Analysis: Pope Benedict XVI's Visit in Israel

Pope Benedict XVI and the Israeli flagPope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land was an emotional experience for me, as it was for many.  Ironically, I was not able to see him "live" from my usual place of residence in Jerusalem, but had to be content with watching him on live internet broadcasts from Rome, where I am currently residing for a few months. This gave me a unique perspective on the papal visit - and not only because I probably saw and heard the pope much better than had I tried to make my way through the crowded sites. Rather than hearing first-hand Israeli reactions to the pope's visit, I got to observe and engage many Catholic reactions from the Eternal City and heart of the Church.  These turned out to be a real eye opener. Observing the reactions and counter-reactions to the Holy Father's visit drove home the reality of the immense gap in understanding that remains to be bridged between Jews and Christians.  

The Pope's Message to Israel

Benedict's visit to the Holy Land was and probably will remain the most complicated and sensitive trip of his pontificate.  Even before he arrived there was a sense in the air that "anything that can be misinterpreted will be." Now that the dust has settled, it is fair to say that the trip generated very mixed feelings.  Let's look at a few highlights of the Holy Father's visit that are particularly relevant to Jewish-Christian relations, and the way they were received and perceived by Israelis and Catholics.  [Benedict's most important speeches can be found in our section the Pope and the Jewish People.]

Even before he arrived in Israel, from Mount Nebo in Jordan the pope already emphasized the "inseparable bond" that connects the Church with the Jewish people, and the imperative of working towards reconciliation between them:

The ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people. From the beginning, the Church in these lands has commemorated in her liturgy the great figures of the Patriarchs and Prophets, as a sign of her profound appreciation of the unity of the two Testaments. May our encounter today inspire in us a renewed love for the canon of Sacred Scripture and a desire to overcome all obstacles to the reconciliation of Christians and Jews in mutual respect and cooperation in the service of that peace to which the word of God calls us!

Upon his arrival at the Tel Aviv airport on Monday, May 11, Benedict was greeted by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  There, in his arrival speech, he immediately made a clear and unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism that was well-received:

Tragically, the Jewish people have experienced the terrible consequences of ideologies that deny the fundamental dignity of every human person. It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah, and to pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude. Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world. This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found, and to promote respect and esteem for the members of every people, tribe, language and nation across the globe.

Controversy at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial

Pope Benedict at the Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialAfter a warm reception at the President's residence the same afternoon, Benedict then visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial for what turned out to be the most controversial part of his visit. In his much scrutinized speech, the successor of Peter said that he had come to "stand in silence before this monument, erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah."  The pope then respectfully honored the name and memory of the dead.  He warned against any attempt at denying the Holocaust: "May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!" He spoke of the Church's "deep compassion" for the victims and somewhat generically said how the Church "draws close to all those who today are subjected to persecution on account of race, color, condition of life or religion" and how the cry of the victims is "a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence."

I must admit that as soon as Benedict finished speaking I knew that his speech would not be very well received.  There was nothing wrong with what he said.  The problem was with many crucial things that were not said, and sadly because of this a unique opportunity for Jewish-Christian reconciliation was lost.  Sure enough, immediately a flurry of criticism was heard in the Israeli media.  Most Jewish listeners thought the speech was disappointing. It was said that the pope had not mentioned the number 6 million, had used the word "killed" instead of "murdered," and had not mentioned the Nazis or Germans, a significant silence considering his own identity as a German.  It was said that the speech lacked empathy and sorrow.  Most importantly, the pope stopped short of making an apology or even expressing regret for the long history of Christian anti-Semitism that had paved the way for the Shoah.  The main headline in the English-language Haaretz was representative of many others: "[Holocaust] Survivors angered by Benedict's 'lukewarm' speech."  The lead editorial of the same Israeli daily added:

The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word — 'sorry.'

To me, these emotional, overly critical and at times uncharitable reactions were no surprise. To the outsider they may have seemed like petty and immature nitpicking against a speech that was sensitive, respectful, dignified, and moving. Clearly there was a wide gap in how the pope's speech was understood by Jews and Catholics.  But what was really troubling for me was to hear and observe not a few harsh and insensitive Catholic counter-reactions that showed little or no genuine desire to try to understand the Israeli disappointment.  Again and again I encountered impatient responses such as: "Those Jews are never happy!" or "why should the pope be obliged to satisfy their rigid expectation of what they think he should have said?" I heard Catholics say that the Jews should just "get over" the Holocaust.  Others thought that since John Paul II had asked for forgiveness nine years ago the matter had been taken care of and there was no need to return to the topic. It was now time to move on. Topping off the disgraceful Catholic remarks were the comments of Father Thomas D. Williams, LC writing for Zenit. Fr. Williams described Rabbi Ysrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem memorial and a holocaust survivor whose father died in the Treblinka death camp, as "looking as if he had recently eaten something particularly disagreeable to his stomach" during the pope's speech. Sorry, Father Williams, that Rabbi Lau was not looking more cheerful as he pondered the murder of his father and his own nightmare in the Nazi death machine where two thirds of his people were ruthlessly exterminated.

