Pros and Cons of the Pope’s visit to Israel

Today is the second and final day of Pope Francis’ whirlwind visit to the region. His schedule today in Jerusalem is once again fraught with potential pitfalls:

Pope Francis faces a diplomatic high-wire act on Monday as he visits sacred Muslim and Jewish sites in Jerusalem on the final day of his Middle East tour.


On Monday, Jews and Muslims are expected to scrutinize the pope’s every word and gesture as he seeks to bridge the religious divides in meetings with leaders from both sides.

The 77-year-old pontiff will meet the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, Islam’s third holiest site, and the holiest in Judaism as the site of the Biblical temples.

He will then pray at the Western Wall before visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, where he will speak with Holocaust survivors, and will also become the first pope ever to lay flowers at Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s grave on Mount Herzl.

Pope Francis at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem

The pope will also celebrate mass at the site known as the Cenacle, or Upper Room, bringing into sharp focus a decades-long debate over the site where Christians believe Jesus had his Last Supper.

The site, on Mount Zion, is located in a two-story building also considered holy to Jews and Muslims, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried.


Francis has said the main reason for Middle East visit was the meeting with Bartholomew I, and “to pray for peace in that land, which has suffered so much.”

My previous post addressed some of the political minefields which it was hoped the Pope would avoid. Unfortunately he succeeded only partially, with a particularly offensive prayer session at the security barrier – whether he intended it to be offensive or not.  Various of the Pope’s statements in Bethlehem were also insulting to Israeli ears as he not-so-tacitly gave his blessing to the non-existent Palestinian state.

Adding insult to injury, today he met with the virulently antisemitic Mufti of Jerusalem (as I documented in an earlier post). However I give the Pope credit for making a dig at Muslim violence right there at the Dome of the Rock:

“May no one abuse the name of God through violence, may we work together for justice and peace,” he says.

I also give a loud kol hakavod to the Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, for reminding the Pope and the world of a few home truths:

Shmuel Rabinovitch speaks to the pope, mentioning the temple’s menorah, or candelabra, looted by the Romans 2,000 years ago and thought to have been taken to the Italian capital.

The Menorah carried into captivity by Rome

Rabinovitch says the Jewish people are standing strong in Israel after the Holocaust, and emphasizes the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, quoting Jeremiah and Psalms.

He requests that all believers abandon hate and anti-Semitism, noting the deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels on Saturday.

It’s about time someone mentioned the holy vessels looted from the Second Temple and presumed hidden somewhere in the Vatican or Rome.

True to the old saw that where there are two Jews there are three opinions, there are widely diverging views in Israel and the wider Jewish community on the Pope’s visit. Some see it in a positive light and some see it negatively.

On the negative side, viewing the Pope’s visit and itinerary with displeasure, Paula Stern writes harshly of Papal insensitivity and Jewish self-inferiority:

The Pope is coming to Israel, to our country, the land of the Jews. His scheduled visit is anything but non-political despite his claims to the opposite, and shows, at best, an incredible level of papal insensitivity. A look at the detailed agenda shows a wealth about the real intentions of the Vatican. At best, the carefully scheduled visits are an insult, at worst, they are a blatant attempt to instruct Israel on what the church will permit of us, how it will treat us. It is for us to accept it or fight back. Sadly, it seems our government is not standing tall. Rather, it is allowing itself to be treated as the second class citizens we were once. The Pope will be our guest; perhaps he is attempting to remind us of what it was like to be his.


Then, having come to Israel to first meet with the Palestinians, on his second day, he is return to Jerusalem where he will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The meeting, of course, will not take place in the Knesset or the Prime Minister’s office as that would, I assume, offend the Palestinians and so, instead, the Pope has summoned our Prime Minister to the Notre Dame complex…and our Prime Minister is going to go there.

The Pope does want to visit the Western Wall – which he will do AFTER he visits the Temple Mount to again greet the Muslims. The Vatican refers to OUR Temple Mount as the “Esplanade of the Mosques” – yeah, well.


We can’t really control what the Pope does, what he says, and where he goes, but we can control ourselves. Why is our Prime Minister going to meet the Pope versus welcoming the Pope within the walls of our governing offices? Will we close the Western Wall to Jews to allow the Pope a visit?

This is not a friend visiting Israel – this is a political visit carefully crafted to show support for the Palestinians while doing its best not to blatantly insult those Jews. But those Jews are different today. This is our country.


