Pope's visit to Yad Vashem expected to be closely watched

Prof. Wistrich: The visit will have a healing effect on the breach which was opened up with the Jewish people earlier this year.

new yad vashem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
new yad vashem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Yad Vashem has taken on added emotional significance and is expected to be closely watched, both because of the pope's recent controversial decision to revoke the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust, which sparked Jewish outrage, as well as over an ongoing dispute over the role of the wartime pope, Pius XII, during the Holocaust. "Providing he makes no major faux pas, the visit will have a healing effect on the breach which was opened up with the Jewish people earlier this year," said Hebrew University Prof. Robert Wistrich. "This is a real chance for him to say something more pointed and sharper both about the Holocaust as well as resurgent anti-Semitism, beyond more general platitudes," he said. At the same time, the discord over the role of the wartime pope has not been resolved, with the Vatican's Holocaust-era archives still sealed to historians. Israel says Pius did not do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust during World War II. A caption accompanying a photograph on display at Yad Vashem's Holocaust Museum - which the pope is pointedly not visiting - says Pius did not act to save Jews from the Nazi genocide and kept a largely neutral position throughout the war, even when news of the Nazi extermination of Jews reached the Vatican. The Vatican has always claimed that Pius XII worked diplomatically to save Jews during the Holocaust and has put Pius on the path to sainthood. Rumors circulated in advance of the pope's arrival that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin was planning on boycotting the visit, but Rivlin's office explained that his intended absence from the formal ceremony at Beit Hanassi was due to prior commitments. They emphasized that "the Knesset will receive the pope - and any other official visitor to Israel - with open arms," and added that Rivlin was sending Deputy Knesset Speaker Ruhama Avraham-Balila in his stead. It is customary for the Knesset Speaker to be among the front row of Israeli dignitaries at ceremonies welcoming such top-level visits. Nevertheless, MK Michael Ben-Ari said that he "congratulates the Knesset Speaker for answering his call to be absent from the reception welcoming the pope." Rivlin will, however, accompany the pope on his visit to Yad Vashem's "Ohel Yizkor." The papal tour will include a visit to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall on Tuesday, a visit to Bethlehem on Wednesday, and a day-long trip to Nazareth on Thursday, before he heads back to Rome on a special El Al flight Friday afternoon. Benedict also angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman." Benedict expressed his "deep respect" for Islam during his visit to Jordan and expressed the hope that the Catholic Church would be a force for peace. The trip will be the second official visit by a pope to Israel, following Pope John Paul II's historic visit in 2000. Pope Paul VI visited the region in 1964, 30 years before the Vatican established relations with the Jewish state. He spent only a few hours in Israel, visiting Christian sites around Lake Kinneret, and refused to meet then-president Zalman Shazar in Jerusalem, meeting him instead at Megiddo. Tourism Minister Stas Misenznikov said Sunday that Israel is now expecting 15,000 pilgrims to accompany the pope on his trip, up from previous estimates of 10,000, and "hundreds of thousands" more following the pilgrimage during the year. He called the pontiff a "true friend" to the State of Israel, who was coming on a mission of "brotherhood peace and inter-religious tolerance." "The pope's very visit is a strong message to the whole Christian world to come on a pilgrimage in his wake," Misenznikov said. Magen David Adom is on high alert for the papal visit with tight security - and major traffic disruptions - expected in Jerusalem throughout the week. Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.