Sunday, May 17, 2009

Myths And Facts: Have Israel's Issues With The Vatican Been Resolved?

From Myths and Facts Online (posted with permission):

“The pope’s trip to Israel shows that issues between Israel and the Vatican have been resolved.”


The Catholic Church has had a difficult relationship with the Zionist idea since the early 20th century when Theodor Herzl sought the support of Pope Pius X for a Jewish homeland and was told by the pontiff that “the Jews did not acknowledge our Lord and thus we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Hence, if you go to Palestine, and if the Jewish people settle there, our churches and our priests will be ready to baptize you all.”269

In 1947, the Vatican voted in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 to partition Palestine; however, it did not officially recognizeIsrael until 1993. Since then, the Catholic Church has taken strides to improve its relationship with the Jewish state, including signing a diplomatic treaty and exchanging ambassadors with Israel.270

In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land and Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Israel was meant to follow a similar path to foster interfaith dialogue and improve Vatican-Israel relations. Unfortunately, a series of missteps by the pope have shown that past wounds are far from healed.

Pope Benedict XVI was born in Germany and has said he reluctantly became a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II (a Vatican spokesman denied this during the tour and had to issue a retraction after it was pointed out that Benedict admitted it in his autobiography). This personal background made his May 11, 2009, visit to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial especially poignant. Though his address condemned Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, many Israelis expected him to go further. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chairman of Yad Vashem, expressed his disappointment following the speech, “Something was missing. There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis who participated in the butchery, nor a word of regret.” Though the pope referred to the millions of innocent victims, he did not specifically mention the 6 million Jewish victims.271

The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has long been a contentious issue for Israel and the Vatican. At Yad Vashem, there is a plaque criticizing Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, for not doing more to save the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. The Vatican continues to limit access to archives that might shed further light on the actions of Pius. Furthermore, in 2008, Pope Benedict announced his intention to beatify Pius XII, a high religious honor of the Church that is the last step before sainthood.272 This decision angered some Jews as did his announcement in January 2009, that he was lifting the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, aHolocaust denier who believes that Jews are bent on world domination.273

Israelis hoped that the pope’s visit to Israeli sites and meetings with Israeli officials would be accompanied by positive statements aboutIsrael’s quest for peace and some recognition of the ongoing dangers it faces. Benedict, however, reserved his more political remarks for his tour of Palestinian areas. Speaking to a crowd in Bethlehem, for example, Pope Benedict XVI reasserted the policy of the Vatican on Palestinian statehood. While declaring their rights to a sovereign homeland, the pope lamented Palestinian losses suffered in Gaza. He told a crowd in Manger Square, “Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted.” Though he urged Palestinian youth to resist the temptation to resort to terrorism, he did not condemn Hamas for its acts of terror against Israel that made the embargo on the Gaza Strip essential to halting weapons smugglers and provoked Operation Cast Lead.274

The Palestinians also took full advantage of the propaganda value of the pope’s appearances in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, used the pope’s speech in Bethlehem as an opportunity to criticize Israel’s security fence, labeling it an “apartheid wall”.275Later, on a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp, the pontiff was photographed in front of one of the few sections of the fence that is actually a wall and lamented that it symbolized the “stalemate” in relations between Israel and the Palestinians. He expressed his wish that the wall would come down soon so that “the people of Palestine… will at last be able to enjoy the peace, freedom and stability that have eluded [them] for so long.”276

In addition to ignoring the Palestinian violence that killed more than 800 Israelis and prompted the building of the security barrier, the pope was also silent with regard to the ongoing persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and especially within the Palestinian Authority. This was another missed opportunity for the pope to show concern for the plight of his followers.

The decision of Pope Benedict XVI to make a pilgrimage to Israel was a welcome one and did show the distance the Vatican has traveled in the century that has passed since Herzl’s visit to Rome. The acts of commission and omission during the pope’s trip indicated, however, that there is still some distance to go before Israel will have the respect it deserves from the Holy See.

269Uri Bialer, Cross on the Star of David, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005, p. 3.
270Tony Johnson, “Vatican-Israel Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, (May 12, 2009).
271“Pope: Holocaust victims’ cry still echoes in our hearts,” Haaretz, (May 11, 2009).
272Rachel Donaido, “Vatican-Israel Tensions Rise Over Pius,” New York Times, (October 19, 2008).
273Richard Owen, “Dismay as Pope welcomes back Holocaust bishop Richard Williamson,” Times Online, (January 26, 2009).
274Rachel Donaido and Alan Cowell, “In Bethlehem, Pope Urges Lifting of Gaza Embargo,” New York Times, (May 13, 2009).
276Only about 5% of the Security Fence is a wall. “Pope: West Bank fence is symbol of ‘stalemate’,” Haaretz, (May 13, 2009).

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