The visit of Pope Bendict XVI to Israel was very good. It could have been so much better. In the course of his pilgrimage the Pope was able to chart a solid and cautious course between the competing interests and claims of the regions religions. He carried with him a message of peace and quite remarkably – on the matter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – managed to avoid the pitfalls and mines that almost always befall those who visit the region and attempt to address such diverse and prickly audiences such as Israel’s Jews, Israel’s Muslims, Israel’s Christians, the Palestinian Muslims and the Palestinian Christians – while still saying things of value, such as the call to Israel to pursue the two-state solution and the call to Palestinians to avoid the use of violence to further their cause.
So why is it that so many in Israel were left with the sour feeling that the Pope’s visit was – to quote Haaretz’ editorial – a “missed opportunity”? What did Israelis expect that failed to happen? And why was the Vatican appalled that Israelis failed to appreciate the numerous gestures made by the Pope? No-one could argue that the Pope has done quite a lot. First and foremost, he made the visit itself, even when some counseled him against it, including visits to Jewish sacred sites such as the Wailing Wall and Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial. He met Israel’s top officials, showing himself a gracious guest at the resident of President Shimon Peres, and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is yet to make a substantial gesture of peace for a meeting that proceeded smoothly. In his speeches upon his arrival at Israel, at the President’s Residence – where I had the pleasure of hearing him in person – and in Yad Vashem, he carried numerous important messages, underlining the unacceptability of anti-Semitism, acknowledging the suffering those who perished in the Holocaust and those who survived it, and opposing those who seek to deny their suffering and in doing so rob them of their dignity. He has shown empathy and was clearly moved by his reception and by the visit.
It was all good, important, well done, and somehow – short of what it could have been. A Pope, by the very nature of his elevated position, is judged differently than ordinary men. He is not merely the top executive of the church. He is a spiritual leader whose words are followed carefully by believers around the world and even by those who are not Catholics. He wields the power to chart a path to people that can lead them towards good and away from evil. By this words and dictates he can delineate the borders of acceptable behavior, casting beyond the pale attitudes and actions that lead to suffering and humiliation. The Pope – even without divisions – is a powerful man. The previous Pope was rightly credited with a major role in bringing down Communism in Eastern Europe. As a powerful man we – Jews, Christians, Muslims, even Atheists – expect of him to use his power to do combat evil and to do good.
It is this heightened expectation that colors the Jewish disapproval of Pope Benedict XVI insistence on continuing the course towards turning Pope Pius XII into a saint. We do not judge Pope Pius XII on whether he individually helped save several Jews, or abstained from engaging in evil acts, but rather – given his position and power, did he do all that he could to fight evil. If Pope Pius XII had been an ordinary Italian farmer hiding Jews in his home, he would have been widely acknowledge as a great man and righteous man, but as Pope he was expected not to engage in individual acts of rescue, but rather to carve a figure, on par with the leaders of allies – an equal member in fighting the Nazis – who uses his moral and spiritual authority to assert repeatedly that no Christian should cooperate with the Nazis and take part in the actions of genocide. While historians and cool observers could understand that his acts might have been helpful in preserving church property and personnel under the Nazi and Fascist regimes, one cannot ask that such behavior be lauded and celebrated. Such actions may have been cautious and wise – but they were certainly not courageous or inspiring such that one would wish to call him a Saint.
Pope Benedict XVI came to Israel under the sign of opportunity and good faith. The state of Israel offered its most sincere welcome and hospitality. Israelis were happy to set aside his recent actions in bringing back to the Church a holocaust-denier and in bringing back in the Good Friday prayer a phrase calling for conversion of the Jews. Israelis are also able to understand that the Pope was coerced into serving in the Wehrmacht and that his service in the Wehrmacht does not mean that he was an ardent Nazi – he was clearly not. And although most Israelis would have appreciated an expression of regret, they did not fault him personally for his service.
It is difficult to say what exactly Israelis wanted to hear and see. Each offers their own phrase and analysis, speculating on what exactly would have filled the gaping hole and avoided the sour disappointment – some saying that the word “sorry” was missing, others that “Nazis” and “Holocaust Denial”. I don’t know what were the precise magic words, gestures and actions that were missing. I do know that at a time when so much violence is perpetrated in the name of God, when anti-Semitism is finding new and virulent expressions in the singling out of the state of Israel for every global woe, when historians speak of the returns of millennia-old religious conflicts, we were looking to a Pope who would change the course of history away from God-inspired wars. We wanted to experience history in the making, to witness the beginning of a new era of reconciliation, to carve in our minds a memorable image of change and hope. We were hoping to be surprised by a unique and unexpected show of courage, by watching a spiritual leader take a stand that was not without risk, against the abuse of God’s name. Pope Benedict XVI has concluded a very good visit, but in a small corner of our heart we can regret that we were not inspired.