Tuesday, April 05, 2005

John Paul II & the Arab-Israeli conflict

An open message to Juan Cole, responding to an item on his "Informed Comment" weblog:

I found many points of interest in your thoughtful and intelligent reconsideration of Pope John Paul II and his significance. ("The Other Pope" / Sunday, April 3, 2005 )

You are absolutely right to emphasize that John Paul II's views—and, for that matter, those of the Catholic Church as a whole—don't map directly onto the (somewhat peculiar) left/right axis of US politics ... or of a lot of secular European politics, either. This is true both for the tendencies epitomized in Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors" and for those epitomized in Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" (which, within a Catholic framework, are not necessarily incompatible—though, fortunately, John Paul II downplayed much, though not all, of the first and kept most of the second).
But John Paul II was often an inconvenient man, whose moral vision would be upsetting to the US Republican establishment if it were taken seriously. He opposed the death penalty, to which George W. Bush is so attached. He opposed the Iraq War. He condemned laissez-faire capitalism and cared about the exploitation of workers, who he felt should have a dignity that is seldom bestowed upon them by the Walmarts and other firms in the US.
Right. For the Catholic Church, which thinks in terms of millennia, socio-economic systems come and go. Catholic social doctrine has never accepted the radical self-interested individualism and moral indifference embodied in the notion of laissez-faire capitalism (though it has also rejected most historically available forms of socialism). And when it comes to the issues you mention, John Paul II's positions were fundamentally opposed to those of the Bush administration and the Republicans. This goes beyond John Paul II's own views. On a range of important issues including income inequality, health care, social justice, war, and the death penalty, the official social doctrine of the US Catholic Church would strike most Americans as wildly left-wing ... if they took these positions seriously, or were even aware of them. But one reason they're often not aware of them is that, when it comes to election time, most of the US Catholic hierarchy focuses exclusively on the very narrow range of issues where they happen to be in tune with the Republican right—above all, abortion. (And who appointed these guys?)

I myself would question the Catholic Church's opposition to the Iraq war (and its failure to seriously condemn the repeated acts of genocidal mass murder by the Iraqi Ba'ath regime) on both moral and political grounds. But be that as it may.

In one aspect of your discussion, however, I thought your emphasis was a little odd.
And he cared about the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people in a way that virtually no one in the American political establishment does. He symbolically blessed the Palestinian claim that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian people.
In fact, the Vatican's policies in the Middle East have historically been pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian, and anti-Israel. There are solid reasons of both theology and realpolitik for this tilt (not least a concern for the rather precarious situation of Christian minorities in the Islamic world). But in this context, there was nothing either new or special about John Paul II's concern (which was indeed commendable) with "the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people."

Instead, the crucial novelty of his approach lies in precisely the opposite direction. His initiatives toward openness and reconciliation with Judaism, the Jews, and Israel were historic and unprecedented. In the case of Judaism, he was following a path opened up by John XXIII, but he took it much further. And in moving toward recognition of Israel, he broke in decisive ways not only with previous Church policies but with the continuing inclinations (and furious opposition) of many people in the Church hierarchy. The result is that the position of the Catholic Church toward the Arab-Israeli conflict is now, to borrow a common term, more "balanced" than ever before. (One can quibble about details, but it's been a qualitative shift.) And this movement away from a more one-sided position is a necessary condition for advancing the possibility of achieving a just and viable solution that can address the needs and rights of both Palestinians and Israelis.

What John Paul II demonstrated, in short, is that in order to be genuinely pro-Palestinian, it's not necessary to be either anti-Zionist or anti-semitic. In fact, quite the contrary. In the world today, this is an important lesson that more people should take seriously.

Of course, as you indicate, the other side of this coin is that he also demonstrated that one can recognize and support Israel's right to exist, not just as a matter of grudging acceptance but with genuine sympathy, without having to be anti-Palestinian or to ignore the sufferings, rights, and legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people (though, to be honest, this is not a lesson I needed to learn from the Holy Father). However, if one steps back from a parochial focus on US politics to a wider world perspective, it's clear that the other side of his position was historically more innovative, more provocative, and more courageous both morally and politically.

(It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the Catholic Church will maintain this degree of "balance" in the Arab-Israeli conflict now that John Paul II is gone.)

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. On these matters, I think this article from Ha'aretz is largely on target.

Last update - 12:19 05/04/2005
PM Sharon pays tribute to pope as 'friend' of the Jews
By Haaretz Staff and The Associated Press

Pope John Paul II was "a man of peace, a friend of the Jewish people," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, as he offered the country's condolences on the pope's death to the Christian community both in Israel and abroad.

