Pope Benedict XVI within the Context of Israel and Holy See Relations

Mordechay Lewy. Israel Affairs. Volume 16, Issue 4. October 2010.

The pontificate of Benedict XVI is undoubtedly shaped by his personality as a profound thinker and one who is much more a philosopher than a politician. Management seems not to be his trade. With his intellectual mind he shuns anything that smells of populism. The mass media has an inherent difficulty in placing him within their traditional parameters. The paradigm of Pope Benedict can serve as a microcosm that reflects the complexity imprinted on relations between Israel and the Holy See. Any effort to simplify those relations according to the vocabulary of conventional bilateral relations may do injustice to their essence.

How Jews in Israel and Catholics in the Vatican Perceive Each Other

I am often asked about the state of relations between Israel and the Vatican. I reply that, considering 2000 years of jealous competition for the benevolence of the same God, and taking into account the mutual mistrust and Jewish calamities – the present state of affairs could not be better. From the historical point of view, I do not retract this judgement, even when recent differences during the pontificate of Benedict XVI led to negative headlines; the Shoah denying bishop Williamson can serve only as a spectacular case in point.

Some of my compatriots and brothers in faith, on the other hand, are not overly impressed by the dramatic changes in the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the Jewish people, as endorsed in the Conciliar declaration Nostrae Aetate, which has been a binding dictum since 1965.

Benedict XVI’s re-emphasis of the Church’s commitment to this new and significant stage in its attitude towards the Jewish people, reiterated in his speech in the Great Synagogue in Rome during his historic visit on 17 January 2010, should be appreciated accordingly. Having failed to grasp this historical perspective, those sceptics are indulging in a mood of victimization and, rightly or wrongly, blame the Church and its authorities for almost every calamity Jews experienced before the State of Israel was established.

To understand relations between the Holy See and Israel entails remembering that, not only the Jews, but the Catholic Church, prior to Nostrae Aetate, claimed it was the victim of Nazism and Communism, both being modern ideologies that were and are still perceived by the Vatican as anti-Christian, ‘Godless’ systems. However, this is not sufficient in explaining the dichotomy; for, if being a victim is a factual statement, being victimized is a state of mind. Many past and present misunderstandings between the Vatican and the Israeli public, in particular, and Jews, in general, have rested upon the state of minds of both sides as being victimized. We Jews are often not aware to what degree Catholics are sensitive to offences and mistrust from the Jewish side. It is widely known that the one who feels victimized does not have much room for compassion towards the ‘other’.

If we may remember that Pope Pius XII was the one who introduced, as late as 1945 in his speech to his cardinals, the notion that the Church was the victim of the Nazi regime, we may also grasp the apprehension experienced by the Vatican when, following the global echo created by the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, another victim of Nazism began to attract major public attention. Moreover, the accusations against Pius XII, disseminated since 1963 by Hochhuth’s drama The Vicar, placed this Pope unjustly close to being an accomplice of Hitler. This amounted to an insult to the already perplexed Church authorities. The machinery of ecclesiastical apologetics has been working overtime since the 1960s, shaping the overexposed person of Pius XII as an almost iconic figure.

The founding father of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is quoted as having said in 1949 that ‘There is a major religion in the world, which has to settle with us a historical reckoning’. What did he mean by these words? The immediate context was the Vatican campaign behind the scenes at the UN to condition Israel becoming a member state upon its respect for the provisions of returning Palestinian refugees to the newly created Jewish state and committing itself to respecting the holy sites. Israel was accepted as a member of the UN on 11 May 1949. But before, a bold pro-Palestinian encyclica of Pius XII, Redemptoris NostrisCrucuiatus had been issued on Good Friday, 15 April 1949. It said:

But although the actual fighting is over, tranquillity or order in Palestine is still very far from having been restored. For We are still receiving complaints from those who have every right to deplore the profanation of sacred buildings, images, charitable institutions, as well as the destruction of peaceful homes of religious communities. Piteous appeals still reach us from numerous refugees, of every age and condition, who have been forced by the disastrous war to emigrate and even live in exile in concentration camps, the prey to destitution, contagious disease and perils of every sort.

