During his weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage, which concluded on May 15, Pope Benedict XVI worked hard to improve relations between Catholics and Jews.

Although some Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere, were disappointed by the Holy Father's remarks, they were honored that the Pope, an influential head of state and the leader of the Christian world, decided to spend the bulk of his visit on Israeli soil, visiting holy sites and meeting government officials and religious leaders.

Even before arriving at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport May 8, Pope Benedict was well aware that he might receive a mixed reception.

He knew, for example, of the raw nerve touched by the controversy over his decision to reinstate the traditional Latin Mass in rare cases. Some expected an old Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews to return in those old Masses.

He was aware, too, that he had upset Jews by lifting an excommunication from four bishops, including one whom the world (and Benedict) soon discovered believes that Jews greatly exaggerate the scale of the Nazi Holocaust.

Jews were also offended when, earlier this year, a Vatican official likened the Gaza Strip, then under Israeli military bombardment, to a "giant concentration camp."

This comment was particularly upsetting to the country's 250,000 remaining Holocaust survivors, most of whom were persecuted in Catholic countries by the Nazis.

Even those Israelis who did not support the force Israel used to prevent Hamas militants from sending rockets into southern Israel could not stomach a comparison with the Nazi war machine.

Because Catholic-Jewish relations have been so strained recently, "Israeli Jews had high expectations that the Pope would come to Israel and perhaps set the record straight on a few unresolved issues," according to Yaacov Katz, a professor at Bar-Ilan University's School of Education.

Israelis hoped that Pope Benedict, who was reluctantly drafted into the Hitler Youth movement, "would perhaps say something about the Church and the Holocaust and Holocaust denial."

Pope Benedict did indeed denounce Holocaust denial at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial, where he said, "May the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten."

Unlike some Israeli commentators, Katz was not surprised that the Pope did not apologize for what some Jews consider the Church's shortcomings during the Holocaust. Jews insist the Church could have done more to thwart Hitler; Pope Benedict insists that Pope Pius XII saved thousands of Jews — and that long-sealed Church archives will prove this.

Interfaith Dialogues

In an article in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, Tom Segev, a respected Israeli historian, acknowledged that the Pope "is aware of the historical responsibility that rests on his shoulders as both a German and a Christian," and that he "supports annulling the statute of limitations on prosecuting Nazi criminals in Germany and has visited Yad Vashem once before. On more than one occasion, he has expressed empathy for Jews and for Israel."

Even so, Segev, like many Israelis, had hoped for something more from the German-born Pope.

"No church bell would cease to ring had the Pontiff said something about Christian anti-Semitism, even if he fell short of explicitly saying that without it the Nazis would not have won the support of the German people," Segev wrote. "What he said about the Holocaust sounded too calculated, too diplomatic and professional."

If the Pope's remarks at Yad Vashem seemed impersonal to some, that was not the case during the two interfaith dialogues he attended in Israel, the first in Jerusalem, the second in Nazareth.

Participants said the Holy Father spoke passionately about the need to build bridges between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and he was warm and engaging throughout these encounters. In Nazareth he overcame his shy, reserved demeanor and joined in song, even holding hands with the other faith leaders.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs, said the Pope's presence and eloquent words at the Nazareth gathering "intensified and inspired" the "genuine goodwill among the participants' different faiths."

Rosen, the first Israeli and the first Orthodox rabbi to receive a papal knighthood, marveled at the ease with which the Holy Father spoke with religious leaders, especially Israel's two chief rabbis. Until Pope John Paul II reached out to the previous chief rabbis during his 2000 Holy Land pilgrimage, Jewish leaders in this position were highly suspicious of the Vatican.

"Such a meeting would have been inconceivable two decades ago. A state visit by a Pope would have been inconceivable then," Rosen said, alluding to the diplomatic tensions that prevailed between Israel and the Holy See until the early 1990s. "This shows you how far we have come."

Goals Accomplished

Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, believes the pilgrimage achieved exactly what it set out to do.

"The goals were to show concern for local Christians, to reinvigorate the Jewish-Catholic dialogue by making it clear that he continues in the direction of Vatican II, and to give strength and encouragement to those engaged in interfaith dialogue," Kronish said.

Furthermore, Kronish said, the Pope "came to the state of Israel, met the prime minister, went to the president's house, and strengthened diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Israel, even though there are many unresolved issues."

This instilled Israelis with a great deal of pride, the rabbi said.

Kronish is convinced that Jews around the world understood the Pope's true intentions.

"The Pope came to promote a message of peace, reconciliation and dialogue," he said. "He said this very forcefully at the beginning of his visit and at the end. He met with those of us who are engaged in dialogue, met with the right people, and reached out to everyone."

While Kronish was careful not to disparage the feelings of those disappointed by Pope Benedict's Yad Vashem speech, the interfaith activist said the ensuing "brouhaha" was largely "media orchestrated."

"What will linger are the photos of him at the Western Wall. Those are the memories that will hopefully stay in people's minds," Kronish said. "Personally, I was moved by the Pope's gestures and his actions, which ultimately are more important than words."

Michele Chabin writes
from Jerusalem.