Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the State of Israel has not been a resounding success.
The Pope’s spokesman told a big fib when he said to the Israeli press that the pontiff “never, never, never” belonged to the Hitler Youth when he was a teenager — a retraction was issued later. The chief Islamic judge of the “moderate” Palestinian Authority hijacked an interfaith meeting and used it as a platform for a vile anti-Israel rant. The Pope, to his credit, fled the meeting.
Then the Pope’s remarks during his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial were widely criticized for being insufficient to the occasion. His philosophical tone offended the sensibilities of both former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau and the editors of the left-wing Ha’aretz newspaper. Like them, many Israelis on both the left and the right expected the first post-Holocaust German Pope to apologize for his native country’s heinous history as well as for the Catholic Church’s own long tradition of anti-Semitism.
Such statements would have been both welcome and appropriate but it appears that Pope Benedict’s chief fault is that he is not his heroic predecessor John Paul II. John Paul was a Pole who experienced Nazi tyranny first-hand, and a genuine friend of the Jewish people. Moreover, he understood it was necessary for the Vatican to speak and act in a way that would at least partially undo the many centuries of pain the Church had inflicted on the Jews. He exemplified the sea change on Jewish issues that came about as the result of the Vatican II reforms.
But to say that Benedict is not John Paul should not be an excuse for Israelis or Jews to spend this week bashing either the Vatican or the Pope. While there are many shortcomings in the positions enunciated by the Pope about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (his call for the lifting of the embargo on Hamas-ruled Gaza is remarkably muddle-headed), it is a colossal mistake to treat him or the vast institution he represents as either an enemy of Israel or a major problem for the Jewish people. The Vatican has maintained its ties with Israel and has spoken out against anti-Semitism repeatedly, no small gesture at a time when the tide of Jew-hatred is rising in Europe.
This Pope is no master of public relations; he is prone to mistakes that raise the hackles of Jews and others. And it’s hard to see how any Pope who served, albeit briefly, in Hitler’s Wehrmacht would ever be able to cope with the hard feelings that many Jews understandably have about the Holocaust unless he did nothing but continually apologize.
But at a time when Israel is currently beset by real enemies, including an Iranian regime threatening the Jews with a new Holocaust, fixating on the Pope’s shortcomings and the Church’s history is an absurd misreading of the situation. Like it or not, Israel and the Church are on the same side of a clash of civilizations in which radical Islam is a deadly threat to both Jews and Christians. Rather than bashing the Pope, Israelis and Jews need to embrace him as a friend, best as they can.