The Pilgrim Pope

Pope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land is a bold step towards healing past wounds and pushing inter-

Israeli protocol has it that all visiting dignitaries to the Jewish state should take some time to visit Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust Museum.

It’s a profoundly moving experience, and offers a valuable insight into the predominant Israeli (and Jewish) mindset: "We will never again allow the Jewish people to be at the mercy of others, without a homeland and without a refuge."

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has now also visited Yad Vashem, but with one slight difference.

He was subtly manoeuvred past the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ - a display at the Yad Vashem museum that comments on the apparent inaction of Pope Pius XII during World War Two - with an awkward smile and a clearing of the throat.

Many have criticised the wartime Pope for not publicly speaking out against Nazi Germany when many believe his intervention could have saved lives.

The Vatican disputes this narrative and argues that Pius remained silent so as not to jeopardise the safety of Catholics, and to quietly protect Jewish communities where he could, including in Rome. The Vatican claims to have evidence of this, but the matter is far from clear cut, and remains contentious.

So it caused waves throughout the Jewish world when the Vatican announced that they were considering the beatification of Pope Pius XII.

This disquiet was compounded by the reinstatement of Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson into the Catholic fold. Bishop Williamson apologised for embarrassing the Pope with his comments, after much arm-twisting, but still refuses to recant.

However, in amongst all of the controversy and clumsy diplomatic manoeuvring, the Pope’s current visit to the State of Israel remains a strong statement by a pontiff who is undoubtedly genuinely committed to the causes of peace, fighting injustice and remembrance of the Holocaust.

As a German, Pope Benedict XVI has taken it upon himself to continue the invaluable work done by John Paul II before him, both with regard to the Holocaust and to Catholic-Jewish relations. He was of course, as Cardinal Ratzinger, a key advisor to his predecessor.

Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, the Pope warned that antisemitism remains a serious global problem and at Yad Vashem he spoke out against all those who have "denied, belittled or forgotten" the Holocaust.

True, there have been errors of judgement; the Pope has heard the critics and is making difficult decisions based on what he believes is right. The media has been waiting with baited breath for him to speak on issues such as the Holocaust and the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Should he speak at Yad Vashem? Should he speak in front of the security barrier? Which Holy site is it appropriate for him to visit? What statements, if any, should he make on the peace process? The visit was always going to be a diplomatic minefield, but the Pope has navigated it well in order to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to Israel and to the Jewish people, as well as to the Palestinians and the Muslim world.

Pope John Paul II’s legacy may be difficult to follow, but there is no question that the Jewish community will now look to build on positive relations with the Catholic Church both in the UK and abroad, thanks, in no small part, to Pope Benedict XVI.

Mark Frazer is Public Affairs Officer for the Defence & Group Relations Division of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.