Last week's visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land was a very significant and rare event. The last such visit, unusually, was in 2000 during the millennium celebrations in Bethlehem, with Pope John Paul II. Before that, the last papal visit had been in 1966.
The importance of the visit derives from two factors. First, the pope carries a lot of weight with public opinion across the world, particularly in Europe and the United States. This is an important fact for both Palestinians and Israelis, both always keen to have their respective positions heard by those audiences.
The second factor is the especially sensitive and tense relations between Israel and Christian churches in general and the Vatican in particular. These sensitivities result from a variety of issues, including immediate concerns such as the many valuable churches and Vatican properties that Israeli authorities are illegally putting under their control. That was one point of contention in this visit.
Furthermore, there is a long history of European discrimination against Jews, dating from medieval times until World War II. With the religious factor playing an increasing role in Israel due to growing radicalization and the gradual decline of secular forces, a certain tension was evident during the visit.
Palestinians were generally satisfied with Pope Benedict's visit. The media coverage of the visit, including the pope's speeches, helped bring to the attention of a worldwide audience certain aspects of Palestinian suffering that traditional media has recently been ignoring.
The rhetoric and the language of the pope appear to emerge from a different frame of reference compared to that of most other visiting dignitaries. The pope repeatedly called for justice in addressing the situation Palestinians are suffering under. Other dignitaries generally emphasize the idea of fairness, a more "pragmatic" perspective that contains within it the many compromises to ethical values that the imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis seems to impose.
For example, the pontiff referred strongly to the Palestinian refugee issue and the need to end the suffering of refugees at a time when the very term in reference to Palestinians is almost taboo for any high-level dignitary visiting the region.
He also referred in clear negative terms to the Israeli separation wall, and just as importantly, he allowed his main appearance on the Palestinian side to take place with the wall as his background. Moreover, he made clear and straightforward references to the need for Palestinians to enjoy freedom in a sovereign homeland.
While Pope Benedict is not a politician whose visit might lead to direct political consequences, he has left the region with a greater and closer understanding of the strategic realities Palestinians face. This will contribute to improving the understanding of western public opinion of the reality that the Israeli media, to a lesser extent the western media and certainly western politicians are trying to obscure.
It is this: when viewed without any lenses, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is very simple. Israel is occupying Palestinian land and denying Palestinians basic and legitimate rights, including their rights to freedom and self-determination, as well as the right of refugees to return to their lands and properties.
Only within the context of understanding and recognizing this reality can Israel achieve its legitimate objectives, peace, security and regional integration.- Published 18/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The wrong emphasis
by Yossi Alpher
Pope Benedict XVI came and went, and the conflict goes on.
Not unexpectedly, the Israeli press dwelt on what the pope, as a former soldier in Hitler's army, didn't say but should have said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. PM Binyamin Netanyahu asked him to denounce Iran and he didn't. During the Palestinian part of his visit, he referred to "the events of May 1948" in a way that could easily be interpreted as ratifying the Palestinian narrative of what happened then and negating the Israeli narrative. Comparisons with the historic visit of an earlier pope, John Paul II, inevitably presented Benedict in a negative light. Jews had in mind his abortive reinstatement of a Holocaust denier. Muslims recalled his unfortunate quote in a speech in Germany from an anti-Islamic diatribe in ancient Byzantium.
Still, the pope was feasted and coddled as if the fate of our conflict depends on him. It does not. He is acceptable as a peacemaker neither to Jews nor to Muslims. So what should we have talked about with him?
If we weren't so preoccupied with our own conflict and so sensitive to the negative legacy of Catholic-Jewish relations, we might have pointed out that, at the global humanitarian level, by condemning condoms as a cause of AIDS rather than an effective preventative this pope has adopted a regressive and destructive pose that potentially condemns millions in the third world to disease and death. Perhaps some day, when peace comes and we Jews can again aspire to be a light unto the nations, we can entertain the notion of speaking out on global moral issues like this. In this regard, the pope's visit is a reminder of just how local yet existential our horizons have become.
But even within those narrow confines, there was room for us to be far more pro-active in pointing out the plight of Middle Eastern Christians and the general inactivity of the Holy See in defending them and ensuring that they can remain safely and prosper in their ancestral homes in the Arab world. This is not just about the beleaguered Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq and the tribulations of the Copts of Egypt and Maronites of Lebanon. Closer to home, too, in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Christian population has been dwindling for years.
