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A Papal confession to the Palestinian people
Marc H. Ellis

As my German lecture tour continues and I embark for the University of Erlangen with the Nazi parade grounds of Nuremberg nearby, the juxtaposition of the Pope standing at the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank strikes me at a deep level.

The Papacy’s stand for justice and peace is new on the world scene. Historically, the culpability of the Roman Catholic Church is more than sitting on the sidelines as the Jews of Europe were murdered by the millions. The Catholic Church, indeed the history of Christianity itself, is culpable in colonial violence around the world. For many communities, the coming of Christianity is one of the dark holes of their human universe.

In Germany and different parts of the world that experienced the Reformation are more than halfway through the “Decade of Luther.” The decade ends with the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. But on a negative Reformation note, my seminar yesterday focused on Martin Luther’s writing on Jews – “and their lies.” Of course, the Reformation’s violence against Jews didn’t stop at its Jewish edge. A similar and even more horrific violence was visited upon diverse Christian communities.

With regard to the Papal visit, the Reformation seems far away. Unless we remember that the Reformation was in many ways a Catholic civil war.

We should not forget the Catholic Church’s history of enabling the ghettoization of Jews in Europe. Roman Catholics had their own Luther’s – including Luther, himself a Catholic. So Luther’s anti-Semitism came naturally from the church the Pope leads. Hitler, also a Catholic, continued – and escalated – a time-honored tradition of animosity toward Jews.

All of this was played down or unreported during the Pope’s visit in Jordan and the West Bank. However, Christianity’s involvement in the birth of Israel and the destruction of Palestine is important. Anti-Semitism is the founding bulwark of Israel. Though on the Israel side of the Pope’s trip the role of anti-Semitism will be confessed, a Papal confession to the Palestinian people for the role of anti-Semitism in their own suffering is likewise needed.

Think about the Middle East if European Christian anti-Semitism had never existed. Without historic anti-Semitism, Palestine wouldn’t be divided and any Jewish population that chose to live in Palestine for religious reasons would be small, non-statist and welcomed. So the Pope’s hope for a two-state solution and even his off-the-cuff strong comment about the vileness of arms dealers isn’t enough.

What can we hope from a Pope who visits the Apartheid Wall one day and Theodor Herzl’s grave site the next? If you want the Wall to come down, honoring the founder of state Zionism seems contradictory. Is this another Papal pilgrimage that isn’t much beyond on-this-hand and on-the-other?

Though Papal symbolism has its place, symbolism is part of Israel-Palestine’s problem. From Bethlehem to Yad VaShem – without leaving out the potent symbolism of Jerusalem – if Jews and Palestinians could eat and drink symbolism together, peace and justice would have arrived long before Pope Francis.

Yes, of course, Pope Francis has his own checkered past in Argentina. And if he leaves Israel without a more dramatic gesture than visiting the Wall and Herzl’s grave, he may as well have stayed home in Rome. With so much preparation and security – and bother for the ordinary citizens of Israel and Palestine – Jews and Palestinians need more than the prayers for peace from a Pope who leads a deeply culpable religious faith community that parades as a state.

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