The aim of the pronouncement was to mobilize Catholics worldwide to remind their respective governments to forward those demands before admitting Israel to the UN. The French La Documentation Catholiques went even farther and published a report declaring that ‘Zionism is the new Nazism’. The Holy See was surprised, after all, by the unexpected victory of Israel in 1948 over the invading Arab forces. The Palestinians had missed their opportunity to establish their own state in accordance with the partition plan (UN General Assembly Resolution 181) or were prevented from doing so by their Arab brethren, notably the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Vatican saw the Christian presence in the Holy Land diminish, claiming that 70% of the local Christians had fled from their homes as a consequence of the acts of belligerency.

By initially siding with Palestinian claims for compensation on political, social and financial levels, the Vatican shaped its Middle Eastern policy from 1948 on two pillars. One was based on political and theological reservations towards Zionism, which corresponded with attitudes of Catholic Arab communities whose members had taken a leading part in shaping the Palestinian national movement. But the Holy See has also maintained reservations of its own. The more established the Yishuv became in Mandatory Palestine, the more political reservations the Vatican added to its initial theological inhibitions. Zionism was regarded for several decades as a competitor for the same territory – the Holy Land – and the Vatican needed to undermine Jewish legitimacy to its claim for that territorial tract by associating the Zionist movement with everything ungodly.

Zionism was associated at that time with atheist Soviet Communism. The Osservatore Romano commented on the establishment of Israel on 11 June 1948: ‘The birth of Israel gives Moscow a basis in the Near East through which the microbes can grow and be disseminated.’ Indeed, by adhering to the ideology of the Kibbutz or the socialist background of its founding fathers, the State of Israel wrongly created this impression. The steady deterioration of Israel’s diplomatic relations with Stalinist Russia in 1953, on the other hand, went unnoticed in the Vatican. Any rapprochement toward the Jewish state was curtailed because of the conviction that, in order to safeguard the well-being of Christians under Muslim-Arab rule, the Vatican would have to pay the political price of supporting Arab claims against Israel. The Vatican view of the Near East was dominated by a Cold War perception that Arab Muslims are conservative but religious, whereas Israeli Zionists are modernist but atheists. The Vatican’s then Foreign Minister, Domenico Tardini (a close collaborator of Pius XII), said to the French ambassador in November 1957, according to an Israeli diplomatic dispatch from Rome to Jerusalem:

I have always been of the opinion that there never was an overriding reason for this state to be established. It was the fault of the western states. Its existence is an inherent risk factor for war in the Middle East. Now, Israel exists, and there is certainly no way to destroy it, but every day we pay the price of this error.

Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, participated in the Special Committee of the Holy See that reviewed and authorized the establishment of full relations between Israel and the Vatican. After the decision was made, he called his Jerusalem acquaintance, Professor Zwi Werblowsky, to express his joy over this development, describing it as the fruit of the work of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Indeed, much water has flowed under the bridges of the Tiber since Tardinis’ statement.

Nostra Aetate – A Trigger for the Establishment of Relations?

It is often assumed that the Vatican’s ability to adapt to new political realities is swifter than its capacity for changes of a theological nature. Do we recognize here an exception where the theological change is the forerunner to the political change?

One should also consider the change as part of the new reality, which was a result of Israel’s effective control over the entire Holy City in a united Jerusalem since 1967. This forced the Vatican to introduce a pragmatic dimension to its well-known declaratory policy of political denial. Hence, after 1967, Vatican diplomacy vis-à-vis Israel began to waver between two parameters:

  • A policy of strict non-recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, far beyond the usual interpretation of international law, as the Holy See still embraces its own ideas regarding the special status of Jerusalem.
  • A pragmatic policy, through which Catholic interests can best be served by having a working relationship with the party that exercises effective authority and control in Jerusalem.

What then brought about the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1993-94?

  • Was it adopting the new political reality of the Oslo peace process, after which the Vatican simply could not remain more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves?
  • Was this peaceful scenario only a pretext to realizing a long-standing personal aspiration of Pope John Paul II?
  • Was establishing relations with Israel within the trend of an overall zeal of Vatican diplomacy during the 1990s to establish relations with as many countries as possible?
  • Was it a belated political consequence of a theological change towards Judaism as reflected in Nostra Aetate?

