What were we expecting from the pope?

There’s an interesting quote from the Post‘s account of Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial: Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he considered Benedict’s remarks a “serious and important” acknowledgment of what the Holocaust represents, but said he also found the language “a bit restrained.” He and other officials at the memorial said they ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
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Pope Benedict XVI attends a wreath laying ceremony at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on May 11, 2009. The suffering of Holocaust victims should never be forgotten, denied or belittled, Pope Benedict XVI said as he visited Israel's main Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

There's an interesting quote from the Post's account of Pope Benedict's visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial:

Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he considered Benedict's remarks a "serious and important" acknowledgment of what the Holocaust represents, but said he also found the language "a bit restrained." He and other officials at the memorial said they were expecting a more personal expression of empathy, rather than the general remarks Benedict delivered. "Maybe our expectations were too high," Shalev said.

There’s an interesting quote from the Post‘s account of Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel’s Holocaust memorial:

Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev said he considered Benedict’s remarks a “serious and important” acknowledgment of what the Holocaust represents, but said he also found the language “a bit restrained.” He and other officials at the memorial said they were expecting a more personal expression of empathy, rather than the general remarks Benedict delivered. “Maybe our expectations were too high,” Shalev said.

If Shalev was expecting a Larry King-style expression of remorse for Benedict’s youthful involvement with Nazism or his pardon of Richard Williamson, he was definitely expecting too much. If this pope has demonstrated anything so far, it’s that he has little patience for the ritual expressions of “humanity” demanded by the modern news cycle. (And Benedict’s spokesman probably did him no favors by denying that he was ever a member of the Hitler Youth, even though the pope had admitted as much himself in his autobiography.)

For even the most media-savvy public figure, this trip would hae been a tough act to pull off. Some had hoped that the pope could use his spiritual authority to make a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but at this point, Benedict probably has too little credibility with either Jews or Muslims to pull that off. Any non-platitudinous statement he made on behalf of Palestinian rights would just reinforce Jewish skepticism of him and vice versa. 

As for doing damage control, the Holy Land actually seems like the worst possible place to reach out to Jews or Muslims (particularly if you’re trying to reach out to both.) As Marc Lynch noted in his discussion of why Jerusalem would have been an ill-advised choice for Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world, it “would have been a security nightmare, a political football, and at any rate would have turned it into an ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ event instead of a Muslim world event.” 

The pope must have realized this all too well when he had to leave a conference in East Jerusalem yesterday after a Palestinian began railling against Israeli crimes. It would have been difficult enough for this pope to pull off a high-profile conciliatory gesture to Jews, or to Muslims. But trying to do both at once while standing on top of the world’s most volatile political-religious fault-line is damn near impossible. 

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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