Expatriate Owl

A politically-incorrect perspective that does not necessarily tow the party line, on various matters including but not limited to taxation, academia, government and religion.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Benedict's Travels & Travails

As Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel was approaching, I became attuned to some of the controversies that came up within the Jewish community. For various reasons, I decided at the time to sit this one out. But this evening I found myself participating in a very charged conversation with several acquaintances, and realized that the whole matter has been obsessing me, whether I admitted it or not. I need to vent!

And so, I will, of sorts, weigh in with this posting. There is no expectation that this posting will win or lose me any friends or enemies, nor change anyone's viewpoints, nor resolve any of the controversies. And I make no pretensions whatsoever of being neutral or objective. What I do purport to do is to identify some of the complicating issues that serve to make the controversies complex if not intractable.

First and foremost, the Pope's constituency is not the Jewish people. The Pope's constituency is the Catholic Church and its adherents (and the Catholic Church is in no way a monolith). It is unrealistic to expect the Pope to be a champion of the Jewish agenda (if such indeed is susceptible to definition).

The very establishment of the State of Israel had theological repercussions within the Catholic Church. A people whom the Church had always viewed as accursed Untermenschen had achieved statehood. It was -- and still is -- theologically simpler for the Church if the Jewish people would simply be eliminated. But there was a practical side, because the Church's holy sites in the Holy Land stood a better chance under a regime of the Jews than under a regime of the Muslim Arabs.

There is no denying that Jewish people have long suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church. We are not just talking the Crusades and the Inquisition, but it goes all the way down to the personal in the present day. Specifically, many if not most Jewish people in America have had negative childhood experiences of one kind or another involving kids from Catholic schools. From my conversations with many, many other Jewish people, I have concluded that I lucked out in this regard, for while my own negative experiences with the Catholic school kids were not particularly remarkable (and in fact I had many positive childhood experiences with Catholic schoolboys), many other Jewish kids of my generation were not so fortunate.

[Disclosure: My higher education includes a degree from an institution run by an order of the Catholic Church. Never for even a fleeting moment did I ever regret the decision to attend that fine school.]

And just as the Catholic Church has its history with the Jewish people, it has caused no less offense towards the Muslims.

And, in addition to the Jews and the Muslims, there are significant elements of the Eastern Church who are present in the area, who also have historical gripes with the Catholic Church (and with one another).

Any visit to the region by any pope, therefore, inherently presses against lots of sore spots. Accordingly, the Pope has had to tread very carefully during his visit. And there were bound to be instances when whatever he would or would not say would be offensive to either Jews or Muslims (or, perhaps, both). He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't.

Take, for example, the Pope's visit to the Kotel (Western Wall) in the Holy City of Jerusalem: For various political and practical reasons, the Kotel is, administratively and legally speaking, a synagogue. Benedict's visit to the Western Wall had been scheduled for Lag B'Omer, a day of significance on the Jewish calendar. The security people in the Israeli government, who, for the most part, do not place a high priority upon religious observance, had made a decision to exclude the public from the Kotel during Benedict's visit. This, of course, was like stirring up a hornet's nest (and, for the record, I firmly believe that Jewish people should never be precluded from praying at the Kotel -- We've been kept away from there for too, too long).

Okay, so they modified the plans in a manner to provide for the Pope's security without making the Wall judenrein. But then the Rabbi of the Kotel declared that Benedict shouldn't have his crucifix exposed when he visited the Kotel.

In a perfect world, I would agree with the Rabbi. But this is not a perfect world, and the last time I was in Israel, on one of the occasions I visited the Kotel I saw some Filipino Catholic priests whose crucifixes were visible. Nobody seemed to be upset (they were, after all, Catholic priests). But then, again, the paparazzi weren't there at the time to record anyone making a big affair of it.

And, speaking of removing religious symbols, the Vatican had requested that Jewish symbols be removed from the ambulance that would be part of the Pope's entourage.

It is clear, then, that there was no way of avoiding controversy when the Pope visited the Holy Land.

Another factor that is playing into the mix: Benedict XVI, before he became Benedict XVI, was Joseph Alois Ratzinger. He is the first German pope in nearly half a millenium. And Israel's relationship with Germany is a very complex and paradoxical one. While there remains, since the founding of the State of Israel, an expressed revulsion to Germany and all things German, the fact is that Israel is a country created in the image of Germany. German architecture (Bauhaus and post-Bauhaus), German engineered infrastructure, and, before the Japanese and Korean automobiles came, the cars, trucks and busses were German.

Much is being made over the fact that Joseph Alois Ratzinger served in the Hitlerjugend and the Wehrmacht. My take on it: Just as Israel has compulsory military service (with some exceptions for religious individuals, but that's a whole other can of worms), so, too, did Nazi Germany. The young Ratzinger actually deserted the Wehrmacht, the German army. This shows that he either (A) was a coward; or (B) had principles. I never met the man, but nobody, not even his detractors, characterize him as a coward.

In any event, the fact that he is German is a further complication to the controversies. It is quite possible (read "highly probable") that a double standard is being applied to Benedict XVI because of his German background.

And so, whatever your take may be on the controversies anent to Benedict's visit to the Holy Land, understand that controversy was unavoidable.

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  • At 20 May, 2009 22:59, Blogger Aaron said…

    It was explained to me that the pro-Arab, less than pro-Israel stance that may churches take is due to:

    a. There are more Arab Christians than Jewish Christians.

    b. There are more Muslims/Arabs than Jews and thus a larger body of potential converts.

    c. Jews are not likely to attack Christians or Christian religious sites in anger over a churches pronouncements, Arabs and Muslims have and likely will in the future.

  • At 21 May, 2009 02:44, Blogger Expatriate Owl said…

    Without in any way detracting from the validity of the rationale you describe -- it no doubt plays a role at some conscious or subconscious level in many organized religious denominations' policy determinations -- there is also a theological component behind some church denominations' unfavorable policy towards Jews and Israel.

    The best explanation of this that I ever read can be found in the book "Anti-Semitism: Causes and Effects" by Paul E. Grosser & Edwin G. Halpern. I have the first edition, a 2nd edition has been published [ISBN 0802224180; ISBN-13 9780802224187].


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