We cannot be sure, but the historical truth may lie within all four reasons. Only future research of the archives on the pontificate of John Paul II may supply a clearer answer. For the time being it can be assumed that with Cardinal Ratzinger the establishment of relations is a result of the commitment of the Church generated from Nostra Aetate.

What is the Scope of Our Diplomatic Relations?

The most important characteristics of Israeli-Holy See relations are that they are practically maintained on two levels: the political and the theological. This may sound obvious, since the Pope is not only the head of a universal church but also of a sovereign state. Vatican diplomacy, however, is not very keen to blur the strict separation of state and religion it holds in its external relations. It maintains that an Israeli ambassador is not a representative of the Jewish people, pointing out that he does not have such a mandate. Indeed, his letter of accreditation is issued by the State of Israel and not by an unrecognized global Jewish representational entity. He may accompany religious delegations to a papal audience, provided the Jewish religious leaders present are Israeli citizens. Any similar delegation composed of non-Israeli Jews would be accompanied by the respective national ambassador.

Israel, however, would not like to limit relations to the political level only. The definition of diplomatic relations would suggest that political relations began in 1994. By doing so, we would admit that our diplomatic relations are one-dimensional and what happened before is less relevant. How can we measure the degree of deterioration or improvement in relations if we do not compare them with the past? Only if we remember what kind of negative attitude the Vatican had towards Zionism since its establishment as a political movement by Herzl can we appreciate what Benedict XVI said on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Jewish state: ‘The Holy See joins you in giving thanks to the Lord that the aspirations of the Jewish people for a home in the land of their fathers have been fulfilled.’

This amounts, almost, to theological justification for the return of the Jewish People to Zion – indeed, an acceptance that has placed all previous Catholic denials of Zionism and its non-recognition policy of the State of Israel in the shade.

How to Assess Diplomatic Relations with the Vatican? An Israeli Perspective

For most Israelis who have actually made the effort to find the tiny state of the Vatican on the map, and having verified that it is not limited to the Capella Sistina, it is very difficult to assess how to maintain diplomatic relations with a state that is lacking economic relations, and hence cannot be quantified in terms of a balance sheet. Furthermore, how should Israelis perceive the absence of military power on behalf of the Vatican? Israelis are used to assessing the world in terms of threats or advantages relative to Israel’s security and material well-being. The Vatican does not conform to any of these. The Vatican is not a full member of any international organization; it holds only an observer status and has no vote. Why should Israel be bothered with such a state? The official statements of the Pope and his spokesmen are phrased in such nuanced language, which is hardly comprehensible to those who are used only to normal political discourse. The Pope almost never resorts to public reprimands or criticism; he sounds fatherly, forgiving and refrains from name-calling. Seldom does the Pope exceed the level of generic statements which call for various interpretations.

Obviously, there must be different reasons for Israel to aspire, to hope and to act in order to receive recognition as a state, and to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Christianity and Judaism look back 2000 years upon a common traumatic past. After the Shoah, the Catholic Church initiated in the 1960s a radical change towards Jews. The Catholic teaching of Nostra Aetate is a far-reaching outcome of the Second Vatican Council of 1965, which formulated a new attitude towards Judaism. Since then, Jews may not be accused by Catholics of being collectively guilty of deicide. Conversion of the Jews is barred to a distant and unknown eschatological horizon. As with the establishment of Israel as the Jewish state that today houses the majority of the Jewish people, the survivability of Judaism is guaranteed. Jews in the Diaspora should no longer be compelled to shape their attitudes towards the Church under conditions of existential threats. These developments may shape the future of our relations with the Catholic Church. It would be unwise to ignore this opportunity.

Even if the average Jew in Israel, today as much as in recent decades, is quite ignorant regarding the Vatican in particular, and Christianity in general, he should be reluctant to be in conflict with a religious factor whose political clout is difficult to quantify. The demographic fact that there are 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe might be a convincing argument not to want to enter into conflict with them. Moreover, the fact that Muslims and Christians have a problematic co-existence in many quarters, and certainly in the Near East, nourishes among Jews in Israel the idea of being salient allies or ‘in the same boat’ as Christians. It would seem that historical and theological arguments should lead Israel to favour greater support for Vatican-Israeli relations; for most, however, realpolitik will do.

