Judaism and the Middle East: ADL Vatican Newsletter



ADL Vatican Newsletter


Judaism and the Middle East: Fluctuating Perspectives


from Lisa Palmieri-Billig
Representative in Italy of the Anti-Defamation League


Vatican City, January 15, 2001


The Pope’s "Great Jubilee Year Pilgrimage to the Holy Land", which included   Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories, was the fulfillment of a long-held   dream of John Paul II. In his recent Apostolic Letter, "Novo Millennio Ineunte",   delivered on Epiphany, January 6, Karol Wojtyla called the trip "my personal Jubilee   along the pathways of the Holy Land." With touching candor he admitted that he   "would have liked to begin the journey at Ur of the Chaldeans...in the footsteps of   Abraham... however, I had to be content with a pilgrimage in spirit...." The unspoken   reason for the canceled voyage to "Ur" is, of course, that the one-time Chaldean   city is now part of present-day Iraq, and insurmountable diplomatic and security issues   felled the Pope’s plans.


The poignancy of the pilgrimage, for John Paul II, went beyond his purely Catholic or   Christian experiences (the visits to Mount Sinai, Mount Nebo, Bethlehem, Nazareth...),   profound as they were. The most moving moments in Israel for him as well as for millions of   media watchers, were immortalized in images: the trembling hand at the Western Wall,   slipping in a prayer requesting God’s forgiveness for Christianity’s sins against Jews;   encounters at Yad Vashem with Holocaust survivors from his home town in Poland; a   closed-door meeting with Israel’s two chief rabbis, etc. "In those places", he   writes, "still so troubled and again recently afflicted by violence, I received an   extraordinary welcome not only from the members of the Church but also from the Israeli and   Palestinian communities. Intense emotion surrounded my prayer at the Western Wall and my   visit to the Mausoleum of Yad Vashem, with its chilling reminder of the victims of the Nazi   death camps. My pilgrimage was a moment of brotherhood and peace, and I like to remember it   as one of the most beautiful gifts of the whole Jubilee event. Thinking back to the mood of   those days, I cannot but express my deeply felt desire for a prompt and just solution to the   still unresolved problems of the Holy Places, cherished by Jews, Christians and Muslims   together."


The Pope had used the same conciliatory tones last October 29 in speaking about the   Middle East to 70,000 people at the Rome Olympic Stadium’s Sports Jubilee. He said,


"Once again I wish to call on all the parties involved in the peace process not to   spare any efforts for the re-establishment of the climate of dialogue that existed up until   a few weeks ago. Mutual trust, rejection of arms, and respect for international law are the   only means capable of reviving the peace process."


That day he asked for prayers for "a return to the negotiating table and, through   dialogue, arrive at the desired goal of a just and lasting peace, which guarantees to all   the inalienable right to liberty and security."


His latest comments, however, seem to flow from a different pen. On January 13, a week   after the Epiphany Apostolic Letter, John Paul II again focused on the Israeli-Palestinian   peace process, but this time, with uncharacteristic sharpness. The occasion was the Pope’s   annual New Year’s reception for the international diplomatic corps accredited at the   Vatican.


"In this part of the world", he said, "that received God’s revelation to   mankind, no one should accept the fact that a kind of guerilla warfare has become an   everyday event, nor the persistence of injustice, contempt of international law, or placing   parentheses around the Holy Places or the needs of Christian communities. The future can   only be conceived together, by Israelis and Palestinians, and each party must respect the   rights and traditions of the other."


Specific demands seemed directed exclusively to Israel, with no echo of previous calls   for the "re-establishment of the climate of dialogue". or "a return to the   negotiating table", "mutual trust" , "rejection of arms" or   "the desired goal of a just and lasting peace." He said to the diplomatic corps,   "It is time to return to the principles of international legality, the banning of the   acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for   the resolutions of the United Nations Organization and the Geneva Conventions, to quote only   the most important. Otherwise, anything can happen from unilateral, rash initiatives to an   extension of violence which will be difficult to control."