To me such reactions testified to a total lack of sensitivity towards the gaping wound that remains in the Jewish soul following the abyss of the Holocaust - the decimation of the Jewish people that followed upon the heels of centuries of vicious Christian anti-Semitism and persecution.  The hair-splitting criticism over Benedict's choice of words was not the issue. This was only a symptom of a much deeper malaise.  Unfortunately, it seemed that few Catholics were willing to extend the grace to overlook the emotional reactions and consider the deep hurt underlying them. Too many Catholics possibly remain unaware that for most Jews, Christianity is not the religion that brought peace and love into the world, but rather the one that caused unspeakable suffering upon them for the greater part of their history: from the first centuries of the Church, blaming the Jews for the death of Christ led to forced conversions and baptisms, public humiliations and mythical accusations resulting in brutal executions, the burning of synagogues, mass exiles and deportations, ghettoes, and murderous pogroms - to only scratch the surface of this less than illustrious past. The few positive steps towards repentance and reconciliation initiated a decade ago by John Paul II, as groundbreaking as they were, were not enough to heal this painful heritage.  Constant, persevering and enduring efforts remain an imperative to bring genuing healing and reconciliation between Israel and the Church.

Identificational Repentance

In my opinion, what was most lacking about the pontiff's visit in Israel was identificational repentance.  This is a key biblical principle by which a representative of a group of people repents and asks forgiveness not for his own sins but for those of his forefathers or predecessors.  Though he may be entirely innocent of personal guilt, he identifies with the sins of his forefathers to the point of almost considering them his own, and he repents and asks forgiveness in their place.  Anyone who understands the theology of the communion of saints will know that this is a very Catholic concept.  We can see a beautiful example of identificational repentance in the book of Daniel (9:1-19). Daniel was a righteous man who contemplated the tragic destiny of his people from the perspective of the Babylonian captivity.  He realized that the sins of Israel had led to their humiliating exile.  Though he bore no personal guilt for this tragedy, Daniel prayed a moving and humble prayer asking God forgiveness for the sins of his fathers:

O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments... We have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants the prophets... O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from Your city Jerusalem... because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and Your people are a reproach to all those around us. Now therefore, our God, hear the prayer of Your servant, and his supplications, and for the Lord’s sake cause Your face to shine on Your sanctuary...  (Dan 9:4-5, 10, 16-17)

Calls for Pope Benedict to apologize for his personal past as a German were out of place because it is well known that his family was strongly opposed to the Nazi regime.  However, as head of the universal Church, the Church whose children were responsible for such a long history of unjust persecution of the Jews, and especially as a son of the German people, would it not have been fitting and good to make a strong statement of identificational repentance at this historical moment, in the presence of Holocaust survivors? What would have been the cost? What was there to lose?

Bewilderment at the absence of repentance was not only expressed by Jews. Christians also expressed dismay at the words that were left unspoken. In a special commentary on the pope's visit, Rev. Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, pointedly asked: "Why is it so hard to embrace humility and repent? After all, these are the great hallmarks of the Christian faith."  Hedding underlined the prophetic nature of humble repentance towards Israel, pointing out how Isaiah foresaw that "the sons of those who afflicted you [Israel] shall come bowing to you, and all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet" (Isaiah 60:14).

As head of the organization that has perhaps done the most to further Jewish-Christian reconciliation, Hedding knows what he is talking about from experience. He added:

Yet oddly, it has been Evangelical Christians - today the fastest-growing stream of Christianity worldwide - who have sought to fill that prophetic role by facing up to the Church's tragic legacy head-on. From our ranks, clergy and laymen alike have journeyed to Yad Vashem to profess the Christian world's corporate guilt for the church's dark history of anti-Semitism, including the Catholic Church, and to repent for these great moral failings.  This repentance has been honest, sincere and without condition. We have stood in humility, accepted the shame, and said "sorry", even though there is no history in our 400 year-old movement of Evangelical involvement in the sad chronicle of inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions and convert-or-die scenarios that repeatedly took aim at the Jewish people.

As a convinced Catholic who loves the Church, I can only echo Hedding's question: Why is it so hard for many Catholics to embrace humility and repent, when countless Evangelicals who bear not even a fraction of the historical burden of guilt that we Catholics carry towards the Jewish people do this willingly and gladly?

