Bibi, Francis and us

Bibi, Francis and us

The Vatican has a new pope. Israel has the same prime minister, but with a different cabinet.

And the question American Jews are left to ask is, how will these changes affect us?

Answer: Not much, at least, not right away.

In terms of Jewish relations, Pope Francis I is expected to continue the policy of outreach set by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This is a pope who enjoys a warm relationship with the Jewish community in his native Argentina. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was the first major figure to sign a 2005 petition calling for justice in the AMIA bombing, and he also signed the “85 victims, 85 signatures” document as part of the bombing’s 11th anniversary.

AMIA, which stands for Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) is akin to a Jewish federation in North America. Its Buenos Aires headquarters was bombed July 18, 1994, killing 85 and wounding hundreds. It remains the deadliest bombing in Argentine history. Prosecutors accused Iran in 2006 of masterminding the attack and Hezbollah of carrying it out.

In addition to his support in the AMIA case, Francis has developed strong ties with Argentine Jewish leaders over the years. He placed a menora in his cathedral in Buenos Aires to remember the victims of the Holocaust, and he wrote the forward for a book by Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a Buenos Aires legislator, in which he referred to him as “one of my teachers.”

“We know his values and strengths. We have no doubt he will do a great job leading the Catholic Church,” Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, told JTA.

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, continues as prime minister — his new governing coalition was sworn in Sunday — and we expect him to continue advocating for foreign and security issues such as the nuclear threat from Iran and the need for the Palestinian Authority to negotiate without preconditions.

But his new government may look and behave differently, at least on domestic issues.

Most significantly, there are no haredi parties in the new coalition — a major change given that Shas and United Torah Judaism have been kingmakers in the past in return for ministry portfolios they can use to support their communities and control religious life in Israel.

But the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, the second highest voter-getter in the recent election, refused to sit in a government with the haredim.

What will this mean for American Jews? Not much right away. After all, the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Homeland) party, led by Naftali Bennett, is in the coalition, and his party supports the Chief Rabbinate as the highest religious authority and the only provider of religious services in Israel.

But the Diaspora world has been finding its voice lately on the subject of religious pluralism in Israel. And it is worth noting that members of Women of the Wall, prayed unmolested at the Western Wall last week, with Members of the Knesset joining them and police preventing any interference. Pittsburgh’s Lynn Magid Lazar, national president of Women of Reform Judaism, joined the service.

It’s too soon to say how the new political realities Bibi and Francis represent will play for Diaspora Jewry, but we’ll follow both figures carefully in the months to come.