JERUSALEM (RNS) Pope Francis concluded his three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land Monday (May 26) by visiting Israel’s holiest sites, a day after a visit to Bethlehem upset Israelis because of the support he appeared to voice for Palestinian independence.
At Israel’s request, the pope prayed at the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he kissed the hands of six Holocaust survivors who recounted their anguished stories.
“Never again, Lord. Never again,” the pope declared.
Earlier in the day, he prayed at Jerusalem’s holy Western Wall, where Jews from around the world visit to pray and leave written prayers. The Argentine-born Francis placed a note with the text of the Lord’s Prayer written in Spanish in the wall.
Before placing the prayer, or kvitel, between the stones of the wall, the pope was shown a model of the site of the ancient Jewish temples. The Western Wall is a remnant of the Temple retaining wall and the Temple Mount (known by Arabs as Haram al Sharif) sits above the remains of the Jewish Temple. The Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam.
Israelis were gratified that the pope laid a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, considered the father of Zionism, and were moved when he kissed the hands of the Holocaust survivors.
Despite the positive news reports they had heard about Francis’ concern for the poor, as well as the bonds he forged with the Jewish community in Argentina, some Israelis haven’t shaken the memory of centuries of anti-Semitism sparked by the Roman Catholic Church.
They say the Catholic Church could have done much more to save Jews during the Holocaust. They remember, too, how the Vatican initially voted against Israeli statehood, in part because of fears for the safety of its Christian communities living in Arab countries.
“Hundreds, indeed thousands of years of discrimination by Christians against their Jewish neighbors have poisoned all but the most committed advocates of religious reconciliation between Christians and Jews,” says Justus Reid Weiner, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, says this “historical resentment” toward the church is still held by some Jews, including some extremists who have protested against the church’s use of the Cenacle, or the Room of the Last Supper, because it is located on top of David’s Tomb, a Jewish shrine.
Adding to the problem, Rosen says, is the fact that “most Israeli Jews have never met a modern Christian.” In Israel, Christians comprise just 2 percent of the population.
They also harbor resentment toward Christian evangelists who have targeted Jews for conversion over the centuries.
That is why, Rosen said, it’s hard for Israeli Jews to internalize “that there has been a revolution in the Christian world and that there is a pope who is such a good friend of the Jewish people, with friends who are rabbis.”
“This is very exciting news to Israeli ears,” the rabbi said.
Stuart Schnee, an Israeli publicist and marketer, said the pope “seems to have a real warmth for the Jewish people, and this was clear from his time as an archbishop in Argentina.” Schnee said the pope’s decision to visit the memorial to victims of Arab terror attacks “shows his effort to be balanced” following his visit to Bethlehem and his reference to the West Bank as being part of Palestine.
During Sunday’s visit, the pope referred to “the State of Palestine,” and expressed sorrow for Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli government. He also visited a portion of the towering wall Israel built a few years ago to prevent Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel.
The wall, which is scrawled with graffiti calling for Palestinian independence and tributes to Palestinian militants, has effectively sealed Palestinians inside the West Bank.
On Saturday, the pope invited the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to visit the Vatican, and both accepted.
Jimmy Ben-Sadon, owner of a Jerusalem variety store, said some of his customers came in complaining about the city’s extensive pope-related road closures, and questions like “Why Israel had to make such a big deal about the pope?”
“I was embarrassed by their reaction,” Sadon confessed. “I told them, ‘When our rabbis go to the Vatican they are treated with a lot of respect and dignity. Doesn’t he deserve the same?’ ”
YS END CHABIN