For Pope John Paul II, his upcoming historic pilgrimage to Jerusalem promises to be an overwhelming personal religious experience as he fulfills a lifelong dream to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land.
But the pope is keenly aware that his visit carries different symbols for different people.
Some 100,000 Catholic followers will arrive to join the pope’s spiritual journey, and the world media will track his every step. Palestinians will watch for political signals.
Diaspora Jews will marvel at the culmination of a dramatic change over the past 35 years in the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward Judaism and the State of Israel.
But it remains to be seen whether Israelis will be equally interested in the pope’s March 21-26 trip, which coincides with this year’s celebration of the Purim holiday.
Although polls show that most Israelis want to welcome the pope, many appear oblivious to the bigger significance of the event.
“When the pope comes, it will be the visual testimony of what has taken place in the transformation of relations between the church and the Jewish people,” says Rabbi David Rosen, the Israel office director for the Anti-Defamation League and an interfaith activist who has helped negotiate Israel-Vatican accords.
“But I do not think that the majority of Israeli Jews have a grasp of its historic, momentous dimension.”
A look at the Vatican’s reaction to the nascent Zionist movement at the turn of the century underscores those dramatic changes.
In 1904, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, met Pope Pius X to convince him to support the quest for a Jewish homeland. According to Herzl’s diaries, the pope refused to support the Jews since they had not recognized Jesus.
“And so,” Herzl recalled the pope saying, “if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize you.”
Six decades later in 1965, the church published the Nostra Aetate decree, which repudiated the Catholic teaching that the Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death, a belief that was the source of much Christian malice toward Jews throughout history.
The document paved the way for broad changes in Catholic-Jewish relations, including the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in 1993.
Pope John Paul’s “presence in Israel is a significant statement itself — that there is a Jewish state now,” says the Rev. Michael McGarry, the Catholic rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which was established by Paul VI after his visit to the Holy Land — the last by a pope — in 1964.
McGarry says the sea change in the church’s public teachings about Judaism has filtered down from high-level documents to “the person in the pew.”
“But Most Israeli Jews do not have a clue as to what it all means,” he says.
Some interfaith experts say the lack of interest of Israelis is related to the fact that in an insular Jewish state, few Jews have any contact with Christians.
In addition, the educational system teaches virtually nothing about other religious, says Ya’acov Katz, director of the School of Education at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“Israelis do not study these issues and are not open to learning about Christianity or Islam,” says Katz. “How can you expect people who know nothing about their own religion to know something about other religions?”
Katz believes most Israelis understand the political significance of the pope visiting a sovereign Jewish state. But unlike Diaspora Jews who live among Christians, they do not understand the greater historical ramifications.
In Israel’s fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community, the reaction to the papal visit has been less positive. Some haredi newspapers have rallied their readers against the pilgrimage.
“The haredim live in a medieval world where Christianity is still the enemy,” says Rosen. “If you are a priori convinced that the Christian world is, if not out to get you then out to get your soul, this is going to influence your position.”
Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a legislator from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, says the fervently Orthodox world “attributes most of the tragedies that the Jewish people suffered throughout history to the Christian world.”
Ravitz does not believe this has been relegated to ancient history, and he thinks many modern Christians are still inherently committed to converting Jews.
Yet Ravitz says Israel must let the visit proceed, if only to prevent a backlash against Jews in Catholic countries.
“We must be a state that allows freedom of religion and respects leaders of other religions,” he says. “But that does not contradict the criticism we have.”
While haredi misgivings are not expected to have an impact on the pope’s pilgrimage, JTA has learned that pressure from fervently Orthodox leaders is the main reason why Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, will not accompany the pope on his planned visit to the Western Wall.
Lau skirted this question at a recent news conference, saying, “The importance of the Wall is not dependent on the participation of this or that figure.”
Lau also criticized opponents of the visit, saying Israel has no right to claim it is a defender of freedom of religion and then object to a personal pilgrimage of the Pope.
For Lau, who had a moving personal meeting with the Pope in 1993, the Vatican has indeed come a long way.
He describes the late Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as “the two popes who sympathized most with the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust more than any other 20th-century European leader.”
Nevertheless, Lau and much of the Jewish world will be closely watching a speech the Pope delivers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Vatican statements on the Holocaust in recent years, says Lau, mark the “first chapter” in reconciliation. But he maintains the time has come for the church to condemn Pope Pius XII, the target of criticism from many Jewish quarters for his refusal to speak out against the Holocaust.
“We wait for chapter number two,” he says, adding that an apology at Yad Vashem will be “more satisfying” than all the Vatican has done until now.
Meanwhile, the pope will also meet President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. While these meetings may not be as emotionally charged as the Yad Vashem speech, they mark a powerful symbol of the Vatican’s recognition of the Jewish state as a political entity.
As the pope hops from meetings with religious and political leaders on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, he is aware of the enormous political sensitivities of such encounters.
“It’s one big minefield,” says McGarry. “Everyone wants legitimization on their particular issue.”
Every word will be carefully scripted by Vatican officials. In Jerusalem, the pope is expected to stick to spiritual messages and steer clear of any words that could be construed as supporting Israeli or Palestinian claims to disputed eastern Jerusalem.
Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy recently lashed out at the Vatican for signing an accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization on Jerusalem just weeks before the pope arrived.
In a clear message to Israel, that agreement said unilateral decisions on Jerusalem were “morally and legally unacceptable.”
Despite such criticism, the agreement was designed mainly to safeguard the church’s property and religious freedom for all faiths in Palestinian areas.
JTA has also learned that Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal envoy to Israel, thanked Levy for lashing out at the agreement because it was only Israel’s anger that convinced the Arab world to back an accord anchoring religious freedom and human rights in Palestinian areas.
Ultimately, these matters may prove far less interesting for the average Israeli than the impact of the unprecedented deployment of 8,000 police during the papal pilgrimage.
For many, the most memorable part of the pope’s visit may turn out to be infuriating traffic jams of historic proportions.