Fall 2014, Vol. 15, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 


Current issue:
Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Religion in the News is Dead! Long Live Religion in the News!

The Contraceptive Mandate Marches On

Hell No, I Won't Go 

Ukraine's Orthodox Breakup        

Marriage is Always Complicated in Utah

Breaking Bad in Burma

Evangelicals Wimp Out on Immigration

Pew on Jew

Zen Master in the Garden

The Pope’s Israel Driveby

Noah: The Movie

The Art of RIN





The Pope's Israel Driveby  
by Yoel Cohel


Pope Francis’ whirlwind pilgrimage to the Holy Land in late May was a relatively modest media event—especially for Israelis. A mere 27 hours in Israel following an open-air Mass in Jordan and a brief swing through the Palestinian territories, the visit was a shadow of the week-long sojourns of Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000.

To be sure, some 400 foreign reporters—including the 70 who cover the Vatican on a regular basis—flew in for the occasion. But that was less than a third of the 1500 who showed up at the turn of the millennium for John Paul.

And yes, on May 24, the day of Francis’ arrival, the popular dailies Yediot Aharonot and Yisroel Hayom inscribed “Salve, Pontifex Franciscus!” across their front pages on the light blue background usually reserved for national holidays. But tellingly, the English-language press—the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz’s English edition gave him significantly more coverage than the Hebrew-language papers.

“It is a spectacular way to attract the world’s Catholics, but these papal visits have become routine, Hebrew University international relations professor Raymond Cohen told the Jerusalem Post Magazine May 23. “This is indicative—no one is falling off their chairs because of it.”

As in the past, the Ministry of Tourism played a key role, ensuring that Christian websites around the globe received live feeds of the pope’s activities. Not surprisingly, the Israelis were more interested in their own agendas.

Where Francis’ top priority was to advance the cause of church unification by meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the weeks leading up to the pilgrimage Israeli newspapers carried alarm stories claiming that Israeli officials were negotiating to give the Vatican sovereignty over the Cenacle—the room where the Last Supper is believed to have taken place. Because King David’s tomb is also believed to be located in the same building, Jewish religious circles were rife with rumors.

In fact, the negotiations were only about extending prayer hours, albeit significantly, from two days a year to once a week. Editorialized Haaretz (the voice of the liberal Israeli mainstream), “The Christians in Jerusalem are not temporary visitors—they are part of the city, its history and its present. It would, therefore, be a good thing for the government to reach an agreement in which it allows true freedom of worship for the Christians on Mount Zion.”

But Jerusalem city councilor Aryeh King told Peggy Cidor of the Jerusalem Post that this would turn the tomb (“the second holiest site for Jews”) into a church. “In order to conduct a mass there, they have to display a cross,” King said. “That’s idol worship, and it will desecrate the site.”

In the Orthodox press, such concerns extended to the pope himself. “All he wants is to convert us,” one rabbi told the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) weekly Shavua Tov. Similarly, BaSheva, a weekly identified with the stricter members of the Modern Orthodox community, quoted another rabbi as saying, “One should not give legitimacy to idol worship—and certainly not of enhancing relations with the representative of a religion that murdered for 2014 years, and still does not request atonement.”

In his May 29 roundup of rabbinical opinion, BaSheva reporter Nitzan Kedar contrasted Ashkenazi (European) Chief Rabbi David Lau, who favored the dialogue with the pope, with Sephardi (Oriental) Chief Rabbi Itzhak Yosef, who agreed to only minimal contact. Kedar noted as well the liberal Orthodox Bet Hillel group of rabbis, who acknowledged that “notwithstanding the painful past, the Church today has taken positive steps to Judaism in particular to the Israeli State.”

(A recent survey by the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian relations showed that 39 percent of Israeli Jews think that the Catholic Church has a positive or very positive view of Jews and Judaism as opposed to 40 percent who believe the view is negative or very negative.)

While Francis’ visit to the Kotel (the Jerusalem Temple’s ancient Western Wall) was covered widely by all sections of the Israeli media, his meeting with the chief rabbis received scant attention. An exception was a vivid account in the ultra-Orthodox paper Hamodia by Yisroel Katzover, who described how the pope surprised the rabbis by asking for their blessing.

Francis’ decision to arrive in Israel via visits to sites in the Palestinian territories not only led to a predictable slamming match between Israelis and Palestinians but also gave the pope a chance to score some points of his own.

The Palestinian media provided widespread coverage of the pope’s visit to the Dehaishe refugee camp, as well as of his Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As Haaretz Arab affairs reporter Jackie Khouri reported, this gave the Palestinians “great opportunities to draw attention to the crisis in the peace process.”

Before being met at the Church of the Nativity by a huge poster of the infant Jesus wrapped in a black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh, Francis made an unscheduled stop at the controversial security wall—built by Israel to prevent infiltration by terrorists—where he recited a prayer for peace.

The wall, surrounded by graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and “Bethlehem looks like Warsaw Ghetto,” amounts to a kind of Palestinian Kotel, and the fact that the pope stopped there appeared to create an equivalence to his visit to the Western Wall. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by adding to the schedule a stop at the monument memorializing Israelis slain by Palestinian terrorism.

As Shlomo Tzenya, political correspondent of Yisroel Hayom, remarked May 27, “The pope planned a religious-oriented visit but departed from protocol twice to the political arena.”

Francis’ religious goal of fostering unity with the Orthodox was advanced by no fewer than three encounters with Patriarch Bartholomew marking the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964. Besides discussions at the official residences of the heads of both communities in Jerusalem, Francis and Bartholomew held a joint Communion service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—streamed live to Catholic and Orthodox audiences worldwide.

The Catholic-Orthodox meetings were all but lost on Israeli Jewish as well as Palestinian Muslim audiences. Scant coverage on the part of the local media was a reflection of the lack of interest in Christianity generally on the part of Israeli journalists.

In a survey of 250 Israeli journalists carried out by the author and published here for the first time, only 13 percent indicated that news of Christianity was of high or very high news interest, while 38 percent said it was of average and 38 percent of low interest. By contrast, 41 percent said news of Islam was of high or very high news interest. (A 2005 content analysis of religion news in Israel by the author found that only 0.4 percent dealt with Christianity.)               

In one sense the relative lack of interest in Christianity is only to be expected in a country where just 2 percent of the population is Christian. But in another sense it is the result of the way religion is covered in the Jewish State. The mandate of Israeli religion reporters does not extend beyond covering Judaism—and, in some cases, only Haredi Judaism. Because of the absence of regular coverage of Christianity in Israel, when a major story like a papal pilgrimage occurs, the typical Israeli Jewish news consumer turns the page.

Pope Francis sought to advance an interfaith agenda by bringing with him Rabbi Abraham Storka and Imam Omar Abboud, leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities of Buenos Aires with whom he had built close personal ties while archbishop. And in what the international press considered a daring move, he invited outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas—known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen—to come to Rome to pray for Mideast peace.

The Vatican prayer meeting, which took place on June 9, received little play in Israel. Indeed, only the English-language media took note of the event.

Under the sour headline, “An empty prayer for people at the Vatican,” Anshel Pfeffer pointed out in Haaretz’s English edition that both leaders were “born of a generation that turned away from a religious background of their childhood to embrace the paths of socialism, and nationalism—coming to realize that the future of their nations lay in alliance with the West. The Pope graciously gave Peres and Mazen his day of rest, but they have little use for his prayers.”

Given the war in Gaza that broke out a month later, it was hard to think that anyone on either side had much use for them.



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