Only when we hold ourselves to the standards of equality will others treat us with the respect we will have earned. Only when we stop explaining and apologizing and demand an equal and balanced reception, will we get one. I have no objections to the Pope visiting Bethlehem or meeting Abbas – but as he is flying into Israel, driving through Israeli cities and on Israeli roads, protected and escorted by the Israeli army, the visit should have been choreographed so differently.


If the Pope is so busy bowing to Islam, let him fly into Ramallah and let the Palestinians protect him. Let them fly Vatican flags from their roof tops and let them explain why they hold Christianity in such contempt.

And on our side, when will we demand that our leaders act as all others?

Events have slightly overtaken Paula’s article. She criticised the Pope for not meeting with Israeli terror victims but he has adjusted his schedule – perhaps in response to criticism of his prayer at the security barrier – to visit Israel’s memorial to terror victims, though not at his own instigation.

Francis, flanked by Peres and Netanyahu, lays a wreath at Herzl’s grave and marks a moment of silence at the site.

He had originally been planned to be whisked away to nearby Yad Vashem right after, but while at the Mount Herzl military cemetery, Francis will apparently make an unscheduled stop at a monument for terror victims, at the request of Netanyahu.

I agree with Paula’s criticism of our leaders’ spinelessness (though we can at least give Netanyahu the credit for the Pope’s above change in schedule) in the face of international opinion and their lack of visible national pride. I also concur with her analysis of the visit’s itinerary as “calculated to insult”.

However I would separate the Vatican bureaucracy from the Pope himself.  My instinct is to step with care around criticising him personally. He gives the impression of wanting to be a friend of the Jews. I think we might achieve more with honey than with vinegar. We need to regain our national pride as Paula Stern recommends, and show the Pope where he could improve relations.

Then again, perhaps I’m just being too nice or naive.

Arlene Kushner is critical of the Pope too, but in less harsh terms, in her article “Tough going” (which includes other news items too) . Here are some short excerpts, but read it all:

Unofficially, his warmth towards Israel is being celebrated with much enthusiasm.  As a JPost editorial – which refers to Francis’s “philo-Semitism” – put it:


Francis seemed to go further when he praised the Jews for remaining faithful to God ‘despite the awful trials of these last centuries.’ If Jews were once condemned for being present when Jesus appeared but choosing to reject him, Francis was now thanking them for holding stubbornly to their faith.”


And yet… and yet… there are elements of his trip that are deeply disconcerting.  Yes, the claim has been made – by the pope himself – that the trip is purely religious and not political.  Yes, he has to be even-handed.  Yes, he must call for peace.

But he didn’t come our way directly from the Vatican via Ben Gurion airport, as might have been expected.  He came via Amman, where he landed yesterday, and met with the King of Jordan and other officials.  From there he went by helicopter, this morning, to Bethlehem.  And, oh, did the Palestinian Arabs make the most of this. They took him on an unscheduled side trip to see the “occupation wall” in Bethlehem – the wall constructed to keep terrorists out.  Abbas, additionally, lamented to the pontiff that Israel is “judaizing Jerusalem.”


The Pope at one point referred to the “state of Palestine.” Israel national news further reports:

The Pope “paused for several moments in front of a graffiti on the security wall in Bethlehem, bowing his head in prayer in front of a message proclaiming, ‘Pope we need to see someone speak out about justice.  Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto.  Free Palestine.

“Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis, reported in February that the Pope intends to define himself as the ‘Che Guevera of the Palestinians’ and support their ‘struggle and rights’ during his visit.

“…It has been noted that the Pope has been remarkably tight-lipped over the violent persecution of Christians in Bethlehem, instead choosing to condemn alleged Jewish ‘price tag’ vandalism.’” (Emphasis added)


All of this is deeply unsettling, and rather puts the lie to the notion that the Pope is being even-handed.  But perhaps most seriously disturbing of all is the readiness by the Pope, in the name of political correctness or devotion to the Palestinian Arab cause, or whatever, to turn his back on the suffering of Arab Christians.

This pope, who has been declared “fearless” in his calls for peace, is without moral authority

There’s a lot more at Jews Down Under. Read it all.

Meanwhile the rumours about Israel handing sovereignty over Mt. Zion to the Vatican have been debunked. This did not stop Jewish protests at the Pope’s visit to Mt. Zion:

A site venerated by Jews as the final resting place of the biblical King David and by Christians as where Jesus held his Last Supper has inspired passions and ignited tensions, casting a pall over a visit there by Pope Francis next week.

