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The Christian-Jewish divide

Pope's visit shows relations still awkward

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For Jerusalem's Jewish municipality, the photograph of a merry Pope in a white skullcap waving at passing crowds from the walls of the Christian Information Center was a step too far. Officials asked the Franciscan fathers who run the place to take it down. The monks said they could not in good conscience oblige, but invited the police to do it themselves. The police diplomatically stayed away. The municipal authorities did not comment.

Pope Francis' visit to Israel last week is stirring ambivalence, if not soul-searching, about the Israeli state's attitude toward other religions, particularly Christianity.

The Education Ministry shows scant interest in the teaching of other religions to Jews. Ahead of the Pope's visit, however, it has prepared material for schools highlighting Pope John XXIII's intervention, as a wartime papal nuncio in Istanbul, to save Jews from the Holocaust by issuing false baptismal certificates.

"Normally we learn about Christianity only in the context of the persecution of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust," an official in the ministry says. "This will be a different approach entirely."

A ceremony was recently held in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to honour John XXIII, which organizers said was the first commemoration there of a non-Jew. He was praised for enabling thousands of Jews to flee from Nazi-occupied Europe. It also was noted he was the nuncio to France who promoted the United Nations resolution in 1947 that created Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Most notably, perhaps, he was the architect of the Second Vatican Council, which overturned the church's doctrine blaming Jews for rejecting and killing Christ.

Parliamentarians from national-religious and ultra-Orthodox parties boycotted the event to show their displeasure. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stayed away with most members of the government, wants to change Israel's Basic Law to define the country as a Jewish state, which the opposition says will turn the one in four Israelis who are not of Jewish descent into second-class citizens.

Jews tend to agree with Judaism's greatest medieval scholar, Moses Maimonides, that Christianity, but not Islam, is idolatrous. A survey in 2008 found 37 per cent thought they were forbidden to enter churches. The Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, which promotes interfaith harmony, says it still refrains from taking Jewish children into churches.

In the earlier years of the Israeli state, Israel's archaeologists excavated Byzantine churches in the Old City's Jewish Quarter and built visitors' centres to give people an idea of what they were like.

Now they are padlocked. A guard blocks the stairwell to the ruins of Nea Ekklesia, a church whose golden roof and marble walls once rivalled Constantinople's Hagia Sophia.

The Jewish Quarter's officials, who hold the key, are loath to open up.

"The government doesn't want anyone to hear about the diversity of the Jewish Quarter," says Yoni Mizrahi, who runs Emek Shaveh, an Israeli organization that promotes a pluralist approach to religious archaeology. "Israel wants to emphasize that it belongs to us."

Such feelings colour attitudes toward the Pope's visit. Jerusalem's Jewish municipality says it welcomed him with 1,000 flags and banners, but tour guides advised visitors to the Jewish Quarter to hide their crucifixes, and a former city councilor wants to ban wearing them there.

Some religious scholars offer gentler alternative narratives. Israel's former chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, and his predecessor, Avraham Kook, both opposed Maimonides' ruling. They based their argument on Menachem HaMeiri, a 13th-century rabbi who ruled the Talmud's prohibition of idolatry did not apply to Christians. Others say the Talmudic principle of nishtanu hatva'im (circumstances change) calls for a reappraisal.

"Christianity is not the same Christianity as 500 years ago," says Rabbi David Rosen, who has been an emissary of the chief rabbi to the Vatican.

The greater frequency of papal visits to Israel in recent years is proof of a sea change in the Vatican. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty over Israel in 1948 came as something of a jolt to a church whose fathers condemned Jews to wander until they accepted the true Messiah. So tongue-tied was the first pope to visit, Paul VI, 50 years ago, that he is said to have addressed his host as "President of Tel Aviv."

Subsequent visits went better. Three decades later, Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations and stuck a kvitel, or note, into the Western Wall.

"We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of yours to suffer," it read.

Yair Tsaban, a minister two decades ago, suggests Israel's rabbis should launch their own "Vatican II" and soften the Jewish canon. The Passover prayer book, the Haggadah, which calls on God to pour his wrath onto the nations, may, he suggests, be a good place to start.

Perish the thought, a man in the chief rabbinate says.

"Judaism has nothing to erase," he says. "We never massacred Christians."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2014 0

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