Different moments, and perhaps the influence of different advisers leave their mark on   Papal speeches. These uncharacteristic remarks made by the Pope to the Diplomatic Corps were   more reminiscent of the semantics of Vatican State Department officials than of the Pope’s   own rhetorical style. For example, on October 26th ,1998, during a trip to Israel, Monsignor   Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s Foreign Minister ("Secretary for Relations between   States") said, "the situation today /in the Holy City is/ a case of manifest   international injustice. The situation today has been brought about and is maintained by   force. The Holy See has spoken out on this and will continue to speak out clearly, without   mincing words...." "...the distinction often made between ‘the question of the   Holy Places and the question of Jerusalem’ is unacceptable to the Holy See...the solution   of a territorial dispute alone is not enough for Jerusalem...the Holy See continues to ask   that it be protected by a ‘special internationally guaranteed Statute’ ".


The Pope generally uses pastoral language while Holy See officials get down to brass   tacks. Inherent to the Vatican’s concern for Jerusalem lies its vital interest in   "...the communities with their schools, hospitals, cultural, social and economic   activities", as Monsignor Tauran specified. Last year, on February 15, a Basic   Agreement between the PLO and the Holy See was signed in Rome. Its preamble contains a joint   political stand on Jerusalem, calling for "a special statute for Jerusalem,   internationally guaranteed" plus a declaration "that unilateral decisions and   actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally   unacceptable." By strengthening the weaker Christian minorities in the Arab world, by   gaining the confidence of Muslim leaders and especially the Palestinian Muslim majority, the   Vatican hopes to ease and strengthen the presently uncomfortable situation of Arab   Christians, as well as weaken the hold of Islamic Fundamentalism.


A similar variegated pattern has marked the Catholic Church’s policy on issues   regarding inter-religious dialogue and, specifically, that between Catholicism and Judaism.


After John Paul II warmed Jewish hearts with the spontaneity and deep symbolism of his   actions in Israel last spring and his many statements on the importance of inter-religious   dialogue, he caused a sudden let-down on September 3 by beatifying Pius IX (infamous for his   abduction of Edgaro Mortara, a secretly baptized Jewish child who, personally segregated by   that Pope, later became a priest) and placing his seal of approval on a problematic document   - "Dominus Iesus" - written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Prefect of the   Pontifical Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). That document, aimed primarily at   calling back to line the Catholic Clergy in India, seemed instead to turn the clock   backwards to pre-Vatican II times by proclaiming that Catholicism was the only true faith,   and no salvation outside the Church was possible.


The strongest reactions against these two events came from the Italian Jewish Community.   The Pope’s famous friend, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, and other Jewish leaders   made known they were upset by these signs of backtracking, and bowed out of a jointly   planned Vatican-Jewish Jubilee Year celebration that was supposed to have taken place last   October 3rd at the Pontifical St. John’s University in Rome.


Dialogue has slowly resumed. The skeptics have become more skeptical. But among those who   habitually participate and believe in the positive aftermath of encounter, none have   abandoned the various dialogue associations that have become local and national institutions   in Italy, such as the annual Christian-Jewish Colloquiums at the Monastery of Camaldoli, the   national and local ICCJ chapters, the inter-religious events organized by the Community of   St. Egidio, etc. The Italian Episcopate’s twelfth "Day for Dialogue with   Judaism" took place January 17th with local rabbis participating across Italy in church   organized events. The Chief Rabbi of Milan, Giuseppe Laras, interviewed by the Catholic   daily, "Avvenire" said, "I believe this year’s ‘Day’ is of particular   significance for the very reason that there have been problems. We have been challenged in   our capacity to go beyond the difficulties and aim towards higher horizons, far-off but   quite reachable - just like the Promised Land in Abraham’s times. He didn’t see it but   it was as if he did see it."


On international and diplomatic levels, some important events have taken place. On   December 20, Yosef Lamdan, Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, organized a one-day   seminar on "Pope John XXIII and Jewish-Christian Relations". Participants included   high Vatican officials such as Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands and   Monsignor Walter Kasper and from Israel, Minister Rav M. Melchior, Ambassador Shmuel Hadas,   with the participation of Italian and Israeli scholars and the Community of St. Egidio.   Apart from the excellent contributions, many interpreted and appreciated the initiative as a   tactful but firm response to the joint beatification of John XXIII and Pius IX in September   (Honour - only - where honour is due....)


