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The Vatican’s Path toward Official Recognition of Israel

Filed under: Europe and Israel

The Vatican’s Path toward Official Recognition of Israel
The formal establishment of diplomatic relations in 1993 between the Holy See, represented by Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli (left), and Israel, represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin (Andres Lacko/WJC).

Initial Hostility to Zionism

The idea of a Jewish state challenged the Vatican psychologically, theologically and politically. The notion that the Jewish people could have a right to self-determination – and even more so in the Holy Land – was anathema to Vatican understanding of the role of the Jew in history. Arising in the context of emerging nationalisms and in an atmosphere of growing secularism, liberalism, and modernism (all currents that were questioning the established clerical order), Zionism was destined to irritate the Papacy.

Civiltá Cattolica, a newspaper founded with the support of Pope Pius IX, offered one of the first Catholic reactions to Jewish nationalism. A few months before the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the paper invoked the theory of displacement and the preaching of dispersion to support its repudiation of the national aspirations of the Jews. Similarly, as Hebrew University of Jerusalem historian Sergio Minerbi has documented, during the first audience given by a pontiff to a Zionist leader in 1904, Pius X appealed to religious doctrine to deal with the nationalist yearnings of the Jews. The Pope gave a theological answer to a political proposition, thus closing all possibility of a meeting of minds. The Jews had not recognized Jesus Christ, the Pope told Theodor Herzl, ergo the Church could not recognize the Jews.

With the consolidation of Zionism and the Great Powers’ growing international acceptance of it, the Holy See focused its concern on the destiny of the holy places and on the Christian presence in the Holy Land. The Vatican held an unfavorable view of the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the British Mandate in Palestine and instigated diplomatic efforts contrary to the interests of the Zionists. The Papacy viewed the Jewish nationalists as anti-religious Bolsheviks and feared that their way of life would result in the desecration of the Holy Land. There were apprehensions about Zionism’s modernism and liberalism, combined with the possibility that a Hebrew government would be in charge of Christian sacred sites, a position encapsulated in this statement by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monsignor Luigi Barlassina: “Let Palestine be internationalized rather than some day be the servant of Zionism.”1

The Vatican maintained its rejection of Jewish nationalism even during World War II. Against the background of the ongoing genocide of European Jews and with the countries of the Free World reluctant to receive Jewish refugees, senior officials of the Holy See expressed their opposition to the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. These sentiments are documented in letters sent between 1943 and 1944, when the Papacy was fully aware of the existence of the Holocaust. As a case in point, the Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Luigi Maglione wrote to the apostolic delegate in Washington, D.C.: “If Palestine fell under the power of the Jews, it would create new and grave international problems, it would annoy all the Catholics of the world, it would provoke the justified protests of the Holy See, and it would be a poor response to the charitable concerns that the Holy See has shown and is showing towards non-Aryans.”2

A New Era of Reconciliation after World War II

The decades following the end of the Second World War witnessed a very positive change in the attitude of the Papacy toward the Jewish people. Events that would have been unthinkable a short time before became habitual. Popes visited concentration camps and synagogues, a concert in memory of the Holocaust was held in Vatican City, and anti-Semitism was unequivocally condemned. The Catholic Church promoted religious relations with the Jews, papal audiences to Jewish delegations became regular, and an extraordinarily cordial dialogue was adopted. This was possible thanks to the revolutionary dogmatic revision prompted by the Second Vatican Council, called for by John XXIII, continued by Paul VI and honored by all their successors. In particular, the Nostra Aetate Declaration represented the theological turning point for the advent of a new era of reconciliation. It was attacked by ultraconservative Catholic sectors and by Arab delegates, resulting in a minimization of its centrality and a final, less auspicious version than the original draft. Even so, Nostra Aetate was a religious landmark and remains the most important Catholic document regarding church relations with the Jewish people. Subsequently, the Guides (1974) and the Notes (1985) supplemented their positive teachings.

