The Pope and I

This feeling began before Benedict even said a word, as I watched his arrival - on a Jordanian plane that flew the papal flag out of one side of the cockpit and the Israeli flag on the other - two banners of equal importance.

I want to thank Pope Benedict XVI for strengthening my Zionist convictions, increasing my Israeli patriotism and augmenting my Jewish pride. I realize that this was not the purpose of his visit to Israel, but that is what it did for me.

There must be times when even the most ardent Zionist questions if the creation of the Jewish state was really worth it. What with all the wars and terror attacks, the political corruption and organized crime, the conflicts with our neighbors and the conflicts among ourselves, and so forth, aren't there times when most of us have secretly allowed ourselves to wonder if maybe Neturei Karta is right, and we should simply have waited patiently for the Messiah? The pope's visit, though, convinced me that we were right to rush into statehood after waiting a mere 1,900 years. It is not so much what he said - much of which was correct and supportive, but much of which was also banal - but rather, the very visit itself and the symbolism it invoked.

This feeling began before Benedict even said a word, as I watched his arrival - on a Jordanian plane that flew the papal flag out of one side of the cockpit and the Israeli flag on the other - two banners of equal importance. Then came the fact that the pontiff was greeted by the president of Israel, one head of state welcoming another. And that he stood at attention while his own national anthem was played, followed by Hatikvah.

When one considers the role the Catholic Church has played in Jewish history, all of these scenes become almost surreal, something that not so long ago would have been totally unimaginable. How many Jews were martyred through history by the Church, how many accused of the ritual murder of children, who were then canonized while the Jews and their communities were pillaged and slaughtered? These stories can still be seen in stained-glass windows in cathedrals throughout Europe. How many pogroms took place each Easter because of the preaching of priests or the simple reading of the gospels in churches? And how can we forget the slaughter of Jews that took place as an integral part of the Crusades?

Remember the statues on cathedral walls depicting the blind and despised synagogue, in opposition to the enlightened church. Consider the millennia during which the Church taught that the Jews were rejected by God, that the Temple had been destroyed because we refused to accept their messiah, that our Bible was superseded by the so-called "New Testament." Of course, the Church also did not seek our total destruction. Jews were sometimes protected - allowed to remain alive in a miserable and inferior conditions in order to demonstrate what happens to those who reject the teachings of the true Church.

How amazing it is to think that all of those teachings were abandoned as a result of the work of Vatican II, a reversal no less remarkable than the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, none of this means that anti-Semitism has now vanished, but at least it is no longer taught or sanctioned officially by the Church.

For centuries, Roman Catholicism also taught that the Jews would not be able to return to Jerusalem and the Holy Land until they accepted the Christian Messiah. The establishment of the state must have been a difficult pill for the Church to swallow. But its eventual acceptance was symbolized dramatically in the pope's visit to Israel. This was a tremendous contrast to the way Jews had to grovel before church authorities in centuries past. It was also qualitatively different from Jewish groups meeting the pope in the Vatican. Here there was equality between the parties. Even more, here the pope was our guest. He could visit the sites holy to him because we welcomed him.

The pope could have done better. True, he mentioned the State of Israel, denounced anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, called for a continuation of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, reaffirmed all the positions taken by his predecessor and paid tribute to the dead at Yad Vashem. That was all very correct and welcome. He did not, however, take the opportunity presented to him to express deep sorrow and regret either as the leader of the Church or as a German for the Shoah or for anti-Semitism. Perhaps that is his nature and personality. Watching him at Yad Vashem, I could not help but wonder what he must really be thinking and feeling, this German pope who was in the Hitler Youth and the German army. Unfortunately, though, he managed to keep his thoughts hidden.

Yet none of that took away from the importance of the event and what it signaled regarding the standing of Israel and the position of Judaism and the Jewish people today. After all that Jews have suffered, in large measure because of the Church, we have the right to be proud that we have survived and indeed have triumphed. As a people with its own land and its own state, its own government, its own flag, sovereign and independent, we are no longer forced to assume some false humility even when meeting the head of the Catholic Church himself, the leader of so many millions. We cannot compare in size, but as a "free people in our own land" - am hofshi b'artzenu - our stature is not diminished.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is an author and lecturer living in Jerusalem. His most recent book is "Entering Torah."