JERUSALEM--Pope John Paul II is about to arrive in Israel on a long-planned "spiritual pilgrimage" that marks the culmination of what Rabbi David Rosen, a key player in Jewish-Catholic rapprochement, calls "one of the great revolutions of our time."

That revolution is the sea-change last 35 years in the Roman Catholic Church's attitude toward the Jewish people. Since the Second Vatican Council in 1965, this transformation has been expressed through official church conferences and documents, formal apologies for past persecutions, significant changes in education and liturgy, diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel, and intensive dialogue with Jewish groups on a wide range of issues.

Despite all that, the shift in the church's teachings about the people it once called "perfidious Jews" but now accepts as its spiritual "senior brother" remains unknown to two-thirds of Israeli Jews, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Nor are Jews who know about the change necessarily prepared to immediately forgive the Catholic Church--or Christian Europe in general--for nearly two millenia of murder, forced conversion, Inquisition and the Holocaust.

"I know all about Vatican II," nods an Orthodox Jewish Jerusalemite active in anti-Christian missionary work. "But let the pope stay in Rome."

Given Jews' painful historical memories and the unpredictable political and multicultural brew of Israeli society, it's no surprise that attitudes here about the pope's upcoming six-day visit are diverse and complex.

What is unexpected is that--despite the tidal wave of media coverage, despite the 50,000 tourists the papal visit is expected to bring, despite what police call "the largest, most complicated visitor-protection operation" in Israel's history--despite all that, a lot of ordinary Israelis--Jews and even some Muslims and Christians--are greeting the great event with a yawn.

They're glad enough for him to come, but a common question here is, Does anybody really care?

Ecumenical workers and religious professionals do, of course. A lot of academics are watchfully interested, and journalists, whose bread and butter it is, are on full alert.

But beyond that, as Rosen, who heads the Jerusalem Anti-Defamation League ofice, acknowledges, the general attitude among Israeli Jews in particular might best be discribed as one of "neutral disinterest."

Father Raed Abusahlia, secretary to Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the head of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, acknowledges that many Israelis care "not so much" about the visit.

Claire Calmettes, a computer technician from Jerusalem's western suburbs--and a Catholic at that--summarizes the feelings of a large proportion of Israel's citizens. When asked about the pope's coming, she gives a wave of dismissal and called the entire affair a staged media event whose real effect will be confined to monumental traffic jams and other interruptions of daily life.

Another sign of Israel's attitude toward the pope's coming visit is that the nation's ministry of education--in a year in which the educational theme is the millennium--has provided no materials to teachers about either the papal visit or relations between Jews and Christians. Nor does the curriculum contain anything about recent changes in church teachings about Jews. High school students are educated to see historical Christianity as a negative phenomenon, says Rosen, whose attempts to develop a "values-education" component relevant to the papal visit were ignored by the ministry.

Even Israeli opposition to the visit has been tepid, confined to some anti-pope graffiti on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City and the building housing the office of Israel's chief rabbis, plus a few demonstrations that drew a handful of protestors objecting to Catholic anti-Semitism and "idol worship."

Still, the conventional wisdom may not be not the final word. In Nazareth, the Galilean city, now part of Israel, where Jesus worked as a carpenter and fished for souls, efforts to improve infrastructure, including the construction of new hotels, started five years ago, as the financially strapped city began to plan hopefully for the Y2K tourist boom that the pope is expected to inaugurate.

Nazarenes, both Christians and Muslims, are looking forward "very much" to the pope's visit, according to Mohammed Darawshe, director of the Nazareth Arab Institute, an organization aimed at improving conditions for Israeli Arabs.

Indeed, in a show of brotherhood, Nazareth Christians and Muslims have temporarily put aside a bitter dispute over land rights in the center of this once-Christian majority city "so people can welcome the pope as he deserves," says Darawshe, a Muslim. He adds hopefully that when local Christians see the warm welcome that Muslims give the pope, relations between the two communities will be "greatly improved."

Though such intercommunal amity may be short-lived, a recent Gallup poll, conducted for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, found that 60 percent of adult Jewish Israelis view the pope's visit in a "positive" light, while only 12 percent see it negatively.

But that finding is likely to represent the country's love of celebrity international visitors, for Jewish attitudes toward the visit continue to be darkly colored by ongoing irritants in relations with the Vatican.

These include the church's intention to beatify Pope Pius XII, whom many Jews accuse of irresponsible silence during the Holocaust; disappointment with the church's refusal to implicate itself fully in its apologies for past persecutions; worry that the church maintains a lingering missionary agenda toward the Jews; and, for some, concern over desecration of the Jewish Sabbath during the pope's visit.

The recent accord signed by the Vatican and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat-- which many Israelis saw as a challenge to the moral legitimacy of Israel's political authority in Jerusalem and outright support for Palestinians in negotiations over the city's future--revivified a distinctly political element of Jewish distrust.

"It's easy to apologize for the past but meanwhile try to undermine the Jewish people's sovereignty over its capital," snaps Timna Katz, a Jewish activist who lives in the West Bank Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem.

"I never heard the Vatican speak out against abuses of Christians by the Palestinian Authority," adds David Parsons, spokesman for the Christian Zionist International Christian Embassy, an evangelical Christian organization that despite its name has no diplomatic standing.

Father Michael McGarry, rector of Jerusalem's Tantur Ecumenical Institute, says the pontiff fears that Christians, who constitute a dwindling 2 percent of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, will be "marginalized" in any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, especially with regard to Jerusalem. In addition to protecting Christian communities, McGarry says, the church is concerned for the fate of its propertes here.

Yet no historical bitterness, current misgivings or jockeying for political position has erased a widespread feeling of personal affection for the pope among some Israeli Jews. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau--born in Poland as was the pope--considers John Paul a sincere friend of the Jewish people and a reliable opponent of anti-Semitism.

But if there is one feeling--fond, self-serving and worldly-wise all at once--that might be said to unite almost all Israelis about the pope's visit, it's this:

The hope that no accident, illness, or breach of security will mar the frail 79-year-old pontiff's time in the Jewish state, and that in Lau's words, "he will return home in peace with a good impression of our country."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad