The Pope And Ruby's Tuesday

(Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin, second from the left)

Pope Benedict XVI is not a man to feel sorry for himself, or even think his pronouncements just those of a man. Yet it is hard not to extend him some sympathy for braving a trip to Jerusalem this week. The mission was delicate from the start, stepping as he was into the middle of a blood feud between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. As the world's most famous neither-of-the-above, he was bound to be seen as a some kind of proxy for the conscience of the world--something like what the stately Notre Dame complex has come to represent among the buildings of Jerusalem: a neutral place where Israelis and Arabs go for "dialogue," while Christians listen, encourage--remind. The Pope's silence would have been interpreted, not as tactfulness, but as cowardice. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not imagine, well, an audience?

At the same time, of course, the Pope represents the great rival tradition whose dogmas and power have inspired both ghettos and crusades. Both sides want him in a state of apology, or at least vaguely official regret. And here is where missions become impossible. Dwell on Jewish suffering from European anti-Semitism, and you invite a reprimand from Palestinian nationalists and Muslim clerics that you are implicitly justifying the Naqba. Dwell on the occupation of Palestine, and you are inviting a reprimand from Zionists and Rabbis that you are justifying attacks on the national home. Fail to dwell on either, however, and you are accused of not assuming the church's indirect responsibility for both catastrophes: the Jews will say you are cavalier about the Holocaust, the Muslims ditto about colonialism. Both will say the old suffering of Jews led to the new suffering of Palestinians. Who in the middle of a quarrel does not also wish for a third party to blame? Habemus Papam, no?

All of this explains why this pope more than others has needed to rely, if not just on photo ops, then speech writers with an over-sized delete button. Indeed, this pope of all popes, a writer in his own right, has almost certainly developed a strong propensity to (as Nabokov put it) "kill your darlings." He tried to get fancy about the sources of The Western Tradition and found himself skewered for Orientalism. He thought to reinstate those he did not need to reinstate, retreated, and wound up making his infallibility seem rather hypothetical. So if anyone has learned the value of Rashi's aphorism, "kol ha'mosif gorea," ("he who adds substracts"), it is Benedict XVI. Which brings me to Reuven Rivlin, the Speaker of the Knesset--"Ruby" to his friends.

RIVLIN WAS NOT happy with things left out of the Pope's speech at Yad Vashem. He had already boycotted the Pope's arrival ceremony, even the visit to President Peres' residence. But Rivlin did go to Yad Vashem on Monday evening. By Tuesday morning he was all over the airwaves. "He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin told Israel Radio. "With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination":

I came to the memorial not only to hear historical descriptions or about the established fact of the Holocaust. I came as a Jew, hoping to hear an apology and a request for forgiveness from those who caused our tragedy, and among them, the Germans and the church. But to my sadness, I did not hear any such thing.

(You may read the Pope's Yad Vashem's address here, and judge Rivlin's complaint for yourself.)

WE SHOULD UNDERSTAND who is talking here. Ruby Rivlin, 70 years old, a lawyer by training, whose undistinguished legal career amounted to advising and managing Betar Jerusalem's football team. He graduated, in other words, from Menachem Begin's Herut youth movement into a party job, and from there into party politics. He postures as the scion of a great sage's family, but he has been, really, the product of a club-become-party-become-job.

And since the party he joined was more or less fanatic, he became a fanatic, too. Rivlin never met a settlement he did not like or a war he did not think "existential." He opposed the Oslo process, bad-mouthed Yitzhak Rabin (even after his assasination), and mocked any movement toward a two-state solution. He railed against Aharon Barak's Supreme Court's efforts to bring in protections for elementary human rights. Even Ariel Sharon, whom he had sucked-up to for a generation, proved not hawkish enough for him in the end. He split with Sharon over the Gaza operation, not on security grounds, but because he did not think Jews should drive Jews "from their homes."

