The Pope did us all a favor

By Bradley Burston

Elul 27, 5766

There is no excusing it. There is no understanding it.

But there may be something healthy in it.

There is no way of knowing why a Holy Father would say such a thing. There is no conceivable advantage in a Pontiff who preaches respect for the symbols and sensitivities of other faiths, to cite the statement - even as he distanced himself from it - "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Here, after all, is the man who less than a year ago, issued an eloquent condemnation of the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Here is the Pope who said "the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected".

There is no way of explaining why the Holy See, having sparked Muslim ire worldwide, and having already decided to issue an unprecedented apology, would content himself with an expression of regret worthy of the most Polish of Jewish mothers, the equivalent of "What kind of person reacts this way to things like what I said?"

Unless, somewhere inside, he meant what he said in the first place.

A senior official of the Islamic Movement in Israel said Sunday that all the Pope had to do to end the affair was to say two words, "I apologize."

But Yitzhak Minervi, a former Israeli envoy to the Vatican and an authority on papal relations with other faiths, said the Pontiff was unlikely to take any such step.

"The man has a clear line, a firm stance toward fundamentalist Islam, he rules out in its entirety violence based on religion, and this is the message that he wants sounded clearly in Europe."

"He's no fool. I assume that he foresaw exactly what the results and the reactions would be."

The Church, meanwhile, knows exactly how bad this is. In a remarkable use of a Hebrew expression unusually reserved for suicide bomb masterminds who inadvertently blow themselves up, Franciscan Friar David Jaeger said of the current affair "It's clear that there was a work accident here."

"It was a very serious sort of work accident," Jaeger told Israel Radio. "Now the Pope and his people, and the entire church are laboring very hard in order to repair the damage."

On the face of it, no possible good could have come of this.

On closer inspection, however, we all of us have a number of things to learn from this affair, and from a number of other recent instances of a public figure sparking controversy with opinions seldom aired in public.

Take, for example, the case of rightist MK Effi Eitam, who said last week that "We will have to expel the great majority of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria.

Experience showed, Eitam continued, that Israel cannot give up the area of the West Bank. "It is impossible with all of these Arabs, and it is impossible to give up the territory. We've already seen what they're doing there."

Turning to the subject of Israeli Arabs, Eitam said, "We will have to take another decision, and that is to sweep the Israeli Arabs from the political system. Here, too, the issues are clear and simple. We've raised a fifth column, a league of traitors of the first rank. Therefore, we cannot continue to enable so large and so hostile a presense within the political system of Israel."

Racist and inflammatory? Certainly. Worth hearing? Absolutely.

All public figures, like all actual human beings, have a little box of horrors squirreled away somewhere. It is full of the horrors that they think in their heart of hearts and only let on to those who are close to them, those, in fact, who think the same.

For public figures, there is something healthy about letting the venom drain. Putting it out in the open, so that people on both sides can discuss it. Lancing the abscess so that, in the process, we can all of us begin to heal.

The modern world has made us experts at a personal form of political correctness, consigning our dark impulses, designs, and views to the securely secreted little box.

It's only natural, this double life of the intellect. We practice it at work, even at home. It keeps us safe. But it also keeps us lying.

Maybe it's time we opened up the little box of horrors inside every one of us. The one full of what we truly believe.

"Hold on," I hear the irate reader protest at this point. "How can you say that, when at the same time you impose censorship on the very people who let it hang out, all of it, all the time?"

Opening the box, in this sense, does not mean simply collecting the venom in order to throw it into the face of those who vex us, annoy us, oppose us, believe in other faiths or political movements.

It does not mean, for example, firebombing churches to defend Islam from charges that it is a religion of violence. It does not mean advocating the wholesale slaughter of Muslims in order to make sure that a Holocaust does not recur.

It means opening the box so that we can examine what's in there, for good and, often, ill. Expose it, for once, to light and air.

And to courage. And to self-esteem.

A large part of having the courage of one's convictions, is a willingness to see how they actually stand up to the other side, in the context of discussion in which both sides listen at least as intently, as they talk.

As equals.

For the rightists among us, courage, in this sense, means examining your own actions and views and fallibilities as critically as you do those of your rivals.

For the leftists among us, self-esteem, in this context, means looking with the same appreciation and understanding of your own side's virtues, as you would those of the other side.

Understanding between peoples who have a history of war going back hundreds of years, begins this way - opening the little box of horrors within each of us.

Not, for once, as weaponry and ammunition, but as the bent mirror urgently in need of repair.