In a meeting fraught with meaning and more than a bit of controversy and tension, Pope Francis is being hosted at the White House by US President Barack Obama on Tuesday, a day which happens to be the holiest day of the Jewish Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgement.
Though this is not the first meeting between Obama and the Pope, this is the first time that the president will host the Catholic leader, who has also been invited to address a special joint session of Congress.
Gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to greet Pope Francis will be Gene Robinson, the first gay Episcopal bishop in the US; Mateo Williamson, the transgender head of the LGBT Catholic group Dignity USA; and Sister Simone Campbell, a nun who runs Network. She was the focus of the Holy See’s disapproval due to her lobbying in support of Obamacare, despite the fact that it funds abortions and compels Catholic institutions to provide birth control for employees.
Though the Vatican has not objected to the guest list, a senior Vatican official told the Wall Street Journal that they were concerned there will be an attempt to maneuver the Pope into a photo-op that would be viewed as tacit endorsement of those views which are objectionable to the Church.
Following the publication of the guest list in the Wall Street Journal last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters he was unaware of the specific names on the guest list, but assured them it was not meant as a snub “because there will be 15,000 other people there too.”
The Pope’s visit to the White House comes at a time when Jewish relations with both those entities are particularly troubled. There are no indications this meeting will help the situation. The Vatican recently signed a treaty with the Palestinian Authority (PA), officially recognizing “Palestine” as a state.
Though not an official branch of the Israeli government, the nascent Sanhedrin recently held a special session addressing this grave issue and questioned his support of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, who the Pope has called “an angel of peace.” In their statement, the Sanhedrin said that by recognizing the PA, Pope Francis is essentially rejecting the Biblical roots of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel.
Despite attracting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote in both of his successful election runs, Obama’s policy towards Israel and his nuclear deal with Iran has damaged the longstanding relationship the Democratic party has had with American Jews and perhaps even with its most loyal ally, Israel. The American Jewish community has become polarized as a result.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies, supported Obama in both elections, but ran a multi-million dollar campaign against his nuclear deal with Iran. J Street, a left-wing Washington-based Jewish lobbying group, supported the nuclear deal with a campaign of its own. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a powerful opponent to the Obama-led agreement between Iran and the P5+1 world powers that will leave Iran’s nuclear program intact.
Of equal concern, and equally divisive, is the Pope’s address to the United Nations General Assembly two days after his reception at the White House. Upon his arrival, the Pope will be greeted by the sight of the flags of the UN member nations, including the flag of the PA. The UN recently passed by an overwhelming majority a resolution that allows states with official observer status to fly their flags. In an ironic twist, the only other nation with that status is the Vatican, and they respectfully declined that privilege.
Rather than build bridges and make connections, the upcoming visit by the Pope seems designed to further alienate the Pope and the White House from religious American Jews, none of whom will be at the White House reception because they will be in their local synagogue praying and fasting.