And while I'm on the subject, Rivlin is a notorious glad-hander. He thinks his smile, which is zealously sweet, makes up for any excess or offense. He is blushingly plump and uncomfortably chummy. He thinks that gravitas means saying a little louder than others what is perfectly conventional. He teared up when, after running for the presidency against Peres, he withdrew so as not to lose by a mile; he declared his withdrawal "statesmanship." Imagine a cross between Hubert Humphrey and Sean Hannity .

SO THE REAL question that Rivlin's morning after interview evokes is this: where does a hack like him get the nerve to attack the Pope in this way, after all, the head of a church of a billion and a half Christians, and your guest, for Christ's sake? How could this kind of talk seem so conventional, so approved, that a person so lacking in erudition and moral authority as Rivlin feels that it's safe, even cool, to treat a Pope's visit to Jerusalem the way, say, Pat Buchanan might be treated at an AIPAC convention?

Just to be clear: the young Ratzinger never joined Hitler Youth (though all youth like him were added to it rolls automatically). His father was bitterly anti-Nazi; his retarded cousin was taken away and killed by the SS. He was drafted into an anti-aircraft battery at 16 and soon thereafter deserted. And as Tel-Aviv Univeristy's Dina Porat gingerly put it (on the radio the following day), we need a little perspective--kzat proportzia--here. In 1904, Pope Pius X told Theodore Herzl: "The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Jerusalem cannot be placed in Jewish hands." No sooner had Pope Benedict XVI landed at Ben-Gurion Airport than he expressed the wish that "both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," and then he added: "It is right and fitting that, during my stay in Israel, I will have the opportunity to honor the memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the shoah... [and] pray that humanity will never again witness a crime of such magnitude."

True, virtually all of my Catholic friends think Pope Benedict a kind of Church Likudnik, dogmatic, imperial, allergic to dissent. But that is hardly the point for Rivlin or is implied by the loose talk. For this Israeli government in particular, the Pope's squelching of Vatican II's energies fits nicely with their own orthodoxies. What they want is more about the Holocaust, more contrition.

Funny, in the early 1960s, Israeli elites saw the Jewish state so much as a pioneering adventure--the culture of Hebrew labor, the dignity of self-defense--that they tended to bury talk of the Holocaust, which seemed to them a symbol of Diaspora Jewry's woeful path. Ben-Gurion staged the Eichmann trial just to correct what he took to be Zionism's aloofness from the suffering of Holocaust survivors. Foreign dignitaries, meanwhile, were taken to the kibbutz, or the Hebrew University. Today, guests are whisked off so quickly to Yad Vashem that they cannot tell the difference between its gloom and their jet-lag. Their speeches must include a syllogism in which the "Holocaust" forms the first part and "the Jewish state" the second. They cannot just express their fellow-feeling. They will be graded for levels of sincerity, from "cold" to "understanding." Mention Iran and you get extra credit.

MY LATE FRIEND, Ilona Karmel, who barely survived the Plashow death-camp (and like the Pope was an avid reader of the theologian Karl Rahner), once described American Jews who kept bringing up the Holocaust to her as people with "scars but no wounds." It is like they are trying to get a moral pass in advance of any moral action, she said. Israelis do have wounds, of course, and Holocaust Remembrance Day has now been so braided in with Passover, on one side, and Memorial Day and Independence Day, on the other, that it is seems officially necessary to forget where wounds stop and scars begin.

Still, one listens to Rivlin and cannot help but wonder what, if anything, he learned from the 20th. century other than the need to serve his movement more fiercely and to say "mine" more loudly; to take the territories promised by his movement and be holier than you know who. You also have to wonder if his arrogance, which blends all too easily into Israel's political background, does not suggest a new fundamentalism. If many Jewish Israelis, like many Christians before them, are not trying to achieve innocence simply by identifying with the scars of the innocent murdered, by means of a passion play of their own, with a gospel of their own, only the Romans are the Nazis, and "the Jews" are Poles (Ukrainians, Hungarians, etc.).

Alas, as Rahner might have said, innocence is overrated. He did say, unremarkably, that "self-realization...embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life." Presumably, this is true of nations, too. Does Rivlin really need Hillel and Jesus to know that passion is not justice and apology is not permission?