How the Pope Put Israel to Shame

Instead of seeing us as an inspiration, the world takes pity on us, sending peace envoys and religious leaders to do our work.

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Pope Francis during an unplanned stop at the separation fence on the way to Bethlehem.
Pope Francis during an unplanned stop at the separation fence on the way to Bethlehem.Credit: Reuters

There was something very troublesome about the Pope's visit. From the moment he came off the plane, wherever he went, Pope Francis preached a consistent message; he spoke about peace, he prayed for peace and he coaxed others to join him in working toward it. Whether he was among Jews visiting a Holocaust Memorial or praying with the Palestinians in Bethlehem and at the Separation Barrier, his point was the same – a clear call for a two state solution, an end to violence and the building of good relations between Jews and Palestinians.

He did not stop there. The Pope searched for like-minded people and determined that they would be his partners in his quest for peace. He alighted on President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, inviting them to join him in Rome to pray for peace. Incredibly, despite that neither of these two men is Roman Catholic, they accepted his invitation.

Even the chief rabbis of Israel latched on to the Pope's campaign. At the rabbis' meeting with him the pope, which I attended, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau concluded his speech by asking the head of the Catholic Church to use his influence to gather religious leaders to discuss world peace. "Be a partner with us" he said "and establish an international interfaith conference to advance this crucial message."

Herein lies our disgrace.

Our Biblical ancestors were trailblazers charged with bringing blessing to all of humanity. Our prophets stood before kings and princes, critiquing their leadership and giving the greatest ever vision of universal peace.Their sentiments were brought to our prayer book so that all our major prayers end with a call for peace. They were also echoed in Israel's Declaration of Independence, which sought peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs in Israel and with neighboring states. In short, the pope used our lines.

We can only admire his ability and determination to express a clear vision of peace and to persuade our president to join him in prayer, but I am left wondering why our own spiritual leadership failed to make the same call to our head of state. Rome is known for its impressive architecture and some rather magnificent places of worship, but Jerusalem too has a strong claim as a religious center and it would, after all, save a lot of time and money if our leaders began their prayers amid our people in Jerusalem.

I admire the pope for making his way to the separation barrier to pray for peace there, but given that Bethlehem is just a short hop from Jerusalem, I wonder whether our own religious leaders could not have made the trip, offering thanks to the soldiers who protect us and acting as our ambassadors for peace.

The Jewish people are charged with being the ethical leaders of the world, Jerusalem is meant to be the city of peace and we are meant to be the shining moral example; "a light of the nations" (Isaiah 42:7).

But, instead of seeing us as an inspirational sovereign Jewish state, the nations of the world take pity on us. "You are incapable of taking care of yourselves," they say, "so we will send peace envoys and religious leaders to stand in the breach and do your work for you. We have become the world's nursery, with a perpetual chain of babysitters dispatched by the international community to coax us into seeking peace.

We live in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by people committed to our destruction. Successfully ending the occupation and signing treaties will take great military knowledge and strategic expertise. While that is the job of the military and political echelons, it does not detract from the role of our religious leaders to preach and pursue peace.

The pope did not put us to shame because he worships differently or because of his credo that we cannot share. He shamed us because in the very areas where we share beliefs, we have abandoned our sacred role and relied on others to seize the initiative.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.

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