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Welcome to the Holy Land, Pope Francis

Israeli Jews must dispel the air of suspicion that is clouding their enthusiasm for the papal Holy Land visit
Pope Francis
Pope Francis

In just one week Pope Francis will land. I recall the atmosphere that preceded the visits of his two predecessors. I think there was more excitement in the air. Given that the world is more excited about Pope Francis than about his immediate predecessor, and likely more than about any other Pope in recent history, I ask myself what is missing. Why is the charge in the air any less?

Perhaps it is because the visit itself is much more minor than the previous visits. Both previous papal visits offered multiple opportunities for Israeli society to engage with the visiting Pope. The visits extended over 4-5 days. They included Galilee and Jerusalem. They included moments that were open to all. They included interreligious meetings. And they were accompanied by a flood of pilgrims who came for the occasion. For reasons we can only speculate, Pope Francis is coming for the briefest visit, and even his one and a half day visit is not devoted exclusively to Israeli society or to the local Christian community. It was initiated as a commemoration of fifty years of a historic meeting between then Pope Paul VI and then Patriarch Athenagoras that ended centuries of enmity between Orthodox and Catholic Christians. With a shortened itinerary and an internal Christian focus, Israelis may really have less to be excited about.

Pope Benedict joins interfaith leaders in song, led by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Holy Land (2009)

Yet, I doubt this is really the cause, even if it is a contributing factor. I think there is a more pernicious cause, hard to quantify, but nevertheless real. I don’t know how extensive its impact is in broader Israeli society, but we should not underestimate its power.

There is poison in the air, a poison that keeps potential enthusiasm in check and generates headlines that detract from the reality of the visit and its eventual import. It is the poison of suspicion, of fear of the other. It is a poison that cares little not only for values of peace and understanding; it has little regard for truth. It is fed by lies, by a propaganda machine, and it generates a narrative that deflects from achievements and precedents of enormous significance. We all pay the price for poison in the minds, and we risk missing out on the benefits of the visit, getting sidetracked by false propaganda.

Pope-Benedict-and-Rabbi-Skorka The good news is that never before has there been a Pope who has had such a deep relationship with Judaism as a living faith. This Pope has much more than childhood friends who were Jewish or theological appreciation for Judaism. He has deep friendships with the Jewish community of his homeland and a track record of sustained encounter, hospitality and spiritual sharing. Never in history has a Pope ascended to the throne of the Papacy with such deep respect, appreciation and even love for the Jewish religion, as practiced by his neighboring Jews.

And the good news continues. Never before has there been a Pope who has come to visit the Holy Land with his Jewish friend (Rabbi Avraham Skorka) as part of his entourage. What seems to be a purely Christian visit is in fact an interreligious pilgrimage (with an Imam included as well). This says a lot about the man, his vision and the message he seeks to bring.

And yet, we do not begin to hear this message. We are hearing other messages instead. We hear of battles for ownership and possession of holy sites. We hear of desecration of Christian places and institutions. We hear of fear of what might await us when the Pope finally comes. And so, we enter an atmosphere of fear, that preempts the excitement that characterized previous visits.

More importantly, it is an atmosphere of fear that hampers the message of love, a love grounded in personal friendship, that this Pope seeks to bring. The fear is in the air, in the news headlines, and it slowly informs how our friends in Rome perceive the coming visit. Enthusiasm dampens, positive feelings give way to fear.

What can we do to counteract this movement? What can we do not to lose a precious opportunity? First, we must recognize the situation for what it is. There is a kind of battle already going on. It is a battle between trust and mistrust, between recognition of changes that have occurred and refusal to recognize them, between constructing identity by othering and constructing identity in relationship. It is a battle between closing our hearts in fear or opening them up in friendship. Let us recognize this battle and consider what side of the battle-line we wish to situate ourselves on.

Second, let us look at reality as it is. The voices of fear continue to use the word “Pope” with the same set of associations and the same emotional tone that has governed their view of the other for centuries. But so much has changed, and we must view reality as it is today, permitting ourselves to admit the changes that have taken place and the hopes that lie ahead, real hopes, if we can only admit them. The brief description above of who Pope Francis is and the uniqueness of his friendships, practice and even pilgrimage should be allowed to impress us. It is, after all, very impressive.

Third, we must not allow lies and propaganda to win the day. There is absolutely no talk of handing over David’s tomb to the Church. There never was, and one may say: never will be. Facts matter little. Denial of all who are in the know have no impact. The myth continues — the Pope will take our holy place away from us. Why should one be open to the real invitation to friendship personified in Pope Francis when one can continue fighting centuries-old battles through stereotypes that are perpetuated in untruths?

For those who spread lies, fear is not an outcome of facts; it is a goal in and of itself. If voices on the street, picked up by the media at the very least as the “newsworthy” aspect of the Papal visit, perpetuate an attitude of fear, it is up to all thoughtful people who seek truth and understanding to consider the alternative, to look reality in the eye and to appreciate the enormous potential it carries for us. Thoughtful appreciation of the specialness of the present Pope should lead to opening the heart. It should lead to extending a welcome. It is time to get back to the real, to leave the lies behind. It is time to open up in friendship. It is time for all of us to say, in our hearts and in our deeds, the simple words: Welcome Pope Francis.

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About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.