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Everyone wants to make Pope Francis's Israel-Palestine trip about them

Pope Francis in Bethlehem
Pope Francis in Bethlehem
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Pope Francis has just finished a multi-day trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, a high-profile and highly watched tour of one of the world's toughest conflicts. He paid polite respects to both sides, said nothing controversial, and made a generic call for a "peace prayer summit" in Rome. The hard truth is that the visit was pretty boring.

That has not stopped many observers in and outside of Israel-Palestine from pointing to small moments, which would have been positively banal anywhere else, as highly politicized actions — often arguing that these papal murmurings reinforce their preconceived views of the conflict. The discussion around the visit's many non-events is a sort of microcosm of the politicized-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness nature of Israel-Palestine discourse, and of Pope Francis's uncanny ability to make everyone feel that he shares their worldview without actually committing to much.

The incident that has gotten perhaps the most attention may also be the most meaningless of the trip. During a friendly, recorded chat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the two discussed Jesus's place in ancient Jerusalem as a symbol of cultural bonds between Jews and Christians, Netanyahu mentioned that Jesus spoke Hebrew. The pope gently corrected that Jesus spoke Aramaic. They laughed, probably because Jesus most likely spoke both, and Netanyahu continued with his point.

No big deal, right? Wrong. The moment has been saturated in international coverage detailing the "spat," spar," and "debate" between the two figures, which Tablet's Yair Rosenberg notes has been described as "testy" "public bickering" with "sour undertones" so bad it's been called "Jesusgate." Rosenberg argues that the real news is that nothing happened, which given the centuries-long history of Jewish-Christian enmity is a good thing, though to his point that's not exactly new and the same could definitely be said of the pope's visits with Palestinian Muslims.

So maybe there was a touch of oversensitivity to potential political moments in a trip that seemed perfectly engineered to be as politically banal as possible. That is certainly not an unusual feature of Israel-Palestine discourse, but even the usual habits of ally-claiming and finger-pointing seemed to go a bit further with this trip.

Take, for example, the discussion around Pope Francis's visit to the Israeli wall that runs through the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. This was perhaps the one moment in the trip with real, palpable significance. There was something jarring about seeing the all-white pope standing next to the graffiti-covered wall, which Francis prayed at for four minutes, calling attention to one of the conflict's most painful features and to the costs of the Israeli occupation. It mattered.

The significance of the moment, so clear on its face, was quickly extrapolated to say much more than it seems certain that Pope Francis meant to say. Some pointed out that Francis was standing near graffiti that read "Free Palestine," so therefore he must have been giving "symbolic approval to Palestinian hopes for an independent state." It seems plausible that Francis would support an independent Palestinian state, but it seems unlikely that his proximity to certain graffiti communicates this. At a later meeting with Netanyahu, Francis only nodded politely when Netanyahu said that the barrier was necessary to protect from terrorism, turning down an opportunity to say otherwise.

Meanwhile, prominent American rabbi Shmuley Boteach drew similarly sweeping conclusions from a different piece of proximate graffiti, writing, "When the Pope prays at an Israeli security barrier in front of graffiti that compares Bethlehem to the Warsaw Ghetto, he has taken neutrality to an extreme and risks being party to trivializing the Holocaust."

Isn't this the ultimate metaphor for the Israel-Palestine discourse? Pope Francis does something legitimately symbolic, but he is alternatively praised and condemned for things he didn't say based on over-extrapolative readings of some graffiti that someone else wrote that just happened to be in the area.

Naturally, some argued that the pope's visit to the wall showed that he was more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. And, when he laid a wreath at the grave of zionist leader Theodor Herzl, who helped create the ideological foundation of the Israeli state, and later visited a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism, others took this as a sign that the pope was more sympathetic to the Israeli cause.

This obsessive sentence-parsing and table-pounding is not a hugely important feature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it is a sign of how badly broken the national and international conversations have become, and that larger brokenness is a not-insignificance part of why talks keep failing. The fact that Francis's call for a prayer peace summit in Rome is being treated with any seriousness at all is a sign of just how broken-down peace talks really are.

Hyper-sensitivity to the slightest gesture of possible support or opposition to one's side is nothing new in Israel-Palestine discourse. In October, there was a days-long fight parsing a single line from singer Rihanna's Tel Aviv concert: what did she mean when she substituted the lyric "all I see is dollar signs" with "all I see is Palestine"? After thousands of words were spilled praising or condemning Rihanna for her supposed interjection, it turned out that she hadn't said it at all. Again, it's tough not to see this as a metaphor.

More consequentially, during the November 2012 Israeli bombings of Gaza and Hamas's return rocket fire, the web was consumed with fighting between Israel-Palestine partisans over the images of Israeli and Palestinian children who had been killed or wounded. Both sides were absolutely certain that the other had either faked the incidents or were cynically playing them up, as if childrens' deaths only mattered as point-scoring in the competition for moral superiority.

When the BBC reported that an Israeli missile had killed a young Palestinian boy in the conflict, it was held up as final and indisputable proof of the Israelis' evil. Several months later, when a draft UN investigation blamed the child's death on an errant Hamas rocket, that report was treated as irrefutable evidence that in fact it was the Palestinians who held all moral culpability. The idea that both sides might share a degree of responsibility for the conflict, and that the conflict itself bears greater blame for civilian deaths than any single stray missile or mortar shell, is impossible to consider, an idea that is rejected as tantamount to complicity in every misdeed that has occurred in decades of conflict.

Pope Francis's visit has been viewed through a similar lens. His nods of sympathy toward one side's suffering are seen as vindication, proof of that side's unchallenged moral superiority. It seems likelier, given the pope's past responses to conflicts, that he sought to draw attention to human suffering, rather than to implicitly proscribe a preferred outcome or signal which side is more right.

Francis's rhetorical style may not have helped this; he is skilled at making all sides of a conflict feel that he feels their pain and sympathizes with their concerns. He did this most famously with his September 2013 peace rally for Syria, which he introduced in such a way that some attendees could see it as a rally against the Syrian government's slaughter of civilians, and others as a rally against the later-abandoned US plan to launch air strikes against Syrian targets.

Being all things to all people is an effective tactic in moderating negotiations or in being globally respected figure, both of which fall under Francis's job description. But it's a tough sell in the Israel-Palestine conflict, where there is zero overlap between the two sides and a high propensity for exaggerating the slightest hint of symbolic meaning.

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