Israel collides with wounded Jewish pride

JERUSALEM — Vatican officials may have thought they were being gracious when they suggested that on his historic visit later this month Pope John Paul II meet Israel's chief rabbis at the Western Wall.

The Wall, after all, is familiar around the world as a symbol of Zionist longing and fulfillment. A meeting there could be seen as a historic reconciliation between Judaism and Christendom.

What's more, as the highly media-conscious pope is aware, the scene would make for fantastic television.

But the Vatican miscalculated, ignoring another, less obvious factor born during centuries of persecution: wounded Jewish pride.

The rabbis have refused to traipse to the Wall to meet the pope, insisting he come calling instead at their offices at the chief rabbinate.

If Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau could go to Castel Gandolfo — the pope's winter residence — to meet the pontiff in 1993, they argued, then the pope should follow suit with Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron.

And if the pope insisted on the Wall — well, the rabbis wished him a nice stay in the Holy Land.

In the end, the Vatican acceded, not a little perplexed by the tiff.

"It was all a load of crap," one figure closely involved in interfaith relations says of the dispute over the meeting place. "It was just a game by the chief rabbinate to try to placate ultra-Orthodox critics and make it look as if they had played hard to get."

If so, that assertion regarding pride speaks volumes about the tensions surrounding the pope's visit, which starts March 21. It also underscores the lingering Jewish mistrust of the church's real intentions and the sense of grievance Israel harbors after centuries of anti-Semitism.

That tension surfaced last month when the Vatican and the Palestinians signed an agreement on the holy sites in Jerusalem. The pact was seen by many here as a slap in the face.

Whether the pope meets the chief rabbis at the Wall or at the chief rabbinate, either is a marked improvement over the only other papal visit to Israel.

On a Middle East swing in January 1964, Pope Paul crossed into Israel for the day from Jordan, forcing Israeli President Zalman Shazar to come to Megiddo for a meeting. The pope thanked unspecified "authorities," refused to address Shazar as "Mr. President" and avoided any mention of the word "Israel."

The fact that Paul uttered "Shalom, shalom" was considered an important step. But on his return to the Vatican, Pope Paul sent a thank you note to "Mr. Shazar" in Tel Aviv — not Jerusalem.

Yet neither the Zionists nor the Catholic church have ever really had the luxury of ignoring the other.

All the way back in 1896, at the start of his campaign to build international support for a Jewish national home, Theodor Herzl turned to Vatican officials in Vienna, only to get a frosty reception.

Granted an audience with Pope Pius X in 1904, Herzl reportedly was told, "We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem but we could never sanction it…The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people."

If the Jews did reach the shores of Palestine, that pope said, churches and priests would be waiting to baptize them.

Other early Zionist leaders came away from their meetings with Vatican officials with slightly more favorable impressions.

But by the time of the establishment of the British Mandate and the rising Arab-Jewish tension of the 1920s, three factors appeared to be of greater concern to the Vatican than the Jews' theology: the safeguarding of Christian holy places; the alleged Jewish proclivity for atheistic Bolshevism; and a concern for the welfare of Catholic communities and properties in Muslim lands, should the church offend Arab sensitivities. The latter factor still underlies much of the Holy See's Middle East strategy.

That factor played a part even as the Vatican moved toward absolving the Jews of the guilt of murdering Jesus in 1965 and declaring in 1985 that the church's attitude toward Israel should be governed by the criteria of international law rather than theology.

Still, it took years for the Holy See to agree to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

"They did not want to compromise the status of the Catholics in the Middle East by…running into the arms of Israel," says Sergio Itzhak Minerbi, a former Israeli diplomat and expert on Israel-Vatican ties.

"They are worried and they act in conformity with their worries."

Indeed, less than three months after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, the Vatican and Israel signed an agreement establishing diplomatic ties in December 1993.

Even since then, however, the church's relationship with Israel has been tempestuous.

Two recent incidents have soured the Holy See's relations with Israel: Muslim activists' occupation of a plaza next to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and subsequent Muslim riots against Christian merchants in the city.

The Israeli decision to appease the Muslims infuriated the Vatican. Israeli officials who had considered the incident a local affair were unprepared for the Vatican's criticism.

