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The Netanyahu/Pope Francis Spat Over Jesus That Wasn’t

And why it still matters

Yair Rosenberg
May 27, 2014
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis at the Pope's farewell ceremony in Israel (IsraeliPM/Flickr)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis at the Pope's farewell ceremony in Israel (IsraeliPM/Flickr)

Yesterday, the press reported a sparring match between Pope Francis and Benjamin Netanyahu that never really transpired. To judge by media reports, the Israeli Prime Minister had a testy exchange with the Supreme Pontiff over whether or not Jesus spoke Hebrew. Reuters broke the story with the headline “Pope, Netanyahu spar over Jesus’ native language.” Using the language of verbal combat, the piece reported the Israeli leader as saying, “Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew.” The Pope was said to have “interjected” with a correction: “Aramaic.” To this, Bibi “shot back” that Jesus “spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.” The Chicago Tribune soon dubbed the incident a “spat,” and by the time it made its way to The Age in Australia, Netanyahu was said to have “publicly bickered” with the Pope, evincing the “sour undertone” of the Catholic leader’s entire visit to Israel. The Forward tweeted “#Jesusgate spat over Hebrew ends testy #PopeFrancis visit with Benjamin Netanyahu.”

But unfortunately for headline writers hoping to gin up controversy for clicks, there is video of this supposed smackdown, and it shows nothing of the sort. As you can see below, Pope Francis is laughing throughout the entire exchange, which to a normal observer would appear to be an amiable conversation between friends (albeit one mediated by a translator), not a “spat.” As New York Times Middle East reporter Liam Stack tweeted, “not sure this counts as sparring.”

Perhaps the reason the Pope is chuckling when he quibbles with Netanyahu is that he knows they are both right. As the scholar quoted by Reuters in their own piece explains, “Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker, but he would have also known Hebrew,” which was spoken by “the kind of people he ministered to.” Whatever language Jesus may or may not have spoken, it is clear that despite attempts by some media outlets to imply otherwise, the incident is not indicative of any hostility Francis harbors towards the Israeli Prime Minister. This can be seen not only from the video of their exchange, but from the photo above from the Pope’s farewell ceremony, where the two parted on warm terms.

But the real shame here is not that the media got something wrong. It is that they missed the powerful and poignant significance of this unscripted moment between Israel’s leader and the Pope.

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 about 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.

Or put another way: by hyping a fight between the Pope and the leader of the Jewish state, the media missed the remarkable real story–that there wasn’t one.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.