The Pope and the Nakba

While the finest Israeli writers confront the moral challenge of upholding the justice of the Zionist enterprise while understanding the Palestinians' pain and rights, we hear no comparable moral voice on the other side.

At first glance there is nothing in common between Pope Benedict XVI's visit and the Palestinian Nakba. But one thing links the two: relations with the Jewish people. For generations the Catholic Church advanced the idea that Jesus' gospel had its roots in Jewish scripture, but that the New Testament annulled the original covenant between God and the Jewish people, which refused to recognize its messiah and thereby lost the legitimacy to exist.

This traditional theological approach underwent a revolutionary change in the Second Vatican Council in the early-to-mid 1960s. It not only absolved the Jewish people of collective guilt for crucifying Jesus, but recognized the continuing covenant between God and the Jews, paving the way for recognizing the legitimacy of their existence. This transformation, in turn, enabled the Vatican's recognition of the State of Israel. During his visit to Jerusalem, John Paul II demonstrated tremendous magnanimity when in the note he placed in the Western Wall he asked the Jewish people's forgiveness for the injustice brought on them by the church for generations. The fact that Benedict chose Mount Nebo to emphasize the deep link between Christianity and Judaism testifies to his awareness of the Jewish people's ties to the Land of Israel.

Such soul-searching is entirely absent from the way the Palestinians treat every May 15, marking the pain of what befell them in 1948. As Jews and Israelis we cannot be indifferent to this pain, as it is clear the Nakba is directly tied to the founding of the State of Israel. But maybe it could be expected that the Palestinians recognize that their behavior - their refusal to accept the UN partition plan and the decision to respond to it with force - is part of the reason for what happened to them. None of this appears in the Palestinian narrative, which contains only the injustice committed against them.

It could all have been different. Had in 1948 the Palestinians accepted the partition plan as did the Jews (albeit grudgingly), two states would have been born and hundreds of thousands of people would not have been uprooted from their homes and become refugees. Arab and Palestinian literature and public relations completely lack this self-criticism. Even today, when the idea is raised of matching Israeli recognition of a Palestinian nation state with Palestinian recognition of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, the moderates in the Palestinian Authority respond with unqualified refusal. This is not a tactical rejection, it is deeply rooted in Palestinians' unwillingness to recognize that in 1948 they made an enormous, tragic mistake; even today they are unable to accept the principle of partition.

The Palestinians are willing to talk about two states, but not for two nations, since that would imply recognition of the Jews as a people. Maybe it is too much to ask the Palestinians to demonstrate awareness of the other side's rights. But while the finest Israeli writers - from S. Yizhar to Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman - confront the moral challenge of upholding the justice of the Zionist enterprise while understanding the Palestinians' pain and rights, we hear no comparable moral voice on the other side. To this day, no intellectual has arisen who is willing to recognize the Jewish people's struggle and link to the Land of Israel.

Perhaps we can hope that the pope's visit will lead to Palestinian soul-searching similar to the church's. While these are entirely different planes, if the church is able to recognize its mistakes, it's possible the Palestinians, too, will begin opening up to the voice of the other - the Jew, the Israeli. Without such a willingness, it's difficult to hope that the principle of partition - two states for two peoples - will ever be realized.