Another international meeting on inter-religious dialogue in the Mediterranean, entitled   "Forgiveness in the House of Abraham" was held at the Villa Piccolomini in Rome,   with participation by representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths from Europe and the   Middle East including Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Jerusalem ADL office, Rabbi Rene’   Sirat, Ambassador Shmuel Hadas, Palestinian Authority officials, etc. An   Israeli-Italian-Vatican Steering Committee to work on further projects was formed.


In an apparent effort to soften the effects of the Cardinal Ratzinger’s "Dominus   Iesus" document, the Pope’s January 6 Apostolic Letter contained a special section on   "Dialogue and mission" which refers to "the great challenge of   inter-religious dialogue...in fidelity to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. In   the years of preparation for the Great Jubilee the Church has sought to build, not least   through a series of highly symbolic meetings, a relationship of openness and dialogue with   the followers of other religions. This dialogue must continue. In the climate of increased   cultural and religious pluralism which is expected to mark the society of the new   millennium, it is obvious that this dialogue will be especially important....The name of the   one God must become increasingly what it is: a name of peace and a summons to peace."


Significantly, the topic of "inter-religious dialogue" is coupled with the   concept of mission, and the Pope elaborated on this point. "However", he warns in   his Apostolic Letter, "dialogue cannot be based on religious indifferentism, and we   Christians are in duty bound, while engaging in dialogue, to bear clear witness...."   And here the Pope recalled the bottom line of Cardinal Ratzinger’s document: "As the   recent Declaration ‘Dominus Iesus’ stressed, this cannot be the subject of a dialogue   understood as negotiation, as if we considered it a matter of mere opinion: rather, it is a   grace which fills us with joy, a message which we have a duty to proclaim."


While "proclamation" may be a part of inter-religious dialogue in general,   tacitly and not so tacitly, any form of "missionizing" to Jews has been banned   from the Christian-Jewish dialogue since Vatican II. The Catholic Church’s history of   forced conversions and staged "theological disputes", have marked permanent   boundaries beyond which "no trespassing" signs are clearly installed. For these   and other historical reasons and because of the "special" Catholic-Jewish   relationship recognized by both partners, the Vatican’s "Religious Relations with   Jews Office", headed by Cardinal Cassidy, is separate from the Pontifical Council for   Inter-religious Dialogue, and practically all official Vatican documents treating dialogue   since Vatican II respect this division by including separate sections on   "Inter-religious Dialogue" and on "Catholic-Jewish Dialogue". The Pope’s   latest Apostolic Letter, strangely, does not contain such a section. One might ask whether   this was an oversight or whether there is some significance in this kind of editing.


Just before the New Year, on December 29, the Vatican daily, "L’Osservatore   Romano", published an article written by the author of "Dominus Iesus",   Cardinal Ratzinger. It was called, "The Heritage of Abraham, a Christmas Gift."   The message, expressed by the Vatican’s principal guardian of the faith, is that   Christians owe the Jewish people gratitude for having received from them a heritage of   belief in the One True God, the God of the Jewish Bible, who was also "the God of Jesus   Christ and the apostles." Cardinal Ratzinger refers to Paul’s letter to the Romans as   evidence that not only the ancient Hebrews have been chosen by "adoption, the promises,   God’s Covenants and the patriarchs...from whom Christ in the flesh descended"   (9,4-5), but also contemporary Jews because "the gifts and calling of God are   irrevocable" (11,29). Dialogue today "should begin with a prayer to our God to   give to us Christians above all, greater respect and love towards this people."


