The Pope’s Millennium Visit to Israel

, June 1, 2000

No. 431   27 Iyar 5760  June 2000

Israeli Citizenship for Jesus?

In the 1950s, the French Catholic academician, playwright, and former Ambassador to the U.S., Paul Claudel, asked the cultural attachי of the Israeli Embassy in Paris to convey the following message to Martin Buber: Now that the Jews had recovered their sovereignty, would they consider granting citizenship to Jesus, thereby putting an end to his “statelessness” status both for Judaism and Christianity? This could contribute to the fight against anti-Semitism.

What Claudel meant by his call for the “restitution of citizenship” to Jesus, in both Christianity and Judaism, is what many people to this day seem to ignore. The appropriation of Jesus of Nazareth by the Church has been such an integral part of the process of the substitution of historic Israel by the verus (true) Israel of the New Testament, that it is difficult for most Christians to believe that the blond, long-haired, blue-eyed Messiah of Christian iconography could really be a member of an oriental, rejected people considered the “scum of the earth,” always represented in caricatural images. Conversely, the long social-theological-political struggle of the Church against Judaism has made it difficult for Jews to consider the founder of Christianity as a Jew.

Claudel was one of the few French public figures who dared, in December 1941, to write a letter to the Chief Rabbi of France expressing the “disgust, horror and indignation felt by good Frenchmen, especially if Catholic,” at the “iniquities, robberies and all types of bad treatment” suffered by “our Jewish compatriots.” I wonder whether he would consider the plea for forgiveness and the symbolic gestures made by Pope John Paul II toward the Jews and Judaism before and during his pilgrimage as steps on the road to reconciliation and a reciprocal revision of Jesus’ stereotyped image in both religions.

While the “Jesus question” is far from being resolved, other delicate political and religious questions for the Church were successfully dealt with by the Pope during his visit. One way to look at them is through the symbolism of the triple crown – the tiara – with which the popes have crowned themselves since the time of the Borgias.

The tiara symbolizes the three supremacies of the Catholic pontiff: as Bishop of Rome, over the other bishops; as king of the Papal State (today Vatican City); and as head of the Latin Church. During his stay in Israel, the Pope sent forceful message in all three directions at the same time, keeping them distinct and well balanced.

Beginning at the Synagogue of Rome

The Bishop of Rome had already stated his philosemitic position when he visited the Jewish synagogue of Rome in 1986. At that time, two small but significant incidents marked the event: A small group of Catholic fundamentalists waited for the papal cortege at the Vatican gate to demonstrate against the visit in a miserable show of opposition. For the Jews in general, and the proud Jews of Rome in particular (they have been living there since well before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), the visit was a momentous event.

Conscious of his role and historic responsibility, Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff insisted (contrary to Vatican wishes) that his chair and that of the Pope be at the same level and identical in size (which took some effort to find). This protocol incident was solved – so I am told – by the Pope himself. The visit to the synagogue confirmed the Church’s “absolution” of the Jews from the crime of “deicide” – as already decided by the Second Vatican Council in spite of strong internal resistance – and the Pope proclaimed the Jews as “older brothers,” a definition which did not satisfy everybody but which made the Jews “members of the family.”

The visit to the synagogue – as the Vatican stressed at the time – had nothing to do with recognition of the State of Israel. That recognition came in 1991 as a direct consequence of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, from which the Vatican – like India, China, and the USSR – did not want to be excluded. The synagogue visit had even less to do with Church theology, which still maintained that there is no “salvation outside the Church.” Only in 1995 did a convoluted explanation published by the Vatican paper Osservatore Romano (May 7) suggest (after some discreet visits by a leading Israeli talmudist in Rome) that salvation could also exist outside the Church. It was the logical consequence of a previous revolutionary papal statement made in Germany on November 17, 1980, proclaiming that the divine “pact” with the people of Israel “had never been abolished.”

Following the Rules of Power Politics

While the “Bishop of Rome, heir of Paul the Apostle,” reinforced the special relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the King of the Papal State carefully followed the rules of power politics in order to foster its “worldly” interests. In the Middle East, that meant dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the not less delicate relations between the Roman and the Eastern Churches. One result was the signing of a “religious” agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which rejected any unilateral control over Jerusalem. This was followed by the Pope’s declaration, during his visit to the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, that Palestinians had “suffered too long.” During his visit, the Pope took special care to show Arafat the respect due to a head of state and to bolster his international image.

It could hardly be otherwise since the Vatican – as one former Israeli diplomat concisely put it – was aware of the fact that “Moslems may like the Pope, but they also like to kill Christians, while the Jews may not like the Church but do not kill Christians.” There was, clearly, no reason for the Pope to make political concessions to Israel, knowing that Jerusalem would do nothing to spoil the pilgrimage.

Criticism of the Pope in Israel was thus scattered and mild. Some rabbis considered the papal mass held at Korazin on a Saturday a “slap in the face of Jewish dignity.” It could have been postponed until after sunset – they said – in order not to oblige many Jews, responsible for papal security, to desecrate the day of rest. Considering the huge, nationwide precautions taken to protect the Pope and his entourage, such a change of schedule would not have made much difference.

A Matter of Courage

Others complained that the Pope had not mentioned the ambiguity of Pope Pius XII toward the Nazi regime. It would have been quite inappropriate for John Paul II to criticize his predecessor. What he did was to refrain from mentioning him at all (contrary to Paul VI, who used the few hours he spent in Israel in 1964 to deliver a strong defense of Pius XII). Curiously, the Papal Nuncio, Pietro Sambi, in a lively discussion on that topic on Italian TV, remarked from Jerusalem, without entering into the matter, that human behavior is often “a matter of courage.”

John Paul II showed plenty of this, so much so that a leading Italian political commentator and historian, Indro Montanelli, asked whether his policy of all-around apologies was not “a life or death challenge for the world’s oldest institution.”

“Where is this Pope, who looks ever more tired, ever more suffering, but ever more determined to pursue something which we do not understand, leading us?” he asked. “If the Church recognizes that it has been wrong in almost everything, towards what new Church does Pope Wojtyla intend to lead Catholicism?” (Oggi, March 26, 2000).

Nobody really knows, including the Jews who wonder what the position of the Church may be in the future.

It is no secret that within the Curia, the Vatican government, not everyone shares the present Pope’s policies. The beatification of Pope Pius XII and that of Pius IX who was directly involved in the Mortara case (the stealing of a Jewish boy, secretly baptized by his Christian nurse in the middle of the nineteenth century and never returned to his parents) will be a significant signpost on the road to future Jewish-Christian relations.

Dan V. Segre

Dan V. Segre served in the British army in World War II and in the Israeli army as a paratroop officer during the 1948 War of Independence. After a period with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, he became Professor of International Relations and Professor of Zionism at Haifa University untill 1986. Concurrently, he was Israel correspondent for Le Figaro and Corriere delle Sera. He is currently Director of the Institute for Mediterranean Studies at the University of Lugano, Switzerland.