Jerusalem — At about 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff in the history of Catholicism to recognize a State of Israel on its own soil.
Clutching his wooden staff under a steady rain, the stooped, white-robed Pope stood at a lectern at a festively decorated Ben-Gurion Airport landing strip, and in a hoarse voice said in English: “I greet all the people of the State of Israel.”
With that comment, the Pope went further than his predecessor, Paul VI, the only other pope who has ever visited Israel, but steadfastly refused in 1964 to mention the country’s name.
But John Paul II, fresh from a visit to Mount Nebo — the site where, according to the Bible, Moses viewed, but could not enter the Promised Land — also sent another message upon landing in Israel. Several times during his opening remarks he spoke of peace and justice for all in the region — “not for Israel alone.”
With this he immediately underlined the profound political ramifications of what he is calling “a personal pilgrimage and a spiritual journey,” and his desire to balance recognition of Israel with support for the struggles of the Palestinians for a state and civil rights. The Pope called Wednesday for a Palestinian state, saying the Palestinian people have suffered “too long.”
In recent days both sides have argued that the Pope’s expected visits to their holy sites validates their bragging rights to the land, and especially to Jerusalem.
For example, in his welcoming speech, Israeli President Ezer Weizman several times reminded the Pope that Jerusalem is “the capital of the State of Israel and the heart of the Jewish people.” He noted it is a city that has been reunified — an obvious response to Palestinians demanding Israel’s withdrawal from East Jerusalem. For good measure, Weizman also added that Jerusalem “is also a holy site for Christianity and Islam.”
John Paul II’s trip included visits to Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem and the Dehaisheh refugee camp, as well as a meeting Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and visits to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.
But besides navigating political land mines, the Pope was going to try to navigate thorny religious and theological problems between Christians and Muslims, Catholics and several denominations of Orthodox Christians, and Jews and Christians. The latter involves the continuing struggle for closure between Catholics and Jews over Christianity’s role in the Holocaust.
John Paul II outlined the rules of engagement at the airport, saying that, “We must strive always and everywhere to present the true face of the Jews and of Judaism as likewise of Christians and Christianity.”
The words, underlined in the Pope’s prepared text for emphasis, are thought to mean that not only must Christians allow Jews to define themselves, but vice versa, meaning Jews should also accept Catholics defining their own doctrine — a major point in the Holocaust debate.
For example, the Pope was expected to make a speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Thursday, building on the historic “apology” to God he made in Rome two weeks ago for Christian misdeeds against Jews over the last 2,000 years. The apology, critics noted, did not specifically refer to the Holocaust.
The Yad Vashem speech, according to sources, did go further, containing the line, “The world must heed the warning of the Holocaust … which burns itself into our souls.” (See story on Yad Vashem speech, Page 34)
This effort to balance Israeli and Palestinian politics with his own religious journey makes John Paul’s mission almost impossible, as illustrated by Forest Hills, Queens resident Eli Zborowski, one of six Holocaust survivors to join the Pope at Yad Vashem and the only one from the United States.
The Polish-born Zborowski, a 74-year-old businessman and chairman of the American and International Societies of Yad Vashem, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that he wants the 79-year-old Polish-born Pope to admit the Church’s sins during World War II.
“As a survivor, I certainly want to hear from him a reference to the Shoah and the Church’s role as an institution,” Zborowski said. He added: “At the same time, I have to express appreciation to the Pope, who has himself witnessed the Jewish pain during World War II.”
But Zborowski’s self-described “wish” for an institutional admission of wrong butts up against Church doctrine that says the institution, likened to the “bride of Jesus,” cannot sin, according to some Church experts.
Zborowski, who founded the American and International Societies of Yad Vashem in 1979, says he understands the difficult religious position the Pope is in, but nevertheless said such institutional admission is necessary.
“I can understand that he is walking on a tightrope. Obviously it is difficult for even a pope, who has to take into some consideration internal critics,” Zborowski said. “I sympathize, but as a survivor I cannot see anything less as sufficient. I have to be careful to wish but not to demand that he comes out with something more directly about the evil that Christian people, people brought up by Christian dogma, have done to the Jews.
“My belief is that Holocaust is a result of the Church preaching that the Jews had sinned and all Jews should be punished.”
Zborowski said when he was invited by Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev to meet the Pope, he was on vacation in Florida and was not keen to break it up. “I said ‘let me sleep on it.’ ”
But ultimately, he decided it was important enough to stop the vacation.
“It’s a historical situation, something that until now I couldn’t have imagined. We should be welcoming him to the Jewish state that we yearned for, for 2,000 years.”