AJC Analysis: Pope's Visit to Israel

Q & A: Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel

 Rabbi David Rosen

Rabbi David Rosen, AJC's international director of interreligious affairs, provides background and analysis to the Pope's visit to Israel, May 11-14 (May 13th in Bethlehem, hosted by the PA) . "The overwhelming majority of Israelis and certainly of the government, recognize that this is a visit of great potential for Israel," writes Rabbi Rosen.

Q: Is Pope Benedict XVI's itinerary in Israel in any way different from that of Pope John Paul II in the year 200 ?

A: Essentially it is the same itinerary (a little less time being spent in the Galilee) , though Pope Benedict XVI will not be here over a week-end and the itinerary obviously has to adapt to various local needs. However it is notable that the first official event on the Pope's program will be his call to Bet HaNassi to meet with President Peres and speak at the joint meeting being held there.

Q: Will the Pope go to Yad VaShem despite the controversy over the way Pope Pius XII is depicted in the new exhibit?

A: There was never any consideration that the pope would not visit Yad vaShem (newspaper reports to the contrary.) However there is not enough time on his program to visit the museum, just as Pope John Paul II did not have time on his itinerary to do so. Benedict XVI will go to Yad vaShem straight from the event at the Israeli President's residence and pay his respects to the victims of the Shoah at the Ohel Yizkor, memorial hall . The issue of the way Pope Pius XII is depicted in the museum is indeed an issue of contention between the Vatican and Israel, but it has not played any role whatsoever in the itinerary and program of Pope Benedict's visit .

Q: But isn't the issue of the beatification of Pius XII casting a shadow over this visit?

A: No. Of course there are profound differences in the way the Jewish community and the Vatican view the conduct of Pius XII during the period of the Shoah. However the beatification process was set in motion more than two and a half decades ago and it is notable that despite the fact that the Vatican office responsible for the procedure claims that everything is in place to proceed with the beatification, both the previous and present Popes have not given the green light for this, assumedly also out of concern for Jewish sensibilities. Certainly if matters do go ahead, it will not be good for Catholic-Jewish relations, but this issue is also not germane to the visit.

Q: Is it true that the Pope has been asked to remove his cross when he visits the Kotel (the Western Wall) as this is a place of Jewish prayer?

A: The news report that quoted the rabbi of the Kotel as having said this, was subsequently denied by the rabbi and a statement to that effect was issued by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter has clarified to the Vatican that the State of Israel would not presume to place any restriction on the way the pope appears in any place on his itinerary.

Q: How does the Williamson episode affect the visit?

A: The State of Israel and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel (which thanks to the late Pope John Paul II now has an official dialog with the Vatican) have accepted the explanations and clarifications of the Vatican and the Pope himself concerning this episode, to the effect that Williamson and his colleagues were actually never accepted back into the Catholic Church (the lifting of the excommunication only facilitating the possibility of such a process) and that they will not be accepted until they have affirmed all the teachings of the Second Vatican Council including and especially those concerning Jews and Judaism. The Pope has categorically reiterated the Holy See's repudiation of all anti-Semitism and specifically of Holocaust denial.
While all this is known to those engaged in Catholic-Jewish relations; it is not widely enough known to the average Israeli (and perhaps to most people around the world as well !) The impact of negative sensationalist headlines is difficult to repair with subsequent corrections which almost by definition do not get the same exposure. As a result, many if not most Israelis think that Catholic-Jewish relations have entered a rough patch. The Pope's visit will provide an opportunity to clarify his own personal commitment and that of the Vatican to this relationship. Indeed at the meeting the pope held last month with the four man delegation of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, he said to us that he hopes his visit will further advance Catholic-Jewish relations as well as help bring peace to the region.

Q. Is it true that the local Christian communities are unhappy about the visit. If so, why?

The largest number of Christians in the Holy Land live in Israel as full citizens. They are looking forward eagerly to the Pope's visit.
However the situation is different for the Christian communities who are either in the territories of the PA or who live in the eastern part of Jerusalem and who function and see themselves as part and parcel of Palestinian society. These communities face a particularly difficult situation. Their lives and destinies are bound up with Palestinian society as a whole. However they are often caught between the hammer and the anvil. In times of tension they are viewed by Israel as part and parcel of a potentially hostile Arab population; and in such times there is a growing radicalization of Islamicist elements in Palestinian society that make life increasingly uncomfortable for the Christian minority. Furthermore, Christians are disproportionately involved in the pilgrimage tourism and thus their livelihoods as well are threatened by times of tension; and the result is that there has been a continuous hemorrhage of the Christian population in the Jerusalem and Bethlehem environs.
It is in this context that many Christians in these areas are concerned that the pope's visit will be seen in Palestinian society as "taking sides" on behalf of Israel. Moreover the fact that the pope is a German and especially in the wake of the Williamson affair, they suspect that he will go out of his way to curry favor with the Jewish People and some of them are worried that there may be some kind of backlash as a result.
Nevertheless the Catholic faithful even in these areas are still excited about the Pope's visit, so their feelings may be described as ambivalent.

Q: How would you describe the state of Israel-Vatican relations?

A: Generally, very good. The major fly in the ointment has been the fact that Israel has still not fulfilled its commitments to the Vatican in the accord that established full bilateral relations between the two, known as The Fundamental Agreement signed on December30 1993. This is a source of much distress to the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II instructed the Vatican to go ahead and establish diplomatic relations with Israel at the time even though two matters of great importance to the Vatican had not been resolved in the negotiations. There were the desire of the Vatican to have its own internal legal structure of authority recognized under Israeli law; and its expectation that all Church institutions and properties would have special tax exempt status. Two sub-committees were established to resolve these issues. The legal sub-committee concluded an agreement, but the State of Israel has not ratified it; and the work of the fiscal committee has dragged on now for fifteen years.
However it looks now as if the latter committee is close to a resolution of all the matters that have been in dispute.
While there have been genuine technical difficulties in arriving at an agreement, it is fair to say that the main fear of the Israeli government bureaucrats involved has been the creation of a precedent that gives status and privileges to one Christian denomination, that other religions and indeed Jewish institutions do not have in the State of Israel.

Q: What is this we hear about the possibility of Israel handing over sovereignty to the Vatican over certain places in the country?

A: This matter is grossly misrepresented. There are a number of locations in Israel that the Catholic Church claims as their holy sites, which for recent historical reasons are controlled and managed by the State of Israel. The Vatican wants these locations to be recognized as Catholic sites and to assume their management accordingly. Presenting the matter as if Israel is willing to allow extra-territorial enclaves to be established over which it will not be able to exercise its sovereignty, is a willful distortion of the Vatican's request and Israel's consideration of it.

Q: Generally, how do Israelis feel about the papal visit?

A: The overwhelming majority of Israelis and certainly of the government, recognize that this is a visit of great potential for Israel in many respects - not least of all in the fact that millions of people around the world will be able to see Israel in a much more genuine and constructive light than the way the country is often portrayed due to the ongoing conflict. Israelis are looking forward to the visit and the government is doing its utmost (despite the bureaucratic hassles) to ensure that it will be most successful.
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