How Israel Could Have Been a Better Host to Benedict

ROME — Abraham would have been disappointed. Ever since the first patriarch hosted the three angels at his table, hospitality has been considered one of the highest virtues in the Middle East. But thus far, Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land this week has been marked by two different versions of welcome. Benedict described himself on this visit as “a pilgrim of peace, in the name of the one God, Father of all.” The pope also promised to “give witness to the Catholic Church’s commitment in favor of those who work to practice dialogue and reconciliation, to arrive to a stable and lasting peace in justice and mutual respect.” So as the season of playoffs commences, let’s look at the scorecard for the practice of reconciliation, dialogue and hospitality in Jordan and Jerusalem. From where I sit, it looks like Jordan took game, set and match.

Point 1: Reconciliation

Pope Benedict’s 2006 address at Regensburg sparked furor in the Muslim world. His citation of a 13th-century text questioning the Muslim contribution to the world wounded many in the Islamic community. Benedict issued a clarification and invited Muslim leaders to dialogue, garnering a positive response from 138 Islamic scholars.

When Benedict visited Jordan’s King Hussein bin Talal mosque, on May 9, he was addressed by Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed, who thanked the pope for “the regret he expressed after the Regensburg lecture” as well as “the clarification by the Vatican that what was said in the Regensburg lecture did not reflect Your Holiness’ own opinion.” A nice kiss and make up.

Two days later in Jerusalem, Benedict visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Despite the fact that in his sixth sentence after his arrival at Tel Aviv airport Benedict addressed the issues of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the strongest of terms, palpable dissatisfaction permeated the air at Yad Vashem just a few hours later. Critics parsed the pope’s every word, heaping blame on him for referring to “the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah” instead of “six million Jews murdered in the Shoah.” Yet Benedict said all this and more upon his arrival on Israeli soil when he declared, “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.” Apparently the pope’s words are only acceptable if scripted by Israeli officials. Although at Yad Vashem Benedict made an impassioned entreaty that “the names of these victims never perish,” and “their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi, incredibly dismissed the pope’s speech as “devoid of any compassion, any regret.”

Rabbi Lau, however, has never displayed any regret for his hurtful errors during the 60th anniversary ceremony of Kristallnacht in Berlin when he called out “Pius XII, where were you at Kristallnacht?” feeding the black legend of Pius XII’s complicity with the Nazis. The only problem, of course, was that Pius was not pope in 1938. Yet throughout the brouhaha that ensued in the wake of this rash statement, it was Rabbi Lau who was “devoid of any compassion, any regret.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin likewise expected the pope to ask for “forgiveness” and brought up the old saw of the pope’s alleged “baggage” for the simple reason that he had been drafted into the German army (though he later defected.) According to papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, Pope Benedict “was a seminarian and a theology student, who at 16 years of age, like all the people of his age, was drafted as an auxiliary of the anti-aircraft defense.” The opposition of the Ratzinger family to Hitler’s regime is a matter of public record. So while Prince Ghazi was able to shelve the upheaval of only three years ago, the Israeli “welcoming” committee admonished the pope for things that didn’t happen 67 years ago. Classy.

Point 2: Dialogue

During Benedict’s three days in Jerusalem, King Abdullah II broke protocol by meeting the pope at the airport, offered Amman International stadium for the papal Mass and allowed Christians to take the day off from work — although Sunday is not a holiday in Jordan. The pope spoke of the need for religious tolerance in the Middle East. The King of Jordan responded by showing him five new churches under construction for the 3 percent Christian population as well as the 20,000 Iraqi Christians who have been given refuge in Jordan. On the other side of the Dead Sea, Israel started out well. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the bishops of the Holy Land greeted the pope at the airport. Peres gave a warm welcoming speech, and as they planted a symbolic olive tree side by side, all seemed peaceful in the presidential garden. But from the Tel Aviv airport to Jerusalem things cooled rapidly. At Yad Vashem, the pope’s German birth seemed to make him unfit for anything but begging forgiveness. As a result, the other important issues Benedict came to address were lost in the wave of criticism after the pope’s address.

Pope Benedict noted that Jerusalem, which means “city of peace,” was in reality wrought with hostilities. He urged a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, as President Peres had, and warned that dialogue could not continue without the willingness to forgive and look forward. The pope also called for pilgrims of all religions to have free access to the holy places of Jerusalem. Of particular interest to the pope, was the treatment of Christians in Jerusalem.

From 51 percent of the population in Jerusalem at the time of the creation of the State of Israel, Israeli Christians have now shrunk to a mere 2 percent. No Mass was arranged for Pope Benedict to celebrate during this Eastertide on the site of Christ’s resurrection, but a Mass for a capacity of 6,000 was set up outside the walls near the Basilica of Gethsemane. Only a handful of permits were issued to Gaza Christians to pray with the pope, despite hundreds of requests. Sadly, it seemed that many Israeli officials were only interested in what the pope would say about the Holocaust, turning a deaf ear to any of his other words.

Point 3: Hospitality

Jordan extended sympathy and compassion to an 83-year-old pontiff who had come a long way and accepted a grueling schedule of 29 addresses to promote peace in the Holy Land. Like Abraham of long ago, Jordan, recognized the importance of its visitor and extended the warmest hospitality possible. Prince Ghazi praised the pope for having “made time, in your intense and tiring schedule, tiring for a man of any age…in order to honor Muslims.” For his part, King Abdullah II surprised the pope by joining him to tour the excavations of an ancient Christian pilgrimage site by the Jordan River.

But in Jerusalem, despite the gaily colored papal flags alternating with the blue Star of David, the impression seemed to be that receiving the pope was more of a burden than an honor. Compared with the pope’s gentlemanly overtures of peace, his hosts seemed like petulant schoolchildren. It was a sad showing for the Israelis. What could have been a historic encounter was soured by grumbling from the sidelines.