Did Pope Francis Throw the Symbolism Contest to the Palestinians?


AP Photo/Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Sunday, May 25, 2014.

"The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications." So a Palestinian official involved in negotiating the precise form of Pope Francis's visit to the Holy Land told me yesterday. The comment, though, could as easily have come from an Israeli government source.

The pope's two hosts agreed on this much and no more: His pilgrimage, so carefully choreographed that even the spontaneous moments were planned in advance, sparkled with symbolism. The battle was over determining what the symbolic journey would stand for. The Palestinians won: They largely succeeded in making Francis's visit part of their campaign for statehood through international recognition. And yet, both the pope and the Palestinian strategy are subject to the same question: How much does symbolism really count for?

The Vatican itself—not the Israelis or Palestinians—initiated the visit, and in the Vatican's narrative, it was a peace mission within an entirely Christian context: The pope came to meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to commemorate the breakthrough religious summit 50 years ago in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

So this trip was, in theory, the Vatican's show. The Holy See laid out the program it wanted, Israeli and Palestinian sources told me. But even when it drew up plans, it had to maneuver within the protocol each side expected for a head of state. Then it negotiated for months with the two governments on the details.  Pope Francis was the star, and made choices—but often between pieces of pre-written scripts.

The Palestinians won their first victory in March, when the Vatican announced the official itinerary. "The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel," it said. He'd fly by helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem, rather than arriving via Israel, and proceed immediately to a "courtesy meeting with the president of Palestine," Mahmud Abbas.  The symbolic statement was this: The pope would not be visiting the occupied West Bank, certainly not Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially labels the territory), but independent Palestine. This, presumably, was the pope's choice - but given Abbas's ongoing diplomatic efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the Vatican couldn't evade a decision on whether to use that wording.


The Dehaishe refugee camp outside Bethlehem wasn't part of the Vatican's original proposal—so Hanna Amira, head of the Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Pope's Visit, told me. The Palestinians asked that Pope Francis visit the camp; the Vatican said the schedule was too tight. The solution, Amira told me, was the brief stop at the Phoenix community center at the camp entrance, where the pope met Palestinian children.

The apparent addition to the itinerary to satisfy Israel was laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, author of Der Judenstaat and founder of political Zionism. Actually, though, this wasn't a special request. According to Rabbi David Rosen, an international interfaith expert and a key figure in Vatican-Israel relations, a ceremonial stop at the grave has been added to Israeli protocol for visiting leaders since the last papal visit, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. It was diplomatic ritual, not a special demand imposed on Pope Francis. If  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted it to hint at papal approval of his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel specifically as a Jewish state, the symbolism was oblique and weak.

Then there were the events that didn't appear on the schedule. On Sunday, during the Palestine piece of the pilgrimage, the motorcade suddenly halted near the Israeli separation barrier—at that point, a high concrete wall. Pope Francis got out of his car, walked to the wall, put his hand on it, and prayed. According to Amira, "he stopped spontaneously." But the agreed program was that he would see the wall, and in a pilgrimage scripted to the minute, pure spontaneity stretches credibility.

The Israeli answer, in any case, was certainly negotiated with the papal party, as compensation: The next morning, after visiting Herzl's grave in the Israeli national cemetery, the pope and Netanyahu added a stop at a memorial for Israeli terror victims, where the prime minister explained that Israel built the separation wall to stop attacks against its citizens. Pope Francis, again, prayed briefly. In the symbolism contest, the moment lacked the force of the pope dwarfed by a concrete expanse.

That was the prelude to the station of the pilgrimage where the visitor most obviously insisted on his independence: Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. There he made his trademark gesture of humility, kissing the hands of the Holocaust survivors who were chosen to meet him.


In his short, poetic speech, the pope used the Hebrew word "Shoah" for the genocide—but otherwise said nothing about the particular identity of the murderers or the murdered. Instead, he asked how humanity created by a good God could commit such evil. He described God again posing the question, as to Adam after he sinned, "Where are you?", and cast the Holocaust as a new, more terrible Fall of Man, thereby placing genocide within Catholic theology. His explanation of the evil as rooted in self-deification—the most extreme failure of humility—could be seen as reflecting his personal religious stress.

This was provocative. On one hand, the Holocaust indeed raises universal questions about human evil, and should challenge the faith of anyone who believes in God. It makes sense for a pope, as theologian, to confront those questions. On the other hand, for the head of the Catholic Church to visit a Jewish memorial and say nothing of the historical Holocaust—the Jewish victims; the role of the Church in creating in European anti-Semitism, the questions about the Church's own actions during the genocide—is jarring, to understate the matter. The pope, let us surmise, was afraid of affirming the constant political use that the current Israeli government makes of the Holocaust. He apparently decided if he didn't want to follow his hosts' narrative, he'd have to depart from it entirely.

Here lay the pilgrim's dilemma: Israel's offered symbols of the past to justify current policies. The Palestinian script offered symbols of current suffering as a reason for urgent change. The latter script is more mediagenic. And the pope who has cast himself as champion of the downtrodden was apparently more comfortable with it.

But then, how much is the symbolism worth? Pope Francis's critics have already raised this problem: For all his gestures of understanding for gays or single mothers and his criticism of capitalism, he hasn't yet changed the powerful, patriarchal institution that he leads, and offers little indication that he will do so. A similar criticism pertains to Abbas's diplomatic strategy: Palestine can be recognized by scores of countries, but so what? On the ground, there is no state.

The answer, perhaps, is that symbols don't alter harsh reality. Years later, we may discover that they were an excuse for inaction—or that they prepared people's minds to create real change.  It will take a long time to judge whether the pope's pilgrimage actually had political implications.


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