Papal visits to Israel are always viewed by Israeli Jews through the very narrow prism of centuries-old Christian anti-Semitism, the Inquisition and the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. Whoever the pontiff, the expectation on the side of the Israeli hosts is that the occupant of the throne of Saint Peter make a full mea culpa for past Catholic sins toward the Jewish people.
John Paul II, the second pope to visit to Israel, did much to make up for the coldness of the earlier visit to Israel by Paul VI in 1964, who could not even bring himself to utter the word “Israel” during his short, 11-hour stay in the country. Visiting in the significant - for Christians - year 2000, the Polish pope made great strides forward in Catholic- Jewish relations: blessing Israel during a meeting with then president Ezer Weizman; expressing at Yad Vashem his deep sadness for “the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place,” and placing a note in the Western Wall asking for forgiveness for the harm caused to “these children of yours” over history.
This visit followed the groundbreaking establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993, one of the indirect benefits of the Oslo Accords which the Israeli Right has consistently failed to acknowledge.
In the period 1992-2000, before the outbreak of the second intifada, diplomatic doors that had previously been barred to Israel suddenly opened, with relations with the Vatican being one of the most significant.
Not all issues of contention between Israel and the Vatican, however, have been resolved. Ownership of the Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, directly above the supposed site of the tomb of King David, King Solomon and other Hebrew kings, is one such open issue. The fact that Pope Francis is scheduled to pray there has led to Jewish right-wing extremists to believe that the government, despite repeated denials, is prepared to give the Catholic Church possession of the second-story chamber.
THE RESPONSE of these extremists has been predictable: anti-Christian vandalism, with the words “Price tag,” “King David is for the Jews,” “Jesus is garbage” painted on a wall opposite a church in Jerusalem a week or so ago. This, of course, is not the only incident of anti-Christian hate crimes over the past few months and the Vatican’s Holy Land custodian has even found it necessary to issue a statement calling on Israel to safeguard Christian holy sites, following a number of vandalism attacks on churches and monasteries in the run up to Pope Francis’ visit.
These hate crimes are part of a wider phenomenon, with mosques and other Muslim properties also being targeted by right-wing extremist Jews protesting any attempt by the government to bring the rule of law into effect in the wild west of illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank. As former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Carmi Gillon has pointed out, it’s hard to believe that the government cannot clamp down on these extremists if it really wanted to. In the Shin Bet, Gillon insisted, “there’s no such thing as can’t – there’s don’t want to,” adding that when the Shin Bet decided to stamp out the Jewish underground in the 1980s, it did so efficiently and quickly, in part by considering these people as terrorists and acting accordingly.
Author Amoz Oz was absolutely right when he called for labeling the perpetrators of anti-Arab and anti-Christian violence “Hebrew neo-Nazis,” rather than the sanitized terms “hilltop youth” and “price tag” activists. Were these vandals European youths spray-painting the walls of synagogues in Moscow or London, setting fire to yeshiva halls and puncturing car tires in predominantly Jewish areas of the city, our politicians would have little compunction in labeling the thugs “neo-Nazis” and decrying the lack of action on behalf of the governing authorities.
Unfortunately, many Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi Knesset members are not so far removed from these “Hebrew neo-Nazis” in terms of their disdain for the non-Jewish minority in Israel, be they Arab Muslims or Christians, and in their messianic belief in the right and superiority of the Jewish people inside the Land of Israel.
No doubt these Knesset members will monitor every word and gesture made by Pope Francis during his visit here, to ensure he makes full amends for every Christian misdeed against the Jewish people, and will loudly condemn any perceived failure on his part to show the necessary contrition for Christian persecution of the Jews.
It is just a sad and potentially dangerous irony that they are so self-righteously examining the behavior of others that they are blind to the misdoings and crimes of their own people.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.