In order to understand this unique relationship, however, traditional parameters will not do; instead, we need to describe the framework within which these relations are being pursued – a framework that employs a totally different set of parameters.

First Parameter – The Asymmetry in Scope of Representation

The Nuncio, as the Ambassador of the Holy See, is, at the same time, a high ecclesiastical dignitary with the title of archbishop. He may perform his religious office, but he must care about the well-being of all the Catholics in his host country, including intervention on their behalf with the authorities. On the other hand, he will not participate in the Presidential New Year reception in honour of the non-Jewish religious leadership. He prefers to participate in the annual reception for the diplomatic corps. By doing so, he underlines the quality of the Vatican as a full-fledged member of the international community as a sovereign state.

Second Parameter – Intertwining Theological and Political Mode of Action

The ecclesiastical and political levels of performing the duties of a Nuncio are intertwined. When he requests entry to an area of restricted accessibility for the purpose of holding mass, he is making the request in the name of religious freedom. Once his request is respected, it is regarded as a political gesture, meeting the expectations of religious freedom, but also in order to maintain friendly bilateral relations. If, however, he speaks to the media about his visit upon his return, it may be seen as a political and not a spiritual act.

But the intertwining is not merely a matter of formalities; it is often a legitimate tool of diplomacy, on one hand, and religious dialogue, on the other. The interplay enables using political tools to ease theological tensions that cannot be solved without one side or the other disavowing his faith. For example, in 2007, the pre-conciliar Good Friday Prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews was re-introduced in a softer-worded version. The response of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate was to suspend dialogue with the Holy See. In order to enable its resumption, the Vatican was asked to write an answer at the highest possible level, explaining the Papal measure in an acceptable manner. Any answer would have entailed a theological interpretation about the time when ‘the truth will be unveiled to the Jews’. The final answer (in an eschatological timeframe) was given to the Rabbis by the highest political echelon in the Vatican, rather than by any binding theological authority. The dialogue was resumed. I have reason to believe that at the given moment, this was the best answer the Holy See could provide, and Israel did not insist on a theological imprimatur.

Third Parameter – Intertwining Freedom of Religion and Security

The opposite case would involve, for example, the issuance of visas as an acceptable gauge of measuring relations between states, which should ideally be a transparent process. Extending visa permits to Catholic clergy is, for the Vatican, a matter of exercising freedom of religion, which Israel respects. If, however, a member of the clergy holds a passport from a state that is at war with or does not recognize Israel, the matter is regarded by Israeli authorities rather as a security issue.

One case in point is the Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, a native of Aleppo in Syria, who in 1965 was appointed archbishop of the Melkite Church. He was caught in Israel with arms and explosives, which had been smuggled in from Jordan on behalf a Palestinian terrorist organization, in his official car. In 1974, he was sentenced by the Israeli authorities to 12 years in prison for abusing his immunity and endangering Israel’s security. He was released in 1977 following Vatican intervention and was transferred to a pastoral office in Latin America. Now retired, at the age of 88, he recently joined the provocative ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla, supporting the Arab cause as he has done repeatedly in previous years.

Clearly, here is a case where the interplay is undermined by elements outside the dialogue, affecting not only diplomatic relations, but often clouding everything else. The result of one side’s existential caution may be seen by the other side as an infringement upon the freedom of religion. Still, on this delicate matter not all the wishes of the Vatican can be fulfilled.

Fourth Parameter – The Triangular Nature of Our Bilateral Relations

The not-always silent shareholders of the Holy See in the bilateral relationship with Israel are the 140,000 Catholics in Israel, who mostly have Israeli citizenship but are part of the larger Arab Muslim minority. The fact that they belong to the higher socio-economic echelons in Israel seems not be a consolation to them. Some of them would rather lament their fate as Palestinians, despite the fact that they are far better off in Israel in every respect than their brethren are in any given Muslim country.

Some Israeli Catholics, in the past as well as at present, opposed the improvement of relations between the Holy See and Israel. Their leadership was against the theological opening towards the Jews during the Second Vatican Council. They were overruled by the Holy See when they objected to the establishment of diplomatic relations. It seems that they will also be overruled in the future, if the interests of the Vatican require it.