To be sure, the ills and affronts of the Israeli occupation bear part of the blame. But Christians were leaving Bethlehem and Birzeit long before 1967. In recent years, the rise of militant Islam has posed a particularly powerful threat. Uncomfortable complaining to the Israeli authorities or asking for their protection, Christians simply prefer to leave.
Uniquely, only in Israel has the Christian population grown, because of the migration of 200,000 or so Russian-speakers whose Jewish heritage qualifies them to a home in Israel but not to official status as Jews. While Arab Christians appear to be better off in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East, the fact remains that, not only in Bethlehem but in Nazareth too, the Pope visited towns that harbor growing Muslim majorities and remain Christian in name only.
As the Islamist movements and their Iranian benefactor gain strength, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like the broader Israel-Arab conflict, is increasingly one between Judaism and militant Islam and not merely a squabble over land. Increasingly, too, Israel's modern support base in the West and the Christian world, attributable in some respects to Christianity's contrition over its historic anti-Semitism, is being undermined: by the passage of time and by Israel's own mistakes but also by a determined Islamist drive to de-legitimize it.
Over the past 60 years, at a modest but nevertheless significant level, Christians in the Arab world have recognized in Israel a source of inspiration and even identification. Not for naught have Israeli Arab Christians pointed to the Islamist threat and cautioned the Jews, "first Saturday, then Sunday", meaning they know we are both in the same boat and the Islamist threat toward Israel and the Jews will eventually focus on the Christians as well.
We need Christians in the Middle East, where Christianity was born. Too bad we focused the Pope's visit on the Holocaust rather than on the urgent task of ensuring Christianity's survival in the region.- Published 18/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Christians, like all Palestinians, want to live in freedom
by Fadi Abu Sada
I have always been proud of being a Palestinian Christian, born and raised in Bethlehem, the holiest town in all Christianity.
Even before the start of the first intifada, when I was ten years old and before knowing about Christianity and Islam, I knew that two of my uncles were in Israeli prisons along with a couple of young guys from my neighborhood. I was very proud of them. They were in jail for resisting the occupation by reading and educating themselves.
Several figures in the Palestinian leadership are Christian as are many civil society leaders. Twenty-five thousand Palestinian Christians head non-governmental organizations, sharing their work with another 22,000 Christians, according to a survey by the World Council of Churches.
In other words, the influence of Palestinian Christians far outweighs their number, two percent of the total population. Nevertheless, the question has to be asked, why so few? What's the reason for the high rate of Christian emigration?
The answer is very simple, notwithstanding attempts in some quarters to make it out to be something else. Palestinian Christians live under the same suffocating occupation that all Palestinians do, and even if average living standards are higher than the general population, Christians face the same restrictions and oppression that other Palestinians do. Israel has made the situation harder by trying to create differences within Palestinian society between Muslims and Christians. Israel has even tried to project an image that there is persecution of Christians by Muslims.
A quick glance at the facts should be enough to understand that this simply isn't true. Even before Hamas swept Gaza, a Christian from Gaza was a parliamentary candidate for the Islamist movement. He retains that position to this day. In Bethlehem, there is broad Christian-Hamas cooperation in running the municipality.
The recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land wasn't really for Christians in this area, even though they are in real need of attention. It was more political than religious, an attempt by the pope first and foremost to reach out to Israeli Jews. Palestinian concerns were lower on his list of priorities. The visit did, nevertheless, cast a spotlight on the unique status of Bethlehem Christians. This is important, because it provides Palestinian Christians with a unique responsibility to be a bridge between Palestinians and the Christian world.
There are already solid connections. I am not sure if the pope knows there is another "Beit Jala", though not in Palestine, in Chile, a town of Palestinian Christian emigrees. And I am not sure if the Pope has heard of "Club Deportivo Palestino", one of the best football teams in Chile.
The papal visit did provide some support for Palestinians rights. Pope Benedict talked about a Palestinian sovereign homeland, he talked about refugees and he talked about a resolution of the conflict through justice, an important statement for Palestinians. Unfortunately the pope has little power to change the situation.
What the visit may achieve is a better understanding by Christians worldwide that Palestinian Christians suffer from the same occupation that all Palestinians suffer from. In that sense both the pope and the Palestinian Christian community can be an important connection to the worldwide Christian community.
There is a lot of attention granted Palestinian Christians because they are a minority, and the world often fusses over our rights as a minority. However, the real attention should be on our rights as Palestinians suffering under an illegal and inhumane occupation.