On Thursday night, over 1,000 Jews gathered on Mount Zion for a concert and prayer rally intended to send a message that the site would remain under Jewish control.


But as passions grow before the impending visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land Sunday, some elements at the concert pushed a harsh anti-Christian message, one that threatened the event organizers’ goal of Jewish unity.


The building, which also housed a mosque, is also part of a decades-old property dispute between Israel and the Vatican.

Despite official assurances that Israel does not intend to hand the site over to the Vatican’s sovereignty, the idea that Jerusalem will transfer control of the site has gained traction in some religious circles.

Israel says it is in discussions with the Vatican only over the rights of the Catholic church to hold regular masses there, something currently prohibited by the status quo.

“We are not asking for sovereignty over Mount Zion or the Tomb of David,” said Father David Neuhaus, leader of Israel’s Hebrew Catholic community. “We are asking for something very small. In view of the enormous importance of the site, we are asking for access.”

“There is no truth whatsoever to these rumors” about ceding control, said Akiva Tor, head of the Jewish Affairs and World Religions Bureau at the Foreign Ministry.


A planned mass at the site by Francis has raised hackles among some Orthodox Jews. A number of figures from the Jewish far right appeared at the rally calling for the pope to skip visiting Israel.

“We first of all want to pass a message to the government of Israel, that this kissing up to the pope is a betrayal of the Jewish people in all its generations,” Michael Ben Ari, a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, told The Times of Israel. “The pope needs to come quietly, so no one feels him, and see that Christianity has lost in its war against the Jews. To give him a prize for coming here is a loss of values, and is a betrayal of millions of Jews who were slaughtered, who were burned, who were pursued.”

I have to say that I strongly disagree with this attitude.  Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Israel has few enough friends in the world, and the Pope’s visit has the potential to hugely expand our pool of supporters. Since both sides insist that the prayer room at Mt. Zion is to stay in Israeli hands, there comes a point when we need to take them at their word.

While I have enormous sympathy for protecting and promoting Jewish pride and identity – it’s what I try to do right here on this blog – we need to pick our battles carefully and reserve our strength for our real enemies.  There is no point in antagonizing a potential friend.

Opposing these views and seeing the Pope’s visit in a positive light, Melanie Phillips writes about Israel’s new Christian friends: (emphases are added).

The pope’s imminent visit to Israel will rightly attract much attention. But two largely untold stories about global Christianity have the capacity to shake the world order.

The first is the persecution of Christians in the developing world at the hands of Islam. Boko Haram, which has kidnapped more than 250 Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria, is merely one of many Islamist groups increasingly terrorizing and killing Christians across the developing world.

According to Open Doors, a nondenominational Christian group, about 100 million Christians are being persecuted in more than 65 countries, with radical Muslims the main perpetrators in 36 of them.

She goes on to enumerate all the latest cases that have been making the headlines, from Sudan to Nigeria to Egypt. And yet:

Remarkably, however, Western mainstream churches largely ignore this carnage amongst their worldwide communion.

Instead, they appease Islam and vilify Israel, the one country in the Middle East where Christians are safe (but that’s another story).

One wonders whether the pope will speak out clearly against this Christian victimization when he meets representatives of Islam on his visit to what he calls the Holy Land. He reportedly wants to heal the fissure between Jews and Palestinians. Very nice; but surely his priority should be stopping the slaughter of his own flock.

Yet here’s the really extraordinary thing. Across the developing world, including countries where Christians are being persecuted, the churches are experiencing phenomenal growth. If trends persist, Europe’s Christians will be overtaken by those in Africa, Latin America and Asia, most of the growth driven by the astounding expansion of Pentecostal, Charismatic and other evangelical churches.


One reason for such growth is that people who have suffered from repressive regimes are turning to a religion which (thanks to its Jewish roots) underpins freedom and human rights. The more barbaric Islamic regimes become, the more people turn to Christianity.


The striking feature of these new Christians is that, because they are evangelicals and thus take very seriously what is written in the Bible, they devoutly support Israel.

Algerian Christians say they pray in secret for Israel and the Jewish people. Last year, Nigeria refused to vote automatically with the Palestinians on statehood in the UN Security Council.

Westerners may feel uncomfortable about these new churches since they emphasize healing, prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances and the supernatural. But they are amongst Israel’s best friends in the world. And their amazing growth has major global implications.