Pope Benedict at the Wailing WallThe absence of identificational repentance was perhaps the reason why Benedict's prayer at the Wailing Wall the following day also failed to make an impression.  Unlike John Paul's prayer nine years ago, which specifically touched upon the Christian responsibility towards the persecution of the Jewish people and attendant need for repentance, Benedict's prayer was general and universalistic, asking the Lord to "send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family; stir the hearts of all who call upon your name, to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion."  Again, nothing wrong with these gentle words.  A touching prayer, but one that didn't address the deep wounds of the past.

Benedict then went on to Visit the Grand Rabbinate of Israel, where he declared to the chief rabbis his desire for reconciliation between Jews and Christians:

Today I have the opportunity to repeat that the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to the path chosen at the Second Vatican Council for a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews. As the Declaration Nostra Aetate makes clear, the Church continues to value the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews and desires an ever deeper mutual understanding and respect through biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogues.

How unfortunate that the words most needed to further this noble goal of reconciliation were never said.

Parting Words

If the many Catholic reactions to the Israeli disappointment were an embarrassement, the one person who displayed the most humble response to the critics was Benedict himself.  Just before his departure for Rome, at the Ben Gurion airport, the Holy Father showed that he had listened to his critics with attention and respect.  Addressing President Shimon Peres, Benedict quoted St. Paul to emphasize again the common roots of Israel and the Church, before returning once again to the subject of the Holocaust in very clear terms - though identificational repentance was still absent: 

Mr. President, you and I planted an olive tree at your residence on the day that I arrived in Israel. The olive tree, as you know, is an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans how the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant (cf. 11:17-24). We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.

The ceremony at the Presidential Palace was followed by one of the most solemn moments of my stay in Israel -- my visit to the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem to pay my respects to the victims of the Shoah. There I also met some of the survivors. Those deeply moving encounters brought back memories of my visit three years ago to the death camp at Auschwitz, where so many Jews -- mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, friends -- were brutally exterminated under a godless regime that propagated an ideology of anti-Semitism and hatred. That appalling chapter of history must never be forgotten or denied. On the contrary, those dark memories should strengthen our determination to draw closer to one another as branches of the same olive tree, nourished from the same roots and united in brotherly love.

The Balance Sheet

During a press conference the Wednesday after the pope's departure, Archbishop Fouad Twal, patriarch of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Antonio Franco, apostolic nuncio, defined the trip as "more than 90% successful."  Certainly, Benedict came to the Holy Land as a humble pilgrim and did his best to further peace and reconciliation in a tense region.  But one wonders by what standard the two archbishops arrived at this rather triumphalistic grade.  I have a hard time following how Catholic clergymen and commentators viewed the trip as such a great success, despite the fact that the overwhelming local response ranged from sharp discontent to cautious optimism, with the average feeling probably being one of disappointment with a touch of cynicism.

On the positive side, Pope Benedict strongly condemned anti-Semitism and appealed that it be "universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders."  He tirelessly spoke about the need for peace and reconciliation and the urgent necessity of overcoming all forms of injustice and violence.  He came as "a friend of the Israelis" as much as a "friend of the Palestinian people." Benedict also had strong words of encouragement for the local Christians, and he pleaded for the healing of divisions between them.

On the other hand, the one missing word, "sorry," turned what could have been a giant step towards touching the heart of the Jewish nation and dramatically furthering the reconciliation between Israel and the Church into a moment that fell short of all expectations and hopes.  Humble identificational repentance remained and still remains badly needed on the part of the Church and her leaders, as an example for all Christians to come to grips with our less than illustrious past with the Jewish people.  Moreover, the burning potato of the Muslim persecution of Christians in the Holy Land was carefully avoided, and so was the issue of the current paralysis of the Church's evangelistic mission of sharing the Gospel of salvation to all people of the Holy Land (two topics that I will not address here).  The "elephant in the room" - which no one really wants to notice - remains the troubling correlation between the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land and refusal of the hierarchy to evangelize. Is the calling of all people to conversion to the Gospel not a crucial requirement to foster a thriving and growing Christian community in the land of Jesus?  And is a universal invitation to a life-changing encounter with the Messiah of Israel not the only real way to overcome prejudice and hatred and to bring forgiveness, reconciliation, unity and love between all people in Israel and the Holy Land?

In light of all the pressure and sensitivities of this trip, the Holy Father did his best.  But perhaps 75% would be a fairer grade.


See Also:

Haaretz: A Missed Opportunity (May 13)

Politics Daily: How the Pope Fell Short as a Guest (May 14)

Ynet: Pope concludes Holy Land Visit (May 15)