The most recent spat involves the signing last month of a pact obligating the Palestinian Authority to protect Christian communities and holy sites. The agreement's preamble declares "unilateral decisions and actions" in Jerusalem — the diplomatic code for Israeli annexation of eastern Jerusalem — "morally and legally unacceptable."

Ariel Kenet, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's department of religions, laments that the Vatican "contaminated" the agreement with such political language. Israel expressed its anger over the pact, though some Israeli commentators felt Israel had exaggerated the document's importance.

"Contrary to the impression given, the agreement with the PLO doesn't have anything new in it," says Rabbi David Rosen, head of the Anti-Defamation League's Israel office and one of the negotiators of the 1993 Israel-Vatican agreement.

"The Vatican position is that on questions of disputed borders they take no sides and want the two parties to reach their own resolution, but they want to protect their own interests regardless of who controls what."

Others dispute that view, marveling that the Holy See would dare to sign such a provocative agreement so soon before the pope's visit.

"It's not just bad for us, it's very, very serious," says one government official who declined to be named. "They know the Palestinians have nothing to say about Jerusalem, so why do they sign these agreements with them? It may be realpolitik. But if so, it's very mistaken, because the power is on our side."

In fact, says Minerbi, the agreement was timed precisely to coincide with the pope's visit — his visit to the Palestinian Authority, that is.

"In the eyes of the pope, this small minority should be protected both before he comes so that he can threaten not to come if the treaty isn't signed, and before there is a Palestinian state, when it will be too late," he says.

Yet by doing so, Minerbi argues, the Vatican has undercut its claims to be an impartial observer, too ethereal to be concerned with the mundane politicking of the dispute over Jerusalem.

"If the pope is entering our field of action not with a unilateral declaration but by signing a treaty with one of the two sides of the conflict," he says, "he abandons even the semblance of an equitable position."

Yet both Minerbi and Kenet acknowledge that Israel has little recourse other than to express its dismay to the Vatican's local diplomats. Israel hardly has the option of canceling the pope's visit in protest.

"Israel is in their pocket," notes Minerbi.

As in so many diplomatic developments in the Middle East, however, the importance of the pope's visit may be the visit itself.

"It's basically a historical somersault from Pope Pius X's position" a century ago, says Rosen. "The pope meeting with the highest elected officials of the sovereign Jewish state is the strongest visual testimony of the respect with which the Catholic church now views the Jewish people."

Yet, on a public-relations level, while Catholics may be impressed by the image of their spiritual leader meeting with Israeli dignitaries, the pope's visits to the Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem and a Palestinian refugee camp are unlikely to be favorable to Israel.

In terms of symbolism, some Israeli officials are uncomfortable with the implied analogy between the Holocaust — which the pope will address on a visit to Yad Vashem — and the Palestinian refugee camp.

Also unfavorable, Minerbi says, is an extraordinary arrangement under which the Ministry of Tourism allows Christian groups to tour the country with non-Israeli guides, many of whom may propagate anti-Israel messages.

The potential pitfalls of the visit are not a sign of lingering Catholic antagonism to the Jews so much as "a legacy of the stupidity of the Israelis," Minerbi says.

"Israel is looking at the pope as kind of a mega tour-operator and is so keen on receiving him because they hope to have millions of dollars pouring in because of the pilgrims," he says.

Israel is overly focused on logistical preparations for the visit, Minerbi says. Lost in the shuffle is an opportunity for meaningful dialogue on interfaith and diplomatic issues on the Jews' home turf.

Still, Kenet says Israel does not need to worry about being surprised by anti-Israel messages during the visit.

"The pope knows exactly what messages he needs to send in each place," he says. "We don't have to be shocked if in Bethlehem he makes a declaration of support for the Palestinian people as he has always done."

Kenet also dismisses criticism that papal visits to Old City sites unaccompanied by Israeli officials will contrast sharply with his Bethlehem appearances at Arafat's side, and will subtly undermine Israeli claims of sovereignty in Jerusalem.

More important than an Israeli dignitary in the background, Kenet says, will be the tall and muscular fellows in dark glasses guarding the pope.

"It's not what you see on television but what you see on the streets that is the real sign of sovereignty," Kenet says. "When you see the Israeli police accompanying the pope on the Temple Mount, you will know who is sovereign."

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