In many ways, this three-day Middle East trip by Pope Francis has become the story of the pontiff and the two walls — the grim, brutal “separation wall” he visited in Bethlehem Sunday, and the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem, where he prayed today.
The comparison infuriated many Israelis. To them, it is an insult of the deepest kind.
To compare their holy place — a place where Jews believe the Divine Presence never leaves — with the security measure that stopped a plague of suicide bombings in Israel? Grotesque, they say.
So after Sunday’s extraordinary gestures of solidarity with Palestinians, Pope Francis had some work to do in Israel today, especially with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The pope had a blindingly busy day in Jerusalem.
Rankled by Francis’ stop at the separation wall/barrier in Bethlehem, the Israeli prime minister asked Pope Francis to add a stop on his schedule in Jerusalem at a memorial to the victims of terrorism.
And there, Netanyahu very publicly gave Francis a piece of his mind.
He told the pope that the number of deadly Palestinian terror attacks had been drastically reduced after the separation wall was built. Then, he launched into a diatribe about the Palestinians.
“Israel wants peace,” Netanyahu told Francis at the memorial. Then he gestured over his shoulder. “Here is a hospital. Hadassah Hospital. The Palestinians come to this hospital. … We cannot go to their hospitals. But they come to ours.”
“We don’t teach our children to plant bombs. We teach them peace. We have to build a wall against those who teach the other side. But it cannot prevent the incitement to hate, and terror, and the destruction of Israel that permeates so much of the society on the other side,” he said.
“If that changes, then the walls could come down, and we would have peace.”
For his part, Francis prayed at the memorial and said: “Terrorism is evil. It emanates from evil. I ask, please, no more terrorism. It is a dead-end street.”
At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, there were two powerful moments.
First, when he was introduced to several Holocaust survivors who told him their stories, Francis made a striking gesture: He bowed and kissed their hands.
The pontiff, who is so often greeted by Catholics kissing his ring in a sign of obedience and fidelity, reversed things.
It was a moment of humility and respect.
Then Francis spoke briefly about the Holocaust. In the face of the evil, he offered a remarkable meditation, a poem of shame, sorrow and faith in a merciful God.
“Who are you, o man? What have you become?” the pope said, in a quiet voice filled with emotion. “Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god.”
He concluded by praying to God to “grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to which you gave life with your own breath of life. Never again, Lord, never again!”
This evening, Pope Francis boarded a plane back to Rome, to the Vatican, leaving behind a legacy of powerful moments … and controversy.