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Israelis Remember Pope John Paul Ii Who, They Say, Was Good for the Jews

April 4, 2005
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From the Galilee, where church bells tolled, to Tel Aviv, where people sat in cafes as they read about his death on the front pages of newspapers, Pope John Paul II was remembered in Israel as someone who cared about the country. Many Israeli citizens — Christians, Muslims and Jews alike — felt that the pope, who died at 84 on Saturday after a long illness, spoke to them.

In Israel, memories of the pope’s 2000 pilgrimage still resonate. People remember the frail, stooped pontiff, dressed all in white, slowly walking to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to tuck a note of apology in a crack between the stones of Judaism’s holiest site.

That followed his 1993 decision to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, reversing his church’s chilly attitude toward a Jewish state seen by many Christians as anathema.

“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 letter the pope placed between the ancient stones read.

Israelis also remember the pope lighting the flame of remembrance at Yad Vashem and later greeting Palestinians at a refugee camp in the West Bank.

“He was a symbol of tolerance, and I hope everyone will follow his path,” said Victor Zeitoun, 54, a hospital administrator in Haifa. “He taught people how to talk to each other.” Zeitoun, who is Catholic, had come to Nazareth for mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation, the church built on the spot where Christian tradition says the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was among the Israelis who praised the pope as a friend to the Jews.

Calling the pope one of the “most important leaders of our generation” Sharon said the world had lost someone “whose great contribution to rapprochement and unity between peoples, understanding and tolerance will be with us for many years.”

But John Paul was far from an unconditional friend of Israel.

He outraged many Israelis with his hearty embrace of Yasser Arafat, years before the Palestinian leader had passed from terrorist to statesman in the eyes of many in the West.

During his millennium visit to Israel, the pope visited sites in Jerusalem but conspicuously failed to endorse Israel’s claim on the holy city as its eternal capital.

Still, no one was ever in doubt about his dedication to Jewish survival.

That dedication came earlier, at a time when the pope was a Polish schoolboy named Karol Wojtyla, famed for his generosity with study notes.

“We sat together in class, on the same bench, throughout the years,” Josef Bielenstock, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Israel, told Army Radio on Sunday. “I didn’t have to do homework or check if I made mistakes. I just copied from him.”

John Paul never forgot the Nazi annihilation of Jews, who had made up a quarter of the population of his hometown of Wadowice.

“I can vividly remember the Jews who gathered every Saturday at the synagogue behind the school,” he wrote. “Then came the Second World War, with its concentration camps and systematic extermination.”

Serving as a priest at the end of the war, the young Wojtyla scoured the streets of Poland, finding food and shelter for those who had been spared death in the Holocaust. “He was a kindred spirit in the greatest sense — a man who could save a girl in such a state, freezing, starving and full of lice, and carry her to safety,” one such survivor, Edith Zierer, told Reuters. “I would not have survived had it not been for him.”

Standing outside the basilica in Nazareth as hundreds of Christian Arab Israelis streamed out of mass, the Vatican’s envoy to Israel remembered the special affinity the pope seemed to feel with the Jewish people.

“He said the Jewish people are our brothers. When he came here he had a good opportunity not only to say, but to express the special link between the Christian community and the Jewish people,” said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s ambassador to Israel.

Citing the pope’s efforts to reconcile Jews and Christians, the Israeli government decided Sunday to establish a special committee to commemorate John Paul. Meanwhile, the daily Ma’ariv reported, the tourism ministry decided to distribute a DVD and booklet commemorating his visit to Israel to churches around the world.

Toward the bottom of the winding road leading to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a shopkeeper selling Christian souvenirs — olive wood camels and painted tiles — said he will miss the pope.

Popes are good for business, the shopkeeper said, adding that his business never had been better than when Pope Pius VI visited in 1964 and again when John Paul II came in 2000. “I hope there will be many more popes,” he said, laughing, as he waved his hand toward his small shop.

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