A pontiff who appears to be the most humble in generations might be hard, almost impossible to humiliate. That didn’t keep the first foreign leader to star in political ads opposing a sitting American President’s re-election efforts from trying, though.
Sunday, Pope Francis made an unscripted stop at a section of the apartheid wall in the Bethlehem shtetl, upon which a message to the pope had been spray-painted. He stopped his entourage, got out of the popemobile lite he was traveling in, went up to the wall, touched the graffiti. Then he put his head against the sterile concrete barrier and prayed.
On Monday, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “demanded” the pontiff make a similar gesture at the Mt. Herzl National Cemetery:
Pope Francis visited a memorial to Jewish victims of terrorism on Monday after Israel demanded the gesture as a counter-weight to his decision to pray at the foot of the giant wall that symbolises the divisions between Palestinians and Israelis.
Israeli officials were angered by the Pope’s impromptu initiative at the separation barrier on which ‘Free Palestine’ was scrawled in graffiti on Sunday, which they felt handed a propaganda victory to the Palestinians, who regard the wall as the ultimate symbol of their subjugation and a potent example of illegal land-grabbing.
There were reports that the Palestinian Authority was planning to have the image of the Pope praying at the barrier made into a postage stamp.
Deciding, in the words of one Israeli official, not to ‘get mad but to get even,’ they strongly suggested to the Vatican that the Pope should pray at the memorial on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, made it plain that the visit to the memorial had been at his instigation.
The pope prayed at a lot of places of enormous significance. The apartheid wall, the Mt. Herzl Memorial, the Wailing Wall (where he inserted a paper effigy of The Lord’s Prayer, handwritten in Spanish), and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Netanyahu’s “don’t get mad, get even” strategy is so facile, so sophomoric, so narcissistic, I don’t even want to go there past citing the event.
The Palestinians in the the West Bank Bantustans are excited that the pope addressed “The State of Palestine,” something few Western leaders have done so openly or publicly:
Pope Francis delivered a powerful boost of support to the Palestinians during a Holy Land pilgrimage Sunday, repeatedly backing their statehood aspirations, praying solemnly at Israel’s controversial separation barrier and calling the stalemate in peace efforts ‘unacceptable.’
Palestinian officials hailed Francis’ decision to refer to the ‘state of Palestine.’ In its official program, the Vatican referred to President Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the ‘state of Palestine,’ and his Bethlehem office as the ‘presidential palace.’ He pointedly called Abbas a ‘man of peace.’
His call for the President of Israel and head of the Palestinian Authority to join him at his apartment in the Vatican for prayers for peace was accepted:
President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately accepted a surprise invitation by Pope Francis in Bethlehem on Sunday to join him at the Vatican to pray for peace.
He issued his call on the second day of his Middle East trip, in the midst of a large public Mass he celebrated in Manger Square, the site of Jesus’s birth.
‘Here, at the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,’ he said.
The pope’s decision to bring the power of prayer into the diplomatic arena comes at a moment when direct negotiations have been suspended and the US-led, nine-month peace process appears to have failed.
Peres and Abbas said they welcome the initiative and appreciate the pontiff’s efforts to achieve peace.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office made no comment on the Vatican invitation.
Netanyahu, however, did make another attempt to either humiliate the pope or befuddle him:
Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded words on Monday over the language spoken by Jesus two millennia ago.
‘Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,’ Netanyahu told Francis, at a public meeting in Jerusalem in which the Israeli leader cited a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity.
‘Aramaic,’ the pope interjected.
‘He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,’ Netanyahu shot back.
We do know Jesus spoke Aramaic in conversation on a daily basis. He must have been familiar with such Hebrew as was part of liturgical activities, if the Gospels are indicators. No Biblical citations indicate him actually speaking the latter language in his evangelical efforts, though.
Netanyahu is such a boor. He had an opportunity to reach out to a remarkable religious figure in the making and blew it. Perhaps intentionally. There is no way to humiliate such a humble man.
In spite of my utter disdain for Netanyahu, part of this is sad beyond what I’ve read or heard discussed yet. And that is that the Avigdor Liebermans and Naftali Bennetts waiting in the wings for Netanyahu’s demise may be even more contemptible.