IPS Fellow Phyllis Bennis discusses the Pope’s visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
Pope Francis has wrapped up his trip throughout Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. His trip was notable for a direct flight from Jordan to Bethlehem, and during his time there he laid a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s grave, prayed at the separation barrier, and called for peace while standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Now joining us to discuss this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, including Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS, FELLOW, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Good to be with you.
WORONCZUK: So, Phyllis, what do you think was significant about Pope Francis’s trip?
BENNIS: Well, you know, there were a number of things he said that were very important. He used the plea for justice as well as the traditional plea for peace. That was important. He issued an invitation to meet with him at the Vatican to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, although, interestingly, not to the Israeli prime minister.
But aside from everything he said, this was really all about the visuals. That was the most important thing, starting with what you mentioned, his flight directly from Jordan by helicopter, directly to Bethlehem, meaning he did not go through the Israeli-controlled border crossing over the Jordan River into the West Bank. He didn’t acknowledge that Israeli control over Palestinian territories. That was very important. That was very important orchestration.
But the other thing that I think was perhaps the most important was his decision to stop the Popemobile, get out, and go directly to what’s–the Palestinians call the apartheid wall, lean up, lean his head against the wall, and pray there. There had been a running battle going on for several nights between Palestinian kids in Bethlehem and the Israeli soldiers who were trying to whitewash the graffiti on the wall, and the kids would come back and repaint it. And by the time the Pope came, the kids had won, the graffiti remained, it had not been whited out, and he prayed next to graffiti that said, apartheid wall and Bethlehem is like the Warsaw Ghetto, because now the apartheid wall almost surrounds much of Bethlehem, and there was a very strong concern from people in Bethlehem, from the Palestinians, that the Pope see that and recognize it and be confronted with that. So it was very important.
He met with refugees from a number of camps in the area. He went to Dheisheh Camp and met with refugee children. That was all incredibly important.
But I think the most important single thing was his confrontation with the wall that the Palestinians call the apartheid wall. Ironically, of course, Israelis do too; they just use different language. The Israelis call it /pɑːfrədɑː/, which means separation. Palestinians call it apartheid, which means separation in Afrikaans instead of in Hebrew. So everybody calls it the same thing. But it was a very powerful moment.
Now, not surprisingly, the Israelis tried very hard to get some what they consider balance on the trip. So along with the usual sort of diplomatic sites, they took the Pope to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. They took him also to the newer memorial for Israeli victims of terrorism. And that was–you know, that’s the usual place they take diplomatic visitors.
But they also did something else. They took him to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl. That was a bit unusual.
Now, it was interesting. There was a note from Diana Buttu, a well-known Palestinian lawyer and analyst, who noted that the places the Israelis took the Pope were all examples of earlier oppression against Jews–the Holocaust and terrorism against Israelis. The wall represents the current oppression of Palestinians. So that was a very interesting note.
The one thing that I had wished would have been different–and this was an extraordinary visit very different than earlier popes’ visits–one of the things I wished that the Pope had referenced when he went to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, the guy who wrote The Jewish State, I wish that he would have quoted from some of Herzl’s own language. Herzl famously (and wrote about it later in his diaries) wrote letter after letter to Cecil Rhodes, the famous or, shall we say, infamous British colonialist, who claimed so much of Africa for the British Crown. And he wrote to–Herzl wrote to Rhodes and said that he wanted his support. And he wrote here–and I’ll quote from the letter–he said, “You”–addressing Rhodes, “You are being invited to help make history. […] [I]t doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews. […] How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.” Those were the words of Theodor Herzl. And to recognize that he thought that the creation of a European Jewish state in Palestine was, quote, “something colonial” is something I wish that the Pope might have mentioned. Perhaps it’s not realistic, but maybe on his next trip.
WORONCZUK: So Pope Francis has been fairly widely celebrated in the press for calling for social transformation, dealing with the issues of inequality and poverty. But how much does this trip to Israel and the occupied territories show, like, a marked departure from past Vatican policy? ‘Cause from what I understand, Pope Francis was still calling for the two-state solution, which I don’t think–if I understand correctly, isn’t much different from Vatican policy the past few decades.
BENNIS: Well, I think on that level it’s true. But I think there were significant differences. Many of the things that the Pope referenced were more consistent with some of his earlier statements about issues of inequality and social justice.
Now, we should keep in mind this is still the Catholic Church. Nobody’s talking–this pope is certainly not talking about equality for women, equality for gay people, although he did make that rather extraordinary statement about who am I to judge. Well, you’re the Pope. Other popes have said they could judge; he said, who am I to judge? So that was good. Women still can’t be priests. There are still huge problems in terms of equality for women and gay people in the Catholic Church.
But some of the things that this pope has talked about in terms of economic equality, social equality, were much more consistent with some of the things he said. When he spoke about the need for justice in the region, not only the call for peace, I think that was new and different. In the past, popes have gone to the region and have really focused on rebuilding the relationship with Israel. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community had, of course, been very tense ever since the Holocaust, when the pope at that time was accused of doing too little to either expose or try to prevent or end the Holocaust. So, much of the focus was trying to rebuild the relationships with Israel.
This time, it was very clear that this pope saw his relationship with the Palestinians, not only Christian Palestinians, as earlier popes have rather limited their vantage point, not only Christian Palestinians but Palestinians as a whole was as important to him as the relationship with Israel.
WORONCZUK: Okay, Phyllis, thank you very much for that report.
BENNIS: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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