Pope Benedict XVI came and went, and the conflict goes on.
Not unexpectedly, the Israeli press dwelt on what the pope, as a former soldier in Hitler’s army, didn’t say but should have said at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. PM Binyamin Netanyahu asked him to denounce Iran and he didn’t. During the Palestinian part of his visit, he referred to "the events of May 1948" in a way that could easily be interpreted as ratifying the Palestinian narrative of what happened then and negating the Israeli narrative. Comparisons with the historic visit of an earlier pope, John Paul II, inevitably presented Benedict in a negative light. Jews had in mind his abortive reinstatement of a Holocaust denier. Muslims recalled his unfortunate quote in a speech in Germany from an anti-Islamic diatribe in ancient Byzantium.
Still, the pope was feasted and coddled as if the fate of our conflict depends on him. It does not. He is acceptable as a peacemaker neither to Jews nor to Muslims. So what should we have talked about with him?
If we weren’t so preoccupied with our own conflict and so sensitive to the negative legacy of Catholic-Jewish relations, we might have pointed out that, at the global humanitarian level, by condemning condoms as a cause of AIDS rather than an effective preventative this pope has adopted a regressive and destructive pose that potentially condemns millions in the third world to disease and death. Perhaps some day, when peace comes and we Jews can again aspire to be a light unto the nations, we can entertain the notion of speaking out on global moral issues like this. In this regard, the pope’s visit is a reminder of just how local yet existential our horizons have become.
But even within those narrow confines, there was room for us to be far more pro-active in pointing out the plight of Middle Eastern Christians and the general inactivity of the Holy See in defending them and ensuring that they can remain safely and prosper in their ancestral homes in the Arab world. This is not just about the beleaguered Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq and the tribulations of the Copts of Egypt and Maronites of Lebanon. Closer to home, too, in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Christian population has been dwindling for years.
To be sure, the ills and affronts of the Israeli occupation bear part of the blame. But Christians were leaving Bethlehem and Birzeit long before 1967. In recent years, the rise of militant Islam has posed a particularly powerful threat. Uncomfortable complaining to the Israeli authorities or asking for their protection, Christians simply prefer to leave.
Uniquely, only in Israel has the Christian population grown, because of the migration of 200,000 or so Russian-speakers whose Jewish heritage qualifies them to a home in Israel but not to official status as Jews. While Arab Christians appear to be better off in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East, the fact remains that, not only in Bethlehem but in Nazareth too, the Pope visited towns that harbor growing Muslim majorities and remain Christian in name only.
As the Islamist movements and their Iranian benefactor gain strength, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like the broader Israel-Arab conflict, is increasingly one between Judaism and militant Islam and not merely a squabble over land. Increasingly, too, Israel’s modern support base in the West and the Christian world, attributable in some respects to Christianity’s contrition over its historic anti-Semitism, is being undermined: by the passage of time and by Israel’s own mistakes but also by a determined Islamist drive to de-legitimize it.
Over the past 60 years, at a modest but nevertheless significant level, Christians in the Arab world have recognized in Israel a source of inspiration and even identification. Not for naught have Israeli Arab Christians pointed to the Islamist threat and cautioned the Jews, "first Saturday, then Sunday", meaning they know we are both in the same boat and the Islamist threat toward Israel and the Jews will eventually focus on the Christians as well.
We need Christians in the Middle East, where Christianity was born. Too bad we focused the Pope’s visit on the Holocaust rather than on the urgent task of ensuring Christianity’s survival in the region.