Benedict XVI and the Future of the Holy Land

Deal W. Hudson
April 6, 2009

Over dinner at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, I talked with Danny Seidemann, a Jewish man from upstate New York who moved to Israel as a youth more than 30 years ago. Danny is recognized worldwide as an expert on the religious and cultural differences that divide and potentially unite Jerusalem. “The Christian community of Jerusalem is the canary in the coal mine,” he told me. “When it starts dying, we know all of us are going to die.”

Seidemann, himself a Zionist, believes preserving the Christian presence in the Holy Land is crucial to its future. That underscores the importance of the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Holy Land in early May. “The Church can have enormous influence here. The pope can address people above the heads of their leaders.”

But Seidemann believes that time is running short for any type of two-state solution. After the recent conflict in Gaza, the window of opportunity has closed further: “We have one to three years to get it done, after that there will be nothing left to engage.” He is confident the Vatican understands the urgency of the situation.

When I asked him about the impact of the December bombing and invasion of Gaza, Seidemann moved the subject back to Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is the key,” he told me. More than a decade ago, Seidemann drew the proposed boundaries for Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem that would be necessary for the creation of two sovereign states. “The boundaries I drew for the Clinton administration can still be drawn,” he said. I asked him about the controversial Israeli settlements in that part of the city. “That dispute can be settled by a one-for-one exchange of land – it can be resolved.”

Seidemann is surprisingly upbeat because he senses that “people are ready for something to happen.” Six weeks ago he met in Washington, D.C., with key members of the Obama administration tasked with the Middle East. He believes the Obama team, led by George Mitchell, has the expertise and the will to make progress. One obvious obstacle is that the new Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is dedicated to the settlements and has been less interested in pursuing the two-state solution agreed upon at the 2007 Annapolis Conference, hosted by President George Bush.

There would be more support from the United States for a two-state solution, according to Seidemann, if those primarily heard on the topic of Israel and the Palestinians were not either Christian Zionists on the one hand or Israel bashers on the other. He believes there is an untapped resource of people in the middle who are ready to be heard and who want to move forward to stop the escalating conflict.

“Jews, Muslims, and Christians have been maintaining their identity in Jerusalem for over 1,300 years.” For Seidemann, Jerusalem must maintain its tradition of ecumenism and set an example for Baghdad and Beirut – otherwise, the habits of those cities will take hold and “pollute” Jerusalem.

Seidemann knows as well as anyone that the Christian presence in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories on the West Bank has been shrinking for years. In the past, the shrinking numbers could be attributed to the harsh realities of Israeli occupation, but more and more it is a conflict with Muslims in towns like Bethlehem – where they once lived peacefully together – that sends Christians packing. Add to that the attraction of young people to prosperous Palestinian enclaves in Chile, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia.

Is the Christian “canary” in Jerusalem already in the process of dying a slow death? Seidemann did not say. But when he said that politicians must realize that “it’s five minutes to midnight,” the implication is clear. There can be no more delay, no more missed opportunities.

The Obama administration, which is alienating Catholics with its pro-abortion policy, may find itself on the same page with Pope Benedict on this issue if he urges Israelis and Palestinians toward the two-state solution during his May visit.

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