The Catholic Church in the Holy Land … and Peace

Catholics often use the politically blurred term of ‘Holy Land’, which is politically, historically and geographically ill-defined. For Israel, it is the Land of the Bible which comprises today’s State of Israel and the biblical landscape of Judea and Samaria. For some Christians, the Holy Land is confined to the extension of the jurisdiction of the Latin or Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (i.e. Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA)). Others would understand ‘Holy Land’ as embracing all the areas in which the events mentioned in the New Testament took place, which may also mean Turkey and Egypt. What has gone almost unnoticed is that the border of the Latin Patriarchate is almost identical with the late Roman Imperial political delineation of Palestina Prima, Secunda and Tertia.

The present international political discourse practically inherited the parameters of ancient Roman delineations that were preserved through the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Metropolitan diocese of Jerusalem. The Arab political discourse follows the borders of A-Shams (Greater Syria), delineated during the Ummayad conquest of the Levant in the late seventh century. According to its parameters there is no room for an independent Palestine or Lebanon. As the biblical delineation of the borders of the Promised Land lacks accurate definition, there is no political consensus on borders among Jews. This multiplicity of definitions may indicate to some extent the inbuilt misunderstandings regarding the claim of a diminishing Catholic presence. Christian communities within Israel’s jurisdiction are not decreasing at all and are, in fact, prospering more than ever before. Russian emigration to Israel in the last two decades and the influx of Christian guest workers from Asian and African countries has also increased the number of Christians, Catholics included.

Without doubt, the Christian presence in Israel has global implications, not merely due to the fact that local Christians stress this quite vocally and at every opportunity. Contrary to fact, many church leaders speak about the peril of a diminishing Christian presence in the Holy Land. Only some speak of the persecution of Christians in a hostile Muslim environment. A special synod for oriental Catholic churches on Christianity in the Middle East is to be convened in Rome in October 2010. The Vatican’s purpose with this synod is to show solidarity with oriental Catholics who live in distress due to violent conflicts in the region. The Holy See is keen to see these churches moving closer to Rome and, where necessary, also to discipline them. These churches are not only Catholic but also national churches. Some of them are under the surveillance and even control of the respective regimes.

Although the Holy See may resent a politicized synod, Arab Catholic dignitaries, who form the majority of the synod, often make efforts to exploit such forums in order to voice their political attitudes and display visibly their loyalty to their respective governments. In fact, the publication of the preliminary draft, the Lineamenta, was later much watered down in the Instrumentum Laboris, which is the guideline for the Mideast Synod.

Although the Vatican is genuinely interested in resolving conflicts and in restoring peaceful co-existence among diverse ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East, it lacks the clout of being a broker in the regional conflict. A broker is a broker not because he is honest but because he has the power to convince the parties to agree. Whatever it may do in the Middle East, the Holy See will have to take into account the well-being of its own believers, who often run the risk of being persecuted in Muslim-Arab countries.


The Holy See traditionally seeks to safeguard the Catholic presence in Jerusalem. During the war of 1948, not only Muslims but also Christians were among those who abandoned their homes. The size of the Christian community in Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction before and after 1967, however, is not diminishing, but is remarkably stable. Still, Catholic voices claim that the future of the Christian presence in the Holy City is at risk. This demographic trauma, real or imagined, is a constant trigger for the Holy See to remind the non-Christian parties who have ruled Jerusalem since 1948 (i.e. Israel and Jordan), that any political solution for the city should consider its special status – actually a catchword for also considering Christian interests in the city.

A powerful diplomatic effort by the Vatican managed to integrate the concept of international status for Jerusalem as corpus separatum into the partition plan of 29 November 1947 (UN General Assembly Resolution 181). The Holy See tried to condition Israel’s UN membership in 1949 upon the demand that it should adhere to those concepts which were agreed in UN Resolution 181. This position has not been formally abandoned until today. A relic of it is visible every day in L’Osservatore Romano, when it reports about Israel from Tel Aviv and never from Jerusalem. The concept of a special status for Jerusalem is still alive in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. One has only to read the Preamble to the Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the PLO of the 15 February 2000.

