Pope Benedict XVI visited the Israel last week. It was a long anticipated and historic trip. Just a few years into his papacy, Benedict made this pilgrimage to visit the holy sites of the Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Israel and offer his voice toward the effort of making a real and sustainable peace in the Middle East. However, many in Israel have taken issue with what the pope offered.
First, Benedict said clearly that he hopes to see a two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in their respective homelands and both peoples live in peace. He called on the Palestinians to no longer resort to violence and to explore other avenues to resolve their differences.
Second, he visited Yad Vashem and offered solemn words of reflection and pause over the atrocities of the Holocaust. Benedict said that Yad Vashem is a hallowed ground because it is a memorial “to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of men again.” But, in a highly unusual criticism of an honored guest’s remarks, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem council, told Israeli television that though the speech was moving, “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret.” Unlike John Paul II’s speech in Israel in 2000, Benedict also chose not to speak specifically of Christianity’s role in anti-Semitism over the centuries.
Here is my question to Rabbi Lau, a respected rabbi, teacher, and Holocaust survivor: Were his words calculated to form pain towards survivors and Israel? Was the pope trying to exonerate the Germans? Was he suggesting a level of statehood at any cost that is antithetical to the policies of U.S., European, or even Israeli leadership for the past decade? Of course not.
Why is it that the most influential religious leader in the universe chooses to visit Israel and offers words of peace and aspirations of a homeland for the Palestinians and Israelis and then offers consolation and remembrance at Yad Vashem and we, the Jewish world, think it is not enough? “He did not mention the murder of 6 million Jews, he merely said they were killed,” remarked Rabbi Lau.
“The pope did not mention who killed the 6 million Jews,” added another skeptic.
“Benedict offered a two-state solution without insisting that it is acceptable with Israeli leadership first. He needs to demand the violence stops first and then the Palestinians can have a two-state possibility,” a Knesset leader offered.
Often in life, we find fault faster than we seek goodness. We will ask a child which three questions he or she got wrong to earn 85 percent on the exam as opposed to asking which 17 he or she got right. We offer a criticism of a program before we find its merits. We offer condemnation of someone’s behavior before we acknowledge that person’s praiseworthiness. But this is not supposed to be the Jewish way.
I appreciate Pope Benedict’s efforts on behalf of humanity and the people of Israel. Let me be clear: Benedict is not a perfect pope, not a perfect person, and not a perfect ambassador of peace. I doubt he would ever claim faultlessness or flawlessness. However, the time has come for the Jewish people, who live in the greater world that scrutinizes each of our words and reactions, to appreciate a pope that puts the safety of the Israeli people on the top of his priority list. We have a responsibility in light of the years of anti-Semitism and discord between the Vatican and the Jewish people to applaud a pope who visits Yad Vashem, offers prayers and memorials to the victims, and mourns with us. The tides have changed. We need to realize that and move forward, not backward.
We must be grateful for a pope who has the best of intentions on all fronts for all peoples, even if the execution or wording is not precise. If we become a people that demands perfection in the spirit and execution of any action, we not only make our mission so much harder to achieve, we paint a picture of a religion that can never be satisfied and are vilified as whiny and unappreciative. This is not Judaism at its best.
Pope Benedict XVI, this religious leader thanks you for your visit to Israel, the olive branch you offer to the Israeli and Palestinian people, and the solemn memorial and reflections you shared at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Most of all, I extend my sincerest gratitude for the spirit of your visit: strengthening the region, offering hope, and reminding us how we each can be our very best.