If the world is concerned about the reduction in the number of Christians in the Holy Land, the world needs to focus on the reason for that emigration: the Israeli occupation. I, as a Christian, have no problem being a minority. I have a problem being under occupation.- Published 18/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Fadi Abu Sada is editor-in-chief of the Palestine News Network, PNN.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The Pope in the Holy Land
by Shlomo Avineri
When Pope Benedict XVI stood atop Mount Nebo in Jordan, looking across the Dead Sea to Israel and affirming the umbilical link between the Church and the Jewish people, a circle was closed. In a speech steeped in theology and history, the Pope referred to the fact that this was the place from which, according to biblical tradition, Moses had seen the Promised Land that he was not to enter. Possibly he might have also contemplated how much water had flowed down the Jordan River since one of his predecessors, Pius X, met Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, in 1904.
At that meeting, two millennia of theological tensions between the Church and the Jews made a dialogue virtually impossible. Herzl dwelt on the plight of Jews in Europe and sought the Holy See's support for their pursuit of refuge in Palestine. The pope explained, in polite but firm language, that as long as the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah the Church was unable to support their return to their ancestral land. On the other hand, the Pontiff suggested, were the Jews ready to embrace Christ, there were plenty of churches and monasteries in the Holy Land that would gladly welcome them and support their return to Palestine.
Today's approach of the Catholic Church to the Jews has indeed undergone a fundamental transformation, as evidenced in the Second Vatican Council and the Papal encyclical "Nostra Aetate". No longer are the Jews declared collectively responsible for the crucifixion; the Church now recognizes that the original covenant between God and the people of Israel was not annulled by the message of Christ. Most profoundly and symbolically, this was epitomized in Pope John Paul's magnanimous decision, during his visit in 2000, to deposit a missive in the cracks of the Wailing Wall in which he asked the Jewish people's forgiveness for the pain and suffering inflicted upon it by the Church over many generations. The Vatican's recognition of the State of Israel is obviously another visible and potent sign of this change of heart.
It is indeed an ambiguous history, and not all Christians and Jews are aware of its complexities. Modern European anti-Semitism emerged as a political, secular and mainly racist ideology, evidently in contradiction to the Church's doctrine. Yet the embrace of racist anti-Semitism by so many in the twentieth century, especially in Nazi Germany, cannot be totally divorced from the Church's hostility to the Jews. While racist anti-Semitism is intellectually quite different from Christian theological anti-Judaism, in many peoples' minds the two may not be that separate, and the road from the one to the other can be easily traversed.
It is tragic that it was only the enormity of the Holocaust that made the Church aware of its need to re-think its attitude to the Jewish people. As Israel's Chief Rabbi Jonah Metzger said during his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, had such a meeting taken place in the 1930s the Holocaust might not have happened and six million Jews would not have been murdered.
While conciliation between the Church and Judaism has taken place and is now a major fact on the international scene--despite obvious discordant voices, some of which were evident during Benedict's visit--the deep chasm between Christianity and Islam is still there, and may not be easily overcome. This came into the open in the response to the pope's Regensburg speech in which he cited the vicious attacks of a Byzantine Emperor on Islam. The pope did retract his words, but the issue will not go away: both Christianity and Islam are universal religions, with a deep commitment to spreading their faith across the world. For this reason reconciliation with Judaism, which is a national religion and has no universal aspirations, is--paradoxically--easier. Unlike both Christianity and Islam, Judaism never aspired to world dominion. The historic conquests of Islam, as well as the Crusades, figure prominently in the memory of both world religions not only of themselves--but also of the "other".
For this reason, it is doubtful whether the Church can be helpful in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Soothing words to both sides may not suffice: the fact of the matter is that both Christianity and Islam continue to view each other with deep suspicion. This can be seen by the fears of many Europeans regarding the growth of Muslim communities in Europe, as well as the reluctance to see Turkey become a member of the European Union. On the other hand, there is the trepidation with which Christians in Arab countries view the emergence of Islamist movements. These obviously tend to undermine both the feeling of personal security as well as of collective belonging of Christian communities, from the Copts in Egypt to the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq.
The pope's visit to the Holy Land was a powerful symbol of the drive for historic reconciliation. But the road ahead is not easy and may still be rocky.- Published 18/5/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and served as director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first cabinet of Yitzhak Rabin.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.