The visit of Pope John Paul II in Israel will not be forgotten.
Yet not everything went smoothly.
Shortly after Pope John Paul II announced that he was coming to Israel with the genesis of the new millennium in Spring 2000, our news agency received a memo from the PLO that the Pope was going to come to the United Nations Refugee camp of Deheishe and endorse the “inalienable right of return” for Palestinian Arab refugees to exercise their “inalienable right” to repossess the homes and villages that they had lost in 1948, an act which would essentially dismember the modern state of Israel.
Our agency called the Vatican ambassador in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, also known as the Papal Nuncio, to verify if it was the intention of the Pope to convey any such message.
The Archbishop was clear in his response that this was not the message that the Pope intended to convey in Deheishe, and asked to see what the PLO was communicating.
I then went to see the Papal Nuncio at his suite on the Mount of Olives, overlooking all of the Old City of Jerusalem, and brought a selection of memos, press statements and posters which the PLO had issued to herald the arrival of the Pope.
The Papal Nuncio said that the Pope appreciated being warned in advance that the PLO was trying to put words in the mouth of the Pontiff, and handed our agency the precise text of what the Pope would say when he would arrive in Deheishe – a generalized call for all sides to honor the spirit of UN resolutions.
Following the Pope’s visit to Jerusalem, the Papal Nuncio said that the Pontiff had expressed much interest in knowing more about the PLO operation in Israel, and asked for material about PLO education and PLO media.
The intense interest of the Vatican in PLO intentions surpassed the involvement of the Israeli government and some of the better known Jewish organizations.
In late August 2000, following the breakdown of Israel-PLO talks in Camp David, our agency acquired the new school books of the Palestinian National Authority, which were the first school books issued by Palestinians, designated to replace the school books that had been issued by Jordan and Egypt. These new Palestinian school books were financed by Italy, Belgium, Holland and Finland, while the Palestinian schools themselves were built with funds from the US, Canada, the European Union and the Scandanavian countries. While the Palestinian Ministry of Education had always assured Israel that when the Palestinians would have their own school books, they would be harbingers of peace, the translations of the new school books* showed that the new books were filled with themes of Anti-Semitism, non-recognition of Israel and the inculcation of the struggle to liberate all of Palestine.
Our news agency issued a news story about the new Palestinian school books which was picked up by the major media, and we offered copies of the Palestinian school books to the Israeli government ministries and to all the diplomatic missions in Israel to examine them. Yet when we brought the Palestinian school books to the Israel Minister of Foreign Affairs, he indicated no interest in taking a look at the books.
As I turned to leave the ministry, rather discouraged that highest officials of the Israeli government did not want to see the reality of Palestinian education, I received a call on my cell phone from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Papal Nuncio, saying that he was en route to Rome the next day, with a clear message: “The Pope would like to see the new Palestinian school books. Could you bring the books to the Vatican office in Jerusalem”. Well, with the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs showing no interest in the books, I brought the box of books intended for the perusal of the Israeli government to the Vatican, for the Pope to peruse. En route on the taxi to the Vatican in the Mount of Olives, the Papal Nuncio told me on the cell phone to reassure my children that he was not really who he said he was. Since the Papal Nuncio was calling after hours, he had called my home and asked for me and for my cell phone number from my children, introducing himself as the Pope’s ambassador. My children thought that he was putting them on with a fake accent. Indeed, how many Orthodox Jewish children take telephone messages from the Vatican?
The Papal Nuncio did take the new Palestinian school books to Rome, and the Vatican issued its own recommendations on the Palestinian school books, determining that they were virulently anti-semitic and asked the Italian government to not provide any further funds for the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Italy has not invested any money ever since in these school books.
The spin of the Israeli government at the time was that there had been an improvement in the Palestinian school books, and the Anti Defamation League followed suit and dispatched a letter to Arafat to thank the PLO leader for the reported “improvements” in the Palestinian school books. Only problem was that the government of Israel and the ADL did not bother to do what the Pope did – to read the new Palestinian school books for what they were.
So there you have it: Pope John Paul II showed greater sensitivity to emerging Anti-Semitism in the nascent Palestinian Authority than the government of Israel or the ADL.
This was not the only time in the last years of the Pope’s life that the Pontiff showed warned of emerging Anti-Semitism in the nascent Palestinian National Authority.
In March 2003, the Papal Nuncio in Jerusalem addressed a visiting US Congressional delegation and shared a warning from the Vatican that the new constitution prepared by the Palestinian National Authority for the emerging Palestinian State was based on the most fundamentalist Islamic interpretation of the Sharia Law which now rules Teheran and Mecca, and that the constitution for the emerging Palestinian state allowed for no recognition for the juridical status for Judaism or for Christianity – only a vague call for “tolerance” of monotheistic religions. I covered that presentation and asked for a copy of the new Palestinian constitution which had reached the Vatican, especially since its preparation was funded, in part by grants from US AID.
The Papal Nuncio provided a copy of the constitution in Arabic and the chairman of the Palestinian Constitutional Committee, Nabil Sha’ath, confirmed its authenticity.
We had the constitution translated and analyzed by Arabic-speaking journalists, and posted it on our website.
To this day, no Israeli nor American government spokesman will comment on the warnings issued by the Vatican about the fact that the constitution for a future Palestinian state would create an Anti-Semitic and Anti-Christian entity.
Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II allowed the Vatican in Jerusalem to provide a listening ear to delegations of Christians and others who were persecuted by the new Palestinian National Authority, and went so far as to intervene with Arafat to forestall the executions of Arafat’s opponents.
On Friday, April 1st, 2005, while the Pope was lying in a terminal state in Rome, our news agency had a prescheduled meeting with the Papal Nuncio, to introduce a human rights lawyer to him and to discuss the fate of 51 Palestinian dissidents who had been placed on Death Row by the new Palestinian leader, Mahmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
I hesitated to bother the Vatican at this time.
However, the Papal Nuncio made it clear that the meeting should take place. Human lives were at stake. And the scheduled 15 minute meeting lasted for an hour, so that the Pope’s ambassador in Jerusalem could learn as much as possible about the fate of Abbas’s sentenced opponents. That is what Pope John Paul II would have wanted: to not stand idly by the suffering of his fellow man.
What are the roots of the special sensitivity that Pope John Paul II demonstrated to the subject of Anti-Semitism and to the suffering of people around the globe?
One theory may hold true. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a renowned professor of Jewish history, gave a speech at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit in Jerusalem. Hertzberg asked about a gap that existed in the biography of Pope John Paul in Poland, from 1939 to 1944, while three million Polish Jews were being systematically murdered, in death camps and ghettoes that were nearby the home and church of the young cleric who would become the first Polish Pontiff.
Yes, the future Pope John Paul II saved some Jewish families.
Yet it is not clear if he was involved in any systematic rescue effort to save Polish Jewry.
Perhaps this is why Pope John Paul II approached the Western Wall of what was the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem and asked forgiveness from God and from the Jewish people for the suffering that the Jews had endured at the hands of other Christians.