In the West, Christianity is in decline. Even in the US where the churches are still relatively strong, the culture war is being lost to the forces of galloping secularism. With the Islamic world exploiting this civilizational vacuum, Britain and Europe are steadily being Islamized. At same time, the developing world is becoming Christianized. The face of Christianity is thus changing color, from white to (its original) brown and black.

This growth is a huge opportunity for Israel because these new Christians are free from the poisonous hostility towards it of the Western churches. Encouragingly, Israel has come to view these new allies as a strategic asset, but it needs to invest in them much more, helping improve their economies and living standards, to cement this friendship and use it to transform Israel’s leverage at the UN.

It’s not true that time is running out for Israel. Time is running out for the West. It’s not true that Israel is friendless.


This pope seems also to be a friend, apparently wanting to put relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people onto a different footing. The ugly protests at his visit from ultra-Orthodox hooligans are sickening. Let’s hope Israel hugs Pope Francis close.

While I agree in principle with Melanie Phillips that the Christians are becoming Israel’s new best friends, I think she swings too far in the opposite direction from the Pope’s opponents. He did not condemn the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, as Melanie thought he might, yet he did tacitly condemn Israel in Bethlehem. It must be made clear to the Vatican that such double standards are unacceptable, and while we shouldn’t antagonize him, that is a two-way street.

You can probably tell from my various remarks above that my personal attitude towards the Pope’s visit is ambivalent. On the one hand I am furious at the “calculated insults” (as Paula Stern put it) built in to his schedule and which were amplified by the Pope’s comments during his visit to Bethlehem and the security barrier, and also his meeting with the well-known antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem today.

On the other hand I feel, perhaps naively, that at least personally, the Pope genuinely wants to continue the rapprochement between the Vatican and Israel and the Jews, and so we need to tread carefully.

In the end I doubt anything substantial will change after this visit. Maybe relations will warm up a degree or two, and that is no bad thing, but the tense relationship probably won’t heal completely until the Messiah comes.

And then we’ll see who was right!

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9 Responses to Pros and Cons of the Pope’s visit to Israel

  1. Andrea says:

    The Roman Church has historical times and ways of acting very different from those of the states and it is always difficult to understand their real intentions in the short term. The Church is long -sighted while States are generally short-sighted. As a consequence Pope’s moves are always susceptible to criticism regarding current topics whilst his statements about issues over long historical perspective are usually neglected.
    Even the rabbis, like all men of faith, even though they are not priests, they favor the timeless themes to the contingencies of the present. They are driving the Jews and not secular state of Israel but to the eyes of Catholics they were really entitled to represent the values of religion of Israel whilst the State has a secondary role. This point has changed with this trip ; visit to father of Zyonism grave has a huge impact to catholic eye’s. It is the sign that Jews are not simply the followers of the oldest monotheistic religion but also a real nation with a land.
    It is possible that in the future neither Palestinian Authority nor State of Israel will exist in their current shapes. Nothing is eternal when talking about States and there is no other people that know this other than Romans and Jews. Only the alliance with G-d is eternal for Catholics and Jews and the other essential point is that Francesco has stated ( not during this visits but some weeks before) that alliance between Jews and G-d could have never been erased and this is a revolution to Catholics.
    It is possible that non religious men like many Israelis and myself underestimate these points of primary meaning and importance to the eyes of the religious ones. Time and G-d will say ……

    • anneinpt says:

      Andrea, thank you for your perspective on the Pope’s visit. You make very good points which help explain some of the Pope’s actions.

      I particularly like your take on the Pope’s visit to Herzl’s grave, and I also didn’t know about his comments about the relationship between the Jews and G-d. Very interesting and encouraging.

      Of course any visitor to the Middle East gets caught up in the politics, whether they want to or not. We have to learn to see their actions from their point of view, especially from a huge and ancient institution like the church.

  2. Aridog says:

    Anne, you said…

    I would separate the Vatican bureaucracy from the Pope himself … Then again, perhaps I’m just being too nice or naive.