The Cardinal states that "a new vision of the relations between the Church and   Israel was born, with a sincere desire to overcome all types of anti-Judaism and to begin a   constructive dialogue for mutual understanding and reconciliation." This "new   vision", he feels, is perhaps an outcome of the tragedy of the Shoah. He remains true   to the official Catholic position regarding responsibility for the Holocaust, stating that   "although the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology that   wanted to strike at the Abrahamitic roots of the Christian faith - the people of Israel - it   cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance by Christians to these atrocities is   to be explained by the anti-Judaic heritage present in the souls of not a few   Christians."


Important Vatican documents of the past decade (such as the Pope’s Apostolic Letter in   preparation of the Jubilee Year, "Terzo Millenium Avveniente"; the 1998   "Shoah Document"- "We Remember: The Catholic Church and the Shoah"; and   the publications related to the Vatican International Theology Committee’s Symposium on   "Anti-Judaism in Christian Circles"), always speak of the pagan, anti-Christian   roots of Nazi ideology (which is never mentioned by name), and the sin of   "indifference" committed by "many Christians" regarding the persecution   of Jews. While these statements should hopefully raise consciences and questions about   anti-Judaism in Catholic teaching, they are limited by a certain refusal to even consider   that some Christians might actually have collaborated (such as Monsignor Tisso, head of the   fascist government in Slovakia, to give but one example.)


Cardinal Ratzinger makes a brief excursion into Catholic-Jewish history which leads him   to conclude that the early Church "did not oppose Israel, but believed quite simply   that it was its legitimate continuation". Conflicts arose, however, since "the   Church was considered a degenerate daughter by its mother, while Christians considered their   mother blind and obstinate." Degeneration into Anti-Judaism, he says,   "historically produced deplorable acts of violence". And while the Shoah was   actually anti-Christian in its anti Judaism, Christian anti-Judaism was responsible for the   indifference of many Christians to the anti-Semitic persecutions.


Ratzinger asserts that "it is evident that our dialogue, as Christians, with Jews is   on a different level than that with other religions." The Jewish faith "as   witnessed in the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament of the Christians, is for us not another   religion but the basis of our faith."


Some might say that this vision of unity is a double-faced blessing. While it raises the   Jewish religion to levels of holiness, it does not obey the principles of the 1974   "Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate   (No. 4) issued by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. That document   called for Christians to try to understand Jews as they define and see themselves "in   the light of their own religious experience." Jews see their religion as an   independent, living, evolving, contemporary religion - not just as the ancient, basic part   of Christianity. Ratzinger creates additional ground for confusion by saying, "We will   also pray that [God] also grant the children of Israel greater knowledge of Jesus of   Nazareth, their son [who is] the gift they have given to us. Since we are both awaiting the   final redemption, let us pray that the lines of our paths converge."


Yet these are minor shortcomings. Unquestionably, Cardinal Ratzinger’s intentions are   noble and above reproach. He is not calling for missionary activity to convert Jews. He   limits his wishes to prayers for "convergence" when the Messianic Age comes, at   the end of time, and calls for fellow Christians to harbor greater respect and love for Jews   in the context of an awareness of the horrifying evils that Christian anti-Judaism has   wrought in the past. An elite section of society today is on an advanced level of dialogue;   the majority of the world is not. And if Cardinal Ratzinger, as an observer essentially   outside the growing circle of habitual players in the ongoing Christian-Jewish dialogue,   currently feels the need to stress the religious duty to respect the Jewish people and their   faith, he must know there is need to be heard by the many who need to hear.


In his last paragraph, the Cardinal refers to the gift of God obtained through prayer,   "to be shared among...religions in search of greater knowledge of the divine mystery,   nations seeking peace and peoples wanting to establish societies where justice and love   reign. This is the program traced by the Second Vatican Council for the Church of the   future...."


Altogether, Cardinal Ratzinger’s article seems to aim at a more open and   dialogue-friendly reading and context for the "Dominus Iesus" document. As a   document, it cannot be disavowed by the Catholic Church but it can be clarified by   "correcting" (or bending) integralist interpretations.


An aphorism that might sum up contemporary perceptions of Jews, Judaism and Israel is   that behind the walls of Vatican City (which houses the officials of a government as well as   of a world religion), pluralism rages.