John Paul "acknowledged its [the Jewish people's] uniqueness and toiled for an historic reconciliation of the nations and the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican in 1993," continued Sharon, who met the pope in 1999, when he was foreign minister, and invited him to Israel for the millennium celebrations on behalf of the government. "The world lost yesterday one the most important leaders of our times, whose contribution to bringing people together, uniting nations, and to understanding and tolerance will accompany us for many years."

President Moshe Katsav offered a similar tribute, saying: "The pope ... bravely put an end to historic injustice by officially rejecting prejudices and accusations against Jews."

Over the course of his papacy, John Paul II revolutionized the Vatican's relationship with both Israel and the Jewish people. In 1979, on his first journey home to Poland as head of the Catholic Church, he became the first pope ever to visit a Nazi death camp, kneeling in prayer at Auschwitz - a place he described as a "triumph of evil." In 1986, in Rome, he became the first pope to enter a synagogue; during that visit, he made his now-famous statement that the Jews are Christians' "elder brothers" and spoke of Christian responsibility for crimes against the Jews.

In 1993, the Vatican finally recognized Israel, a step widely regarded as removing any theological opposition to the Jewish state's existence. And in 2000, John Paul II not only visited Israel, but won Israelis' hearts by visiting sites such as the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Western Wall, where he observed the ancient Jewish custom of placing a note in the cracks between the stones. "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant," the note read.

But while many Israelis mourned the loss of a uniquely friendly pontiff, for some, the mourning was more personal: Elderly Holocaust survivors reminisced Sunday about growing up with Karol Wojtyla, the man who became John Paul II, in the small Polish town of Wadowice, and about encounters with the young seminary student toward the end of World War II. These early friendships are widely believed to have been a major factor in the late pope's efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

One survivor, Idit Tzirer, said that she was an emaciated 13-year-old in 1945. She had just been released from a Nazi labor camp and was sitting on a street corner in the snow, too weak to walk, when Wojtyla approached.

"Suddenly, he appeared, like an angel from heaven, when nobody else was taking any notice of me," she said on Israel TV. "He brought me a cup of hot tea and two huge slices of bread and cheese ... After a while he asked me if I wanted to get away from that place and I told him I wanted to get to Krakow, but I couldn't walk. So he hoisted me on his back, like a sack of flour, and carried me, four or five kilometers."

Former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau, also a Holocaust survivor, recalled that he met the pope five times. At one meeting, the aging pontiff told Lau that he remembered the rabbi's grandfather going to synagogue every Saturday with masses of grandchildren around him.

"He asked me: 'How many survived the Holocaust?'" Lau told Israel Radio. "Just five, 42 were killed. And then he [the pope] looked at the ceiling and said: 'In all my travels - I visited 120 countries. I see anti-Semitism and I emphasize our obligation, the obligation of all humanity, to ensure the continued existence and the future of our elder brother, the Jewish nation.'"

Asked whether the next pope would continue this legacy of rapprochement with Israel and the Jews, the papal envoy to Israel, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, told Channel 2 television that he was "sure" that would be the case. He cited the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and "speaks about the huge common heritage existing between the Jewish people and the Christian people."

Speaking in English, Sambi added that the Holy See and the chief rabbinate were "unavoidable collaborators in giving to humanity the moral principles for its humanity and its well-being."

An official from the rabbinate agreed. "In the past 10 years, ties have warmed and there is a tight connection between the Israeli rabbinate and the Vatican," he said. "He was the first pope to apologize to the Jews."

Jewish relations with John Paul II were not friction-free: There were disputes, for instance, over the canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Christianity who became a nun and died in Auschwitz, and over the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who many Jews accuse of failing to speak out during the Holocaust.

"But under the circumstances, he went a very far distance, more than any other pope, perhaps because of his acquaintance with Jews and the fact that he lived through the Holocaust where he did," said Aharon Lopez, former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican.

"Of all the popes in history, John Paul II is the one who understood Jews the best," added Theo Klein, a former head of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF.

Palestinian Muslims also mourned the pope, but with more skepticism. Bernard Sabella, an official in the Middle East Council of Churches who met the pontiff several times, said that John Paul II was concerned about Palestinian suffering, which led him to visit a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem during his 2000 trip.

But leading Palestinian Muslim cleric, Ikrema Sabri, complained that the pope was unsuccessful in changing the Western world's negative view of Islam.