It took the Vatican 46 years to internalize the reality that the Jewish state not only controls the holy sites but is not going to fade away soon; and this recognition is manifest in the 1993 Fundamental Agreement. But its significance for the Holy See is far-reaching in the sense that the Vatican has since then also assumed direct responsibility for the well-being of all local Catholic Churches within Israel’s territorial jurisdiction. Alongside recognition, the Nuncio received an instrument enabling him to gain effective control and legal authority over all Catholic institutions and property in Israel – a very powerful and unparalleled tool he had hitherto never had, under Turkish or Jordanian rule.

The Bilateral Agenda – Visa Policy

Bilateral relations are marked by an inherent asymmetry in the sense that almost all requests on behalf of the Vatican are within the realm of Israeli domestic policy. In 2002, the Ministry of Interior introduced a rather restricted policy on permits for stays longer than three months. Although its policy was not aimed at being discriminatory, it affected Christian clergy. Previously, these clergy were used to receiving permits in uncontrolled numbers and for practically indefinite periods, since the state authorities did not enforce their own provisions. Thus, the shift was not a consequence of policy, but practically the end of the loss of state control. After the al-Qaeda attacks of 2001 and due to the second Intifada, domestic security needs increased. As a consequence, all previous permits were revoked and a restrictive policy, which limited the number of permits and their duration, was implemented. This policy takes into account Israel’s security needs. Israel cannot risk the entry of citizens from Muslim countries who are at war or do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel, without prior security checks; and based on past experiences, clerics from such countries cannot be made exempt.

The Bilateral Agenda – The Fiscal Negotiations

Even more complex are the longstanding negotiations of fiscal and property issues related to Catholic institutions in Israel. After a long break, negotiations were resumed in 2004, and since then considerable progress has been made. Upon a Vatican suggestion, the dissemination of public statements is restricted to joint communiqués according to the principle that ‘nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed’.

The subject to be negotiated is which tax and what is the degree of exemption that Catholic Church institutions should enjoy. Another issue to be dealt with is which ecclesiastical property should enjoy what degree of immunity of expropriation. A sovereign state like Israel may well decide about present exemptions and immunities. The Catholic Church however has an interest in safeguarding its presence and property until eternity by alleviating itself from any future financial burdens. These are highly complex issues in which, not only the Holy See is represented at the table, but also different local Catholic churches and institutions. Along the Israeli side of the table, four ministries are represented in the negotiations: Justice, Finance, Interior and Foreign Affairs. The latter leads the negotiations on behalf of the Israeli government. Some Israelis criticize the negotiations. It seems to them that Israel conducts an unfortunate ‘give and give’ rather than ‘give and take’ policy. The Israeli government sees the political benefit of a speedy conclusion of the negotiations.

The Bilateral Agenda – The Religious Dimension

As a consequence of the visit of Pope John Paul II, the framework of an inter-religious dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the respective Pontifical Council has been established. The dialogue has taken place on an annual basis since 2003, meeting in Jerusalem and in the Vatican respectively. It does not touch doctrinal matters of faith, as both sides recognize and respect the basic gap between the religions that cannot be bridged, if one remains faithful to one’s own belief. But there are many common ‘soft’ issues to be discussed as they cause concern on both sides, including bioethics, environmental problems, brain and clinical death, but also matters pertaining to religious tolerance and violence.

This annual meeting upgraded Israel’s relations with the Holy See, as it gave the necessary theological symmetry to the formal diplomatic relations. This Catholic-rabbinical dialogue has proven itself as a safety net in times of crisis, as this channel was essential in removing misunderstandings causing theological tensions.

Israel’s bilateral requests are limited by nature and do not touch upon any internal Vatican political issue. Even in the case of Pius XII’s possible beatification, Israeli policy has been to refrain from interfering in internal ecclesiastical affairs. We may, however, reserve our right to express our opinion of his historical performance. With regard to this, Cardinal Walter Kasper mentioned the issue in his remarkable speech on ‘Recent Developments in Jewish-Christian Relations’, in Liverpool on 24 May 2010:

In the case that it proceeds [i.e. the beatification process], it will not be an historical assessment but a spiritual discernment, whether this Pope in his situation followed his personal conscience and did the will of God as he understood it in his situation. So an eventual beatification would not preclude further historical research and interpretation nor would it exclude the assessment that other people with a different character may have come to different conclusions and may have acted in a different way.

