The Pope’s tour of the Holy Land left no doubt that the 266th Pontiff is one of the most politically engaged heads of the Catholic Church in living memory.
Rather than follow the cautious and quiescent path of his predecessors when it comes to sensitive issues, Pope Francis has revealed an appetite for engaging them head on. Whether it is to do with social and economic injustice because of government policies across the EU in response to the collapse of neoliberalism, whether it is on the issue of global poverty, or whether war and conflict, this pope has sought to effect positive change.
When it comes to the seemingly intractable obstacles to a lasting and just settlement of the Israel-Palestine question, Pope Francis deserves credit for attempting to succeed where countless peace processes, initiatives, and rounds of international diplomacy have failed. However, his visits to the various Muslim and Jewish holy sites and to controversial landmarks associated with the conflict – such as the security barrier/apartheid wall – carried more symbolic than political weight during the tour, in the absence of any concrete political process, symbolism matters.
Pope Francis’ ability to engender the goodwill of Israelis and Palestinians alike, culminating in both the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, accepting his invitation to meet with him in Rome, bears testament to the trust he has built around the world over the course of his time as pontiff. Considering the extreme sensitivities that surround this issue in particular, he had to tread a sensitive path during his tour to ensure that he did not demonstrate favouritism to either side, thus alienating one at the expense of the other.
Due to the sharp polarisation that exists between Israelis and Palestinians over every aspect of the tragic history that has impacted both, this can never be anything other than a near impossible task, making the pope’s success in doing so all the more impressive.
An example of the sensitivities concerned came with Pope Francis’ decision to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl during his tour. Herzl is venerated in Israel as the father of Zionism, the ideological foundation of the state of Israel. Without Herzl, Israelis claim, there would be no Israel, and without Israel to bring the Jewish people together in a state of their own, they would be at risk and vulnerable to another genocide. To Palestinians, however, Zionism is a racist, supremacist ideology, providing justification for their dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and seven decades of suffering at the hands of what they and their supporters consider an apartheid state.
Squaring both positions, finding some middle ground between both, remains a forlorn hope, illustrating the extent of the enmity that exists between two peoples who find themselves existing cheek by jowl. If it were true that history can act both as a spur to progress or be a brake on it, in the Holy Land the latter has long been the case, with two competing historical narratives clashing head on.
For Israelis, and Jewish people the world over, the Holocaust looms large over every aspect of their lives, informing their worldview, sense of nationhood, and the unequivocal assertion of the right to do whatever it takes to ensure their security regardless of the opinions or condemnation of the international community. It is an outlook responsible for a sense of exceptionalism, a belief in Israel’s right to contravene and violate international law when and if it suits its national interest. The occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land is a case in point, as is the continued refusal to allow the return of the millions of Palestinian refugees to the land from which they or their parents and grandparents were removed or left during what Israelis know as the War of Independence, but which to the Palestinians will always be known as the Nakba (Catastrophe). Both names describe the conflict and convulsion that ensued in 1948, when Israel came into being as a modern nation state recognised by the United Nations.
The Nakba carries the same significance for Palestinians and Arabs in general, as the Holocaust does for Israelis and Jews the world over. Afif Asieh, a Palestinian diplomat, cogently described the truth at the heart of the hierarchy of human suffering which both sides contest in the following terms:
“No one people has a monopoly on human suffering and every ethnic tragedy stands on its own.
If I were a Jew or gypsy, Nazi barbarity would be the most atrocious event in history. If I were a black African, it would be slavery and apartheid. If I were a Native American, it would be the discovery of the New World by European explorers and settlers that resulted in near-total extermination. If I were an Armenian, it would be the Ottoman massacres.
I happen to be a Palestinian, and for me it is the Nakba.
Humanity should consider all the above repugnant. I do not consider it advisable to debate hierarchies of suffering. I do not know how to quantify pain or measure suffering. I do know that we are not children of a lesser God.”
As well as history being capable of being a spur to progress and a brake on it, it also reveals that empires and colonial projects often fall under the weight of their own contradictions. This usually takes place over a protracted period of determined resistance, passive and active, on the part of its victims - unless, of course, its victims are wiped out in the process, or close to it. Consider the fate of the Native Americans or Australia’s indigenous aborigines in this regard. At the same time the material privileges gained from the exploitation and expropriation of a colonised people acts as a slow-acting corrosive on the society of the colonising state, poisoning it with racism and hatred for those it has colonised as it seeks to justify the material privileges and psychological sense of supremacy and national pride that accrues from that colonisation.
Israel reflects this process in the fact it is currently being governed by possibly the most right wing government in its history. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, it shows no evidence of being willing to grant any concessions to the Palestinians anytime soon. Here again, though, we must be careful to remember than unlike other colonial states, Israel was forged from the ashes of a European Holocaust that saw six million Jews slaughtered for no other reason than they were Jews. The psychological impact of this heinous crime against humanity can never be underestimated, regardless of the actions of the Israeli state in its repression of the Palestinian people and their right to freedom and statehood.
Regardless, the injustice suffered by the Palestinians cannot be justified by the Holocaust - else we describe a world in which the only answer to injustice and suffering is to oppress and inflict suffering on others. Moreover, the victims of the Holocaust share a bond of humanity with victims of every other genocide and state sanctioned crimes against humanity throughout history. It is a bond of suffering that transcends ethnicity, religion and/or nationality, and which embraces the many thousand Palestinian victims of the Nakba and the millions more subsequently rendered stateless and refugees as a consequence. It is a circular relationship that cannot be broken, no matter the determined efforts some make to isolate and elevate acts of barbarism and crimes against humanity above others.
Nothing we have seen recently suggests that Israelis or Palestinians are ready to acknowledge the suffering both have suffered in their recent history. That said, to posit the issue as one involving two equal sides fails to get to the heart of it. The axiom that only the strong can compromise and only equals can reach agreement applies. Moreover, here Israel holds all the cards. The Palestinians have nothing to bargain with, no leverage to bring to bear, other than the moral force of their argument for the justice that has long denied them.
If Pope Francis is to succeed in having any impact where others have failed, he has to succeed in bringing Israel round to the realisation that justice for the Palestinian people will not threaten its security, but rather will enhance it.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.