Follow the Papal Paper Trail

While there have been a wealth of columns ushering in a new and brilliant era of Catholic-Jewish dialogue here in Israel, there has hardly been a footnote addressing the price Israel may have to pay for the dramatic upgrade in relations.

Ellen W. Horowitz

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It may not have been considered earthshaking news. But I would have thought that the announcement of a possible agreement over the control of a Jerusalem holy site, emanating from a respected Vatican media source and appearing in the London Times, would have certainly warranted an article in Israel's mainstream Hebrew and English press.

While there have been a wealth of columns ushering in a new and brilliant era of Catholic-Jewish dialogue here in Israel, there has hardly been a footnote addressing the price Israel may have to pay for the dramatic upgrade in relations.

The news of a possible deal between the Vatican and Israel - which would hand the Catholic Church control over portions of a building on Mt. Zion that just happens to house King David's Tomb and the Diaspora Yeshiva, in exchange for a former synagogue building in Toledo, Spain - first appeared in the international press on October 12th. A full week later, the item continued making the rounds in various respected publications, but still no word from Israel's mainstream media. There were no confirmations or denials from our diplomats and government officials, nor were there any retractions from the news agencies that broke or reported the original story.

Meanwhile, a lot of us who had already read the draft agreement, viewed the maps and had heard audio clip interviews, via "lesser" news agencies and sources, began to question our sanity.

I'm not crazy. This is newsworthy, right?

In addition to my obvious and automatic distress over hearing of alleged territorial concessions and gestures of sacred areas to the Church, perhaps part of my anxiety over the non-disclosure of the possible Mt. Zion portion of this burgeoning new friendship is that I sensed a familiar pattern. It seems that whenever the Israeli government is anxious to push an agenda through, the powers-that-be and the press are remarkably silent on any "sacrifices" that may need to be made, while they pump up the benefits in a very big way.

On November 2nd, a full three weeks after the news was initially reported, the Jerusalem Post was the first mainstream Israeli paper to make mention of a possible swap agreement - which exists on paper, in draft form, but which President Moshe Katsav claims to know nothing about. Meanwhile, Vatican officials are still hopeful that Israel's president will sign the agreement when he visits the Pope in about two weeks. I hope that by then the president fully understands the far-reaching implications of signing any papers set before him. And I hope the Israeli public is given the opportunity to comprehend exactly what's at stake before being presented with any possible fait accompli.

And where is the government in all of this? Isn't the status and role granted the president of the state supposed to be more symbolic than political? And deal or no deal, since when does our president get the power to wield the Parker pen and relinquish Israeli holdings? Is that proper protocol?

Is this type of confusion and secrecy a harbinger of the new era of Catholic-Jewish relations, or are we simply committing the old errors of negligence and lack of foresight in our rush to find friends and partners? Perhaps we best stop and think before anything else gets overlooked and falls through the cracks.

After all, this is the Middle East, and concluding a contract over a sacred site is a far cry from closing a hi tech deal in Manhattan over a cup of latte. The very concept of holiness calls for time and reflection. One would think that negotiations over holy sites in the holy land would enjoy the same consideration. But don't count on it.

It's a potent mixture of religion, economics and greed - charged with an "End of Days" atmosphere - which has fueled the frantic land grab over Mt Zion and other areas in Israel. Pieces of the Land of Israel are being haggled over and treated like some object in the shuk. And everybody wants a piece of the action.

According to rabbis and spokespersons from the Diaspora Yeshiva, a veritable parade of interested parties have offered them large sums of cash in a frenzied bid for the property, which houses an institution of Torah study, the traditional tomb of King David and is the purported location of the Last Supper. That's one full house.

Last month, it was widely reported that evangelical groups are planning to develop a Christian center, which will include a possible Biblical theme park, on 125 acres of prime Lake Kinneret real estate. Not to be outdone, it seems the Roman Catholic Church aspires to similar grand designs for Mt. Zion. They would like to transform the area into a mini-Vatican complex and a majestic center of Christendom. You can't blame them for having seen spiritual potential in the Land of Israel, which many of us Jews are oblivious to.

The Jewish land developers are only too happy to oblige and promote plans in order to make the Christian dream come true. And what could possibly be wrong with boosting tourism, fueling the economy, and promoting improved interfaith relations through dialogue and gestures? Our very soul and sole possession in this world is at stake, and yet, so few Jewish people can answer that question. That's what's wrong. But depending on where you are standing, one man's business deal is another man's scandal.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not some insulated religious fanatic. As an artist and author, I too reap the benefits of Christian tourism, and of their concern and interest in Israel.

Two weeks ago, I addressed a group of evangelical Christians who were visiting the north of Israel after having attended their annual "Feast of the Tabernacles". I explained to these very fine people that my caution in approaching the Christian community didn't stem from hatred, historical scars or from anti-Semitic paranoia. My discretion is directly connected to my passionate love for and commitment to the Land of Israel. I compared this passion to a protective and maternal love, and I used our matriarchs, patriarchs and prophets to drive home my point. The concept was well accepted by the listeners (and it didn't hurt my sales, either).

Not every Jew and Israeli thinks and feels as I do about Eretz Yisrael and our holy places - I don't expect them to. But until the vast majority of us can perceive just who we are and where we are standing, I suggest that we proceed carefully and thoughtfully in our dealings with the Christian community and their desire for our land.

One need not be a religiously observant Jew to realize the insight of our sages when they cautioned, "Respect them and suspect them." That's not archaic thinking; I believe it's called wisdom.