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May 30, 2014
Pope Francis’s three day visit to the Middle East was always bound to court controversy. In a trip that included a visit to Jordan, Palestine and Israel, and coming on the heels of a collapsed peace process, avoiding politically sensitive issues would have been an impossible task. Palestinians have, for the most part, been happy to let the other side make the case for them. Israeli commentators and officials, on the other hand, have been quick to condemn either the Pope for playing along or the Palestinians for a sinister, adroit PR campaign that elevated the separation wall to a symbol of oppression and discrimination. Others have instead directed their anger at their own government for inadequately anticipating and preparing for what they see as dirty Palestinian PR tricks. In the meantime, the visit has seemingly done little to end a rash of anti-Christian vandalism and rhetoric from the Israeli far-right.
Prior to his visit, the Pope received considerable support from more than 400 American rabbis, who in effect endorsed the Pope’s “efforts to promote interfaith dialogue as he embarked on his three-day trip to the Mideast, which ended Monday with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the Western Wall....The authors said the letter, published in an ad in Haaretz this week, was in part a response to the vandalism targeting Christian sites in Israel in recent months. It also came in response to the objections a handful of rabbis had voiced to the pope’s plan to hold a Mass in the Cenacle, which Christians believe was the site of the Last Supper. The Cenacle is located in the complex known as King David’s Tomb on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.”
But in the Israeli media, the reaction to the papal visit has been overwhelmingly negative. For example, in an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Dan Calic accuses the Pope of joining the ‘Palestinian chutzpah club’ and for becoming “complicit to Palestinians' incessant reversal of reality…. In the latest rendition of ‘how not to coexist with Israel,’ they took full advantage of Pope Francis’ visit to again misrepresent the truth. Simply put, they promoted lies....Prior to the papal visit, numerous banners were put up showing him with Mahmoud Abbas. While such banners wouldn’t be unexpected, one exemplifies the lie. Placed on the wall outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, it shows Abbas and the pope, along with the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem under the heading ‘State of Palestine, May 2014’ This is a flagrant attempt to promote Palestine as a sovereign state and associate the visit of the pope as de-facto recognition of their statehood. If the Vatican objected to it, which they should have, they had plenty of time to request the banner be removed. Yet instead of objecting, the pope, while in Bethlehem, publicly endorsed ‘the state of Palestine’.”
Similarly, Pope Francis’s visit with Palestinian Arab refugees drew criticism from, among others, Arutz Sheva’s Giulio Meotti, who came very close to accusing the leader of the Catholic Church of anti-Semitism: “Papa Bergoglio delivered a message of hate to the Jews. How is that? Why did the Pope meet with Palestinian Arab ‘refugees’ if not to present the 1948 war as the source of an ‘injustice’ committed by Israel when it pushed away the Palestinian Arabs? Pope Francis, the refugee problem was created not by an inexorable eruption of hostilities, but by an Arab war of annihilation against Israel. You should have said that. Why did you ignore the 800,000 Jewish refugees who were driven out of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East in the years after Israel obtained its independence?”
Not wanting to point a finger directly at the Pope, there were those who focused their anger instead at Palestinians officials, or even their own government. Etian Haber, for example, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, blames both sides for crossing “nearly every line. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis deviated from the original plan and waged a war of tricks and shticks at the expense of the leader of the Catholic masses, which include a billion and several hundreds of millions of people around the world....Many in the world, not just Catholics, are displeased with the games at the pope's expense....the highlight was of course the picture published all over the world: Francis standing next to the separation wall which was built to prevent acts of terror....In the Prime Minister's Office, Benjamin Netanyahu's successes and failures are measured, apparently, according to pictures on the television and in the newspapers.... And so they had a splendid idea: The Palestinians presented the separation wall to the pope? We will present the Memorial to the Victims of Terror.”
In another Arutz Sheva op-ed, Jack Engelhard, a regular columnist for the Israeli daily, ‘credited’ the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having engineered the equivalent of a PR coup and apportioned blame to Netanyahu for being unprepared: “If anyone was infallible during the Pope’s visit to Israel, it was terrorist president Mahmoud Abbas. He got everything he wanted from the Pope....If the Pope’s journey to the Holy Land was to justify terrorism, mission accomplished....The trip had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. It has nothing to do with Jews or Catholics. It was all about Islam and its grievances. The Pope complied....Where was Israel’s leadership from the beginning of this disaster until the end? Didn’t they know the Pope was coming? Half of life is showing up. The other half is being prepared. Israel’s leadership failed here on both counts....Bibi and the rest of his staff were constantly playing catch-up and constantly being outmaneuvered by Abbas — a thug, a terrorist.”
Perhaps Israeli attempts at retaking the PR initiative were doomed from the start. At least that is the argument that the Jerusalem Post’s Johnathan Rosen makes, cautioning his colleagues that it is harder to make the Israeli case because the context, which is so important in these kinds of discussions, is far more complex than a photo-op: “When Pope Francis leaned his head in prayer against the high concrete wall that Israel built in Bethlehem, many Israelis and their supporters were aghast at the impression the photo-op might create among the uninitiated....Israeli officials demanded that context be provided to offset any such misconception. Though generally speaking off-the-record, the officials sought to remind the public and the world that the barrier as a whole was built in response to recurring acts of murderous Palestinian terrorism....Generally speaking, familiarity with the context of any situation is crucial to understanding that situation accurately. However, a number of problems can accompany a demand for context.”
Ultimately, the Pope’s visit to the Middle East will be judged by whether he was able to lower tensions and decrease the violence that preceded his visit. After all, besides, the stymied peace process, the papal took place against the background of increased violence against Christians in Israel. Unfortunately, as Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reports, the immediate evidence is not encouraging, since the conclusion of the visit seems to have also coincided with yet another incident at an abbey in Jerusalem: “An unknown person burned a book in which visitors inscribe prayers at Jerusalem's Dormition Abbey Monday night, near where Pope Frances had conducted Mass. The incident apparently occurred only a few minutes after the pontiff left the area....In recent weeks there was considerable tension on Mount Zion due to claims by right-wing Jewish elements that during the pope’s visit, the Israeli government planned to hand over parts of the compound there, which includes the Tomb of David, to the Vatican. Meanwhile, Christians have complained of an increase of violence against them on Mount Zion, including stone-throwing and spitting.”
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