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The Pope's Visit to Israel: What Does it Mean?

The Pope's Visit to Israel: What Does it Mean?

I’ve been watching Pope Francis’s visit to Israel with great interest over the past few days. I even watched his some of the events live on EWTN, which was a station that I didn’t even know until this weekend that my cable system carried.

When people have asked me over the past year what I think of Pope Francis (as if my opinion on the Pope counts for anything) I’ve responded in three ways. First, I’ve said I have great respect for the Pope if for no other reason than I love my Catholic neighbors and friends, and they seem to love him. Second, I deeply admire his renewed prioritization of the religious responsibility for poor people – and wish that Jewish leadership would make the same commitments.

Third, however, I say: I reserve any judgment or opinion until I hear what he has to say about the Middle East, and as far as I could tell, Israel really hasn’t been a big priority of this Pontiff until the past week. So now I guess I’m on the hook.

So far, so good is what I say. All the grace notes in his visit were appropriately struck. 

The Pope said repeatedly that Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum, was a priority for him – which signifies that he comprehends Jewish suffering of the past, including that suffering in which the church was complicit. His emotional words at Yad Vashem reinforced the message.

Furthermore, Pope Francis acknowledged the legitimacy of the Zionist narrative more than any other Pope in history (three of his predecessors have visited the State of Israel). This was most remarkably demonstrated by his visit to the grave of Theodor Herzl. Of all the possible places of historical and religious significance he could have chosen to visit, he came to the grave of the Zionist founder. What else could laying a wreath at Herzl’s grave signify except for the legitimacy of Herzl’s vision – that a Jewish future necessarily entailed a Jewish state? 

After visiting Herzl’s grave, the Pope made an unscheduled visit to a memorial for Israeli victims of terror, another sign that the Pope accepts both the validity of the Jewish links to this place, and the pain which Jews have suffered to build up their homeland.

Of course the Pope visited with the Palestinian leadership, and the Mufti of Jerusalem, and led mass in Bethlehem, and prayed on the Temple Mount – and thank God for all of that. It was reported that Pope Francis invited both President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to come to the Vatican in months ahead for talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I think that’s wonderful, as well. If the Pope is as serious about being a voice of peace as he is about being a voice of justice for poor people, then my prayers are with him, that’s for sure.

I suspect that upon his return home, he will be blasted by Israel-haters all over Europe, and especially by the supporters of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement. Surely they’ll say he wasn’t aggressive enough in condemning Israeli aggression in the territories, etc., etc. Sometimes you have to figure: If a certain kind of person condemns your actions, you must be doing something right. Pope Francis seems to understand that the path for a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians alike is recognition that both narratives have validity and both sides have bled, and both are going to have to live side-by-side with one another into the future. 

If Pope Francis is able to be a voice for genuine peace in the Middle East – genuine in the sense of nudging the parties towards compromise, rather than demonizing Jews or Palestinians – then he may be establishing credentials of being not only a great spiritual voice for the world’s Catholics, but for the rest of us as well.

Rabbi Neal Gold is director of program and content for the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

Rabbi Neal Gold
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