My piece that appeared on The Jewish Pluralist website this past week:
Pope Francis in Palestine and Israel
“I have a huge crush on the Pope,” I announced to my coworkers in our Hebron apartment* over supper last fall. “I suppose that’s weird, being Mennonite and all, but…”
“No,” my teammate said, “I’m Muslim and I have a crush on the Pope.”
Even my Jewish husband—who was at first skeptical of Pope Francis because of his silence as Archbishop in Argentina during the 1970s-80s when the U.S.-backed junta was torturing and murdering thousands of Argentineans—has admitted he has been a drastic improvement over recent occupants of the Papal See.
For me, the priority Francis places on caring for the marginalized, and the way he seems to have marginalized more popular obsessions of the Catholic church hierarchy tell me that he is serious about following Jesus, and encouraging the wider church to do so. And let’s face it, the guy is a champion when it comes to symbolism: washing the feet of Muslim women prisoners, confiscating the mansion of a rich bishop and turning it into a soup kitchen, choosing not to live himself in the luxurious Papal palace, but in small monastery apartment.
So I expected a certain amount of symbolism when he arrived in Israel/Palestine this past weekend. And sure enough, that moment happened at the wall that surrounds Bethlehem and which has strangled its economy: the Apartheid/Separation/Security Wall/Fence/Barrier.
Pictures of him laying his hand on the wall and pressing his forehead against it were probably meant to evoke the reverence with which people make contact with the Kotel on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Someone on my Twitter feed crowed, “This picture is worth a thousand Kerry visits.” But in a picture of the Pope laying his head against the wall I see something else. I see a certain slump in his shoulders. I see depression. I see futility—a “God, you must do something, I can do nothing” attitude.
Perhaps I am projecting. You see, I am married to someone who strongly believes in the two state solution as do his J-Street colleagues, whom I like and admire. And the human rights milieu in which I work contains strong proponents for the one-state solution, whom I like and admire. And I, who have worked in Hebron since 1995 and seen the settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank grow from 150,000 to 500, 000 believe this:
Neither solution, as I have studied them, can possibly work, not with the craven Israeli and Palestinian political leadership in power now. Not with Israel holding all the cards and continually confiscating land in the West Bank and building settlements while it claims to want negotiations. Not with the U.S. Congress prepared to give Israel all the aid it wants, no questions asked. I do not see what new or creative ideas Shimon Peres or Mahmoud Abbas, whom the Pope invited to the Vatican while he was in the region, could possibly have to offer to the peace process.
If some solution does come, it will not come from Popes or Presidents, but from people that nobody is watching right now. People who see a chink in the wall of the Occupation that is not widely visible now and a way to bring at least a small part of it down. They in turn will inspire others to bring another part of it down and so on and so on, and finally the politicians will move in, legislate the end and take credit for it.
But I have a feeling that Pope Francis, if no one has assassinated him by then, will know who’s responsible and will give credit where it’s due. (Okay, yeah, I have this worldview thing…)
*I work for a Human Rights organization called Christian Peacemaker Teams. We have projects in Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine and with Indigenous Nations in North America.