According to its own statements, the Holy See is already acting diligently in order to open its Secret Archive (i.e. the papal private archive) for the period of Pius XII’s pontificate (1939-58), probably in the next five years. Many issues to be raised on our bilateral agenda are seen by the Holy See also as theological matters: anti-Judaism, combating racism and anti-Semitism and Shoah revisionism and denial. The last issue gained momentum with the Williamson affair, as it became clear to the wider public that many members of the Fraternity of Pius X adhere to revisionist and anti-Semitic ideas. This brotherhood was not readmitted to the Catholic Church, as most of them still resist the teaching of the Vatican II Council, including reorientation towards the Jewish people.

Many Israelis and Jews asked why Benedict XVI did not ‘fire’ Williamson once his Shoah denial became widely known. The valid consecration of a bishop extends throughout his life regardless of objections by the Holy See, since his Episcopal office depends on the sacrament of apostolic consecration, which is irrevocable, notwithstanding his personal opinions. The distinction between office and personality is a pillar of western rationalism, which has been preserved from Roman antiquity to modern times through the Canon law.

On the other hand, and as described above, diplomatic efforts can be used to offset religious tensions. In January 2010, following the declaration of recognizing Pius XII’s heroic virtues – a step that would precede the beatification of Pius XII to which Roman Jews vehemently object, vocal elements within the Roman Jewish community called for the cancellation of the Papal visit to their Great Synagogue. The Jewish leadership was faced with a resentful public, on one hand, and the realization that the cancellation of the visit would have a dramatic impact upon Jewish-Catholic relations. Thus, Israeli diplomatic channels were mobilized to lend the necessary support from Israel by increasing the scope of and upgrading the Israeli presence. The deputy prime minister was present, as was a high-level delegation of the Chief Rabbinate, and the opposition was greatly defused.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit to Israel as a Barometer of Bilateral Relations

We can draw some conclusions on the state of bilateral relations by comparing the three papal visits. In 1964, the visit of Paul VI was a clear expression of a non-recognition policy. Nostra Aetate had not yet been promulgated. The aim of the visit, beyond the act of pilgrimage, was the meeting with the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem. Paul VI did not mention the term Israel during his entire visit.

The visit of Pope John Paul II in 2000 was within the framework of the Second Millennium celebrations. The long-time pre-announced Papal visit took place without a formal invitation. It was as if Pope John Paul II had set himself in motion and later, knocking at Israel’s door, announced, ‘I’m coming – are you at home?’ The personal desire of the Pope overruled any objections on the part of his advisors and of local Catholics. The programme included, among others, acts of recognition by visiting the Israeli president at his official residence in Jerusalem. His personal affection towards Jews was visible, as he stayed longer than planned at Yad Vashem, speaking with Shoah survivors from Krakov. His dramatic gesture of asking forgiveness from God at the Western Wall placed a historical dimension on his visit.

Benedict had already visited Jerusalem as Cardinal Ratzinger in 1994, holding a lecture at the campus of the Hebrew University. In November 2008, the first operative steps were set in motion in order to implement Pope Benedict’s long-standing desire to visit Israel and the Holy Land. The first Vatican request, after being so often invited verbally by Israel’s presidents, was to get official invitations from all heads of state in question (i.e. the King of Jordan, the President of Israel and the President of the PA). With those invitations in pocket, the Holy See gave his visit a political dimension. This served as additional proof that the Holy See was aiming for a political visit beyond the religious and pastoral dimension. Neither Operation ‘Cast Lead’ nor the Williamson affair, nor the elections in Israel nor the historical dispute regarding Pius XII, endangered the Papal visit. Potential minefields, such as a visit to the disputed display about Pius XII in the Yad Vashem museum, were cleared in advance. An uncontrolled initiative of the Rabbi in charge of the Western Wall not to allow crosses at the site during the Papal visit was thwarted at an early stage. The preparations continued without interruption despite the negative headlines.

