I grew up in a wonderful, predominantly Jewish suburb outside Rochester, New York. The Holocaust never directly touched my family. It still cast long shadows over many lives I knew. Inscribed in a notebook at our local Jewish Community Center were names of relatives lost. On my way to shoot pool or play basketball, I could find notations for the grandparents, aunts, and uncles of my classmates and friends. Somehow the survivors managed to reconstruct their lives, enduring quietly with staggering memories of trauma and loss.
I pondered some of those experiences reading accounts of Pope Francis’s visit to Yad Vashem during his recent visit to the Middle East. I am glad that the Pope is trying to mediate in the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So much about his efforts underscores why he is a remarkable figure on the world stage. Noting Palestinian suffering under an cruel occupation, while also noting the suffering of Israeli victims of terrorism, Francis demonstrated his remarkable ability to honor the humanity of both sides in an intractable conflict.
And yet, reading Gershom Gorenberg’s fantastic account of the Pope’s visit, something doesn’t sit right. At Yad Vashem, Pope Francis kissed the hands of elderly survivors. He was gracious. He said many things one might expect a religious leader to say in that place on that occasion. His comments would have been pitch-perfect, had he been visiting (say) Gandhi’s tomb far to the east. But that wasn’t where he was….