But the most significant symbol of the new Vatican approach to the Jewish people was Vatican recognition of the State of Israel in 1993. With the leadership of John Paul II, this transformational diplomatic event marked a turning point in bilateral relations. Getting to this point was not easy, however. The initial Vatican response to the establishment of Israel was publicized in an article in L’Osservatore Romano, published the day Israel proclaimed its independence, in May 1948. “Modern Zionism is not the true heir of Biblical Israel,” said the Vatican organ, “Christianity [is] the true Israel.” The Vatican made an effort to characterize the Jewish state as a purely political phenomenon, devoid of any religious connotation. This allowed it to recognize the State of Israel diplomatically without having to deal with the associated theological challenge. But this did not please Jews who viewed that as a negation of the spiritual basis of the Zionist movement, as a scholar noted.

Once the State of Israel was born, the fate of Jerusalem and the holy places continued to be an issue of Vatican concern, together with the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the fate of Christian communities in the Middle East, and the question of recognition or non-recognition of the new state. As Vatican expert Henry Bocala pointed out, the Holy See viewed the question of Jerusalem as a religious issue (protection of the holy places) with a political dimension (the legal status of the city). Here, Rome saw itself as a party to the dispute and, consequently, not only asked for a resolution but also demanded a say over the outcome. Initially, it asked for the internationalization of Jerusalem and the holy places, and from 1967 onwards modified its position in pursuit of an internationally guaranteed special status. The Arab-Israeli conflict was seen as a political problem (a clash between two nationalisms) with a religious component (the diminished Christian presence in the Holy Land). Here, Rome saw itself in the role of a conciliator and asked for a resolution without proposing details for it.3

This did not prevent the Papacy from adopting a pro-Palestinian position. The Holy See propagated the idea that the Palestinians were the main victims of the conflict, that the Israelis were responsible for their condition, as well as the notion that without a solution to their cause there could be no peace in the region. Rome’s stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict was reflected in this phrase by the President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, Monsignor John Nolan: “If the Palestinians have no voice, we are their voice.”4

Rome’s endorsement of Palestinian national aspirations did not echo its lack of support for Jewish national yearnings before 1948, and once the Jewish state was established it took the Vatican decades to establish diplomatic ties. An Israeli official based in Rome expressed Jerusalem’s annoyance thus: “Our position was clear: we are always ready. If you truly wish to normalize relations, you have only to say the word. Our address is the same as it was 2,000 years ago.”5

As the first Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, the late Shmuel Hadas, observed, early recognition of Israel could have been a historic opportunity for the Catholic Church to rectify – albeit partially – its past hostility toward Jews and its silence during the Holocaust.6 Rome chose to see things in a different way. Only after the PLO agreed to formally recognize Israel in September 1993 did the Holy See decide to do the same, two months later. By then, the State of Israel had lived through forty-five years of sovereign life.

In December 1993, the Fundamental Agreement was signed between the parties and in June 1994, Israel and the Holy See exchanged ambassadors. A new horizon in relations between the two emerged, and the bond between Rome and Jerusalem was finally normalized.

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1  Minerbi, Sergio I. The Vatican and Zionism: Conflict in the Holy Land 1895-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 141.

2 Conway, John S. “Catholicism and the Jews During the Nazi Period and After”, in Kulka, Otto, Dov. & Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, Judaism and Christianity Under the Impact of National Socialism (Jerusalem: The Historical Society of Israel and the Zalman Shazar Center of Jewish History, 1987), p. 448.

3 Bocala, Henry. Diplomatic Relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel: Policy Basis in the Pontifical Documents, 1948-1997 (Roma: Pontificia Università Della Santa Croce, 2003), pp. 10-11 and 95-97.

4 Kreutz, Andrej. Vatican Policy on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Struggle for the Holy Land (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1990), p. 160

5 The quote is attributed to Yitzhak Shoham, attaché to the Israeli embassy in Rome for relations with The Holy See. See Cremonesi, Lorenzo, “The Stages of Diplomatic Negotiations” in Breger, Marshall J. (Editor) The Vatican Israel Accords: Political, Legal and Theological Contexts (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), p. 33.

6 Interview with the author in Jerusalem on August 26, 2008.