    No, you are correct in your presumption. The Pope, like almost any modern leader today, is in a way subject to and somewhat confined by the institutional bureaucracy. As a religious it will take everything Pope Francis can muster to make his own mark and diminish some of the bureaucracy influence and size. This topic was in fact the subject of conversation yesterday at lunch where Judi and I joined a Priest, who is also our best friend, for simple lunch that he prepared after the Memorial Day services were concluded. I draw my opinion from him and another friend of his and Judi’s, only an acquaintance of mine, a Cardinal, once the CFO of the Vatican in Rome under John Paul II, now returned to our town when mandatory retirement came along…he has several reminiscences of struggling with the existing non-pastoral never leaving the Vatican bureaucracy.

    Fact is it reminds me of the US of A government today, the institutional senior bureaucrats run it regardless of who is President, and their inclination is liberal socialist…it is a job preserver bar none. When a man like President Obama comes alone then, of course, their is a synthesis of dreary fallacy in governance. Truth be told, Bush 43 was also strongly influenced by the same institutionalized cretins, especially in his 2nd term. The bureaucracy in our senior levels of government has been grown like a rampaging mutant. It may be beyond control unless a man or woman is elected that will cut all senior levels by 50 to 75% …and by senior levels I mean all SES, SES+, and Civil Servants above grade GS-14. Those below that level actually do the work, and would be most relieved by the baggage relief from above. I assure you of this…because I was one of them as solider and later a military “fed.”

    In short, I suspect Pope Francis has a similar viewpoint and will make cuts and changes in the hierarchy of the Church. If success he will achieve much, just as Jewish religious leaders and conservative Jews, do in morality. You would do as I would be tempted to do to solve territorial problems in lands rightfully your own. In the US of A no likes to admit it, but we managed to eliminate the idea of any right of return for the most part. If you think about it, it is discomforting…however, it was necessary, and there in lies the moral conflict. I don’t think Israel has the same conflict, given its history of millenniums….you are no more Joshua at Jericho. You’ve grown.

    • Aridog says:

      Correction: You would NOT do as I would be tempted …

    • anneinpt says:

      once the CFO of the Vatican in Rome under John Paul II,

      Wow, you mix in exalted circles Aridog!

      Seriously, I’m very glad of your input here. Your inside knowledge gives us a much deeper insight into the workings of the Vatican and the US administration. I’m glad to have my hunch confirmed re the Pope.

      As for other government bureaucracies, they are the same the world over. The British TV program “Yes Minister” was exactly about that, and it was so funny because it was true. In israel there are jokes and spoofs galore about our complicated bureaucracy. Ephraim Kishon was a past master at gentle mocking of civil (and not-so-civil) servants.

      And I think it was you who recommended The Diplomad to me. And if it wasn’t you, I highly recommend him to you. Recommended reading for everyone here actually.

      • Aridog says:

        “Exalted company?” Not so much, but I will try to explain in an email to you and to CBA, whom I owe such an explanation for a long time now…I promised one and have not yet delivered.

  3. bluewhale11 says:

    I agree that the Pope might have favorable personal feelings about Jews but I’m certain he also grew up with a lot of misinformed ideas about both Jews and Israel that basically have not changed. Then he’s heard nothing but Arab propaganda for decades with many Jews, Israelis, and now even Israel’s prime minister not changing them. Israeli leaders don’t stand up for Israel’s historical rights and present sovereignty even when they can. Abbas told the Pope lies; Netanyahu did NOT use his opportunity to tell him the truth!!! Just like he never told the truth about Israel’s and “palestine’s” histories to Obama or Kerry but just went along giving in on everything no matter how much pride Israel lost or how much that translated into rising anti-Semitic acts around the world, including in Israel!! Since no one else brought up the fact that the safest country in the entire Middle East — including the Palestinian Authority — is ISRAEL, then Netanyahu had the obligation to the Israeli people to point that fact out to the Pope!! The same is true about the facts concerning Palestinian Christians and how they were treated by the Muslims and by the Israelis! Yet Netanyahu said nothing!!! As usual!!!

  4. Andrea says:

    I went back a second time at this place because there is a detail that intrigues me to death: temple’s menorah. This topic hhas ignited the imagination of writers of all kinds (occultism, and spy stories). First thing: did the Romans take away the true Menorah or a Hellenistic copy? What happened after it was placed in Temple of Peace – If I am not wrong – in Rome ??
    I doubt that after the terrible incursion of the Vandals will be anything left. Most likely it was merged by the barbarians themselves or by modern Romans to extract gold. Maybe it was brought to Africa or to Byzantium.
    The view that the Vatican holds it hidden in Rome is tempting but does not have historical evidence .. until now. It would be the most exciting archeological discovery.

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