Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel at 11 a.m. as scheduled, on a direct flight from neighboring Jordan. On hand to greet him were President Peres and most of the government; the Chief Rabbis were not there.
The pope had said his visit was a personal pilgrimage, and Voice of Israel goverment radio talk show host Yaron Dekel said that the pope requested that the Israeli flag and anthem not be in evidence. However, the Jordanian plane carrying the pope to Israel flew flags of both Israel and the Vatican, and the anthems of both were played upon his arrival.
Footage of the pope’s arrival was aired around the world, including in Jordan and Iran.
The only yarmulke-wearing Jew to greet the pope was Science Minister Prof. Rabbi Daniel Hershkovitz of the Jewish Home party. Welfare Minister Yitzchak Herzog was there and exchanged a few words with the Pope; his grandfather, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevy Herzog, had asked to meet with Pope Pius XII during and after the Holocaust, but was rebuffed.
The Shas Party ministers did not arrive, and neither did Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin or the Chief Rabbis. The latter do not plan to meet the visitor during his visit to the Western Wall on Tuesday, but rather only later in the day at the Chief Rabbinate’s formal headquarters in the Heichal Shlomo building. A spokesman for Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said, “When the Chief Rabbis visited the Vatican, he met them in his office, and the Rabbis will meet him in their office as well.”
In the background of this decision still lurks the tension of 45 years ago, when Pope Paul VI made the first-ever papal visit to Israel – and refused to meet the Chief Rabbis in Jerusalem. In response, then-Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim refused to meet the pope altogether.
In addition, Prof. Yitzchak Minerbi, an expert on Catholic-Jewish relations, said, "During an 8-day period during Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza a few months ago, I counted five statements made by the Pope against Israel's offensive - yet I did not find any parallel regarding the Hamas rocket attacks on Sderot. He definitely sides more with the Palestinian side and not the Israeli side."
Peres and the Pope
President Peres and the pope delivered short remarks at the airport. Peres spoke of the “ongoing dialogue in the spirit of the Prophets between Judaism and Christianity,’ and emphasized the freedom of religion and access to religious sites that Israel grants.
The pope mentioned the “State of Israel” in his opening sentence, as opposed to Pope Paul VI, who refrained from doing so during his entire 11-hour visit. Benedict XVI emphasized his “pilgrimage of peace” and criticized anti-Semitism around the world. He said that the Jews had tragically suffered the consequences of destructive ideologies, and that he would go to Yad Vashem to “honor the memory of the six millions Jewish victims of the Shoah.” His German nationality and his membership in the Hitler Youth and German Army of World War II weighed heavily in the background, though not mentioned.
Finally, the pope spoke of his wish for a “just and lasting solution” to the current conflict, expressing his hope for “both nations to live in secure and recognized boundaries" - a reference to the two-state solution that the current Israeli government opposes.
Meeting with Shalit
The pope’s next stop, after an afternoon break, will be at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, at 4:00 p.m. At the initiative of President Shimon Peres, the pope will also meet there with Noam Shalit, father of Hamas terrorist-kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was abducted nearly three years ago, and Hamas has released barely any sign of his life since.
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