As in the past, the local Catholics were the least excited. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Twal had to campaign among his flock before the Papal visit took place. On the other side, the Jewish world was cooperative and joined Israel in accepting the explanatory remarks given by the Holy See regarding Williamson’s Holocaust denial. In his exceptional letter to all Bishops dated 10 March 2009, Benedict expressed thanks to Jewish friends for showing understanding, an attitude, which, according to the Pope, many Catholics were not ready to show. This letter was helpful in convincing anyone responsible in Israel that the visit should take place and that Pope Benedict was to be considered a friend. Many critics within the Church and in the media watched every move of Pope Benedict in order to ‘celebrate’ another potential mishap.

Many in Israel overvalued the fact that a German Pope was visiting Yad Vashem, and expected him to speak up as if he were the German Kanzler. But he had not been elected Pope for the Germans but for all Catholics. It is true that the Pope’s German background was especially sensitive, as he knew after the Williamson affair what was at stake. Moreover, he performed much better in front of smaller audiences. The immediate disappointment was substantial, especially because in Israel we are used to a certain routine style in similar ceremonies. His homily on name and memory, respecting the name’s place, was a spiritual gem seldom before heard on such occasions. Nevertheless, before his departure, Pope Benedict included some ingredients in his speech which Israelis had missed in his Yad Vashem speech. Benedict and his advisors were attentive to the reactions in Israel.

Vatican diplomacy was at its best during the visit. The state secretariat tried to accommodate the sensitivities of Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians, each on its own merits, as much as it could. The political positions of the Holy See towards the PA and Israel were balanced. In his farewell speech before returning to Rome on 15 May 2009, this balance was expressed as follows:

Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely.

The Pope lamented the existence of the security barrier/fence but did not fail to reason why it was raised. He said on this occasion:

One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall. As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation, but rather respecting and trusting one another, and renouncing all forms of violence and aggression.

It is worth noting that on behalf of the Palestinians, there was an effort to equate the Papal visit to the refugee camp and the Naqba with his visit to Yad Vashem and the Shoa. For the sake of balance, as in 2000, there was a visit to a camp, this time to the Al Aida refugee camp.

Gestures, which could mean upgrading relations with Israel, were taken into account as well. Before entering Israel, the Pope made an unexpected gesture in his speech on Arab-Muslim soil on Mount Nebo. There he invoked Moses, the Promised Land and its link to the chosen people, implying that he meant Christians. Moreover, on the same occasion he stressed the inseparable link of Christianity to the Jewish people while invoking their common heritage of the Tanach (OT) and their common tradition of pilgrimage.

In Jerusalem, Benedict XVI paid a courtesy visit to the presidential residence, a gesture which was absent in Jordan and in the PA. In the newly designed presidential garden, both the host and the papal guest planted an olive tree. In his remarkable farewell speech, Pope Benedict raised the planting of the olive tree in Jerusalem to the rank of a symbolic act, saying:

Mr President, you and I planted an olive tree at your residence on the day that I arrived in Israel. The olive tree, as you know, is an image used by Saint Paul to describe the very close relations between Christians and Jews. Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans how the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the cultivated olive tree which is the People of the Covenant (cf. 11:17-24). We are nourished from the same spiritual roots. We meet as brothers, brothers who at times in our history have had a tense relationship, but now are firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.

At the Notre Dame Centre in Jerusalem, the same Imam Tamimi who had spoiled a similar inter-religious event during the papal visit in 2000, delivered an anti-Jewish invective in front of Pope Benedict. The only difference this time was that Pope Benedict interrupted the meeting by leaving earlier than planned.

For Israel, Benedict’s visit was of a historic dimension, and not only because it actually took place. Israel holds the present Pope in high esteem as very friendly towards Jews, and because of the interfaith dialogue he promotes with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. As Archbishop of Munich, he was close to the ‘Catholic Integrated Community’, a lay movement with some members living in Israel, and expressed deep theological sympathy towards Israel, the land and its people. It seems that Benedict’s visit has moulded a tradition that any future Pope may visit Israel. The spirit of Nostra Aetate, which Benedict invoked often during his pontificate, will also hopefully reach Catholic quarters in the developing world. Bearing in mind the events that preceded Benedict’s visit, we can therefore articulate our present state of bilateral affairs with Samson’s riddle from the Book of Judges (14:14): ‘and out of the strong came forth sweetness’.