Remember when the media told us that Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the former’s recent visit to the Middle East, sparred over Jesus’ native language? Yair Rosenberg points to the above video as evidence the supposed controversy simply was ginned up by reporters – he reads the exchange as “an amiable conversation between friends” – and that “the media missed the remarkable real story–that there wasn’t one”:
Throughout Jewish history, there have been profoundly consequential public disputations between renowned Jewish thinkers and Catholic interlocutors, most famously in Paris (1240), Barcelona (1263), and Tortosa (1413-14). Typically, these debates were rigged, with the Jew forced to participate and preordained to lose. And if the Jew performed too well in representing Judaism, they sometimes had to flee the country afterwards for their safety. Other dire consequences for Jews and their communities were common–after the Disputation of Paris, for instance, in which the Jew was tasked with “defending” the Talmud from charges of blasphemy, thousands of copies of the Jewish text were seized and publicly burned.
The playful chat over Jesus between Francis and Netanyahu, then, is more than just a momentary media story. It underscores just how far Jewish-Catholic relations have come. Today, the Prime Minister of a reconstituted Jewish state can rib good-naturedly about Jesus with the Pope, and the only fallout is a few hyperbolic headlines. No longer subject to the whims of Christian rulers in Europe, compelled to participate in a theological game they cannot win, Jews can now dialogue with Christians as peers, not adversaries. Seen in historical context, the Francis-Bibi exchange is a heartening sign of interfaith progress and reconciliation, and a testament to the transformative success of the Zionist project in elevating Jews as religious and political equals.