For a student of political science, these are illuminating, if often also unnerving, times.
Many of us had thought that we—perhaps as a species, certainly as a society—were more or less above, and also beyond, upheaval. We were governed by rationality, oriented to stability, predisposed to decency. In 2016, cold war was supposed to be a relic of a different century, holy war even more outdated. In an age of near-instant “fact-checking,” flagrant falsehoods were supposed to be deprived of any traction, and at a time of growing political correctness, demagoguery was supposed to be deemed distasteful, when not laughable.
Wherever one stands on the myriad global and domestic issues of the day, few of us, it is safe to say, are laughing at the moment.
In the year 2016, seven decades after World War II, our high-technology world has watched, with a mixture of wariness and impotence, a five-year-long Syrian civil war that has killed and maimed well over half a million people. As soon as that and nearby conflicts began to propel refugees outward, the European Union—that great exercise in regional collectivism and answer to the continental fissures of the past—began in earnest to crack, and now at least one of its leading members is headed for the door. The 20th century rivalry between East and West has also made a riposte in a territorial standoff on European soil, in Ukraine. And while the world has somehow grown numb to serial decapitations and other barbarisms in the Middle East, Europe has responded with the advancement of multiple rightist and other extreme parties. Much of France’s left, for its part, recently joined in advocating restrictions on Muslim women’s personal right to dress in accordance with their religious convictions.
Meanwhile, 77 years after Hitler was so brazen as to announce that a genocide of Jews would come if the Jews brought it on themselves, and 41 years after the U.N. General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism, members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have perfected a new perversion by effectively severing Judaism from its holiest of sites in Jerusalem by relabeling them as exclusively Arab and Islamic.
Perhaps not least disturbingly, much of the globe has been experiencing a wave of populism, authoritarianism and questioning of the rule of law. Vitriol or worse has been directed at religious and ethnic communities, civil society and political opposition, especially online, and a general “post-truth,” “fake news” age seems to have dawned. Even in the West, more than merely a coarsening of rhetoric or a lessening of civility, we’ve seen the risk of erosion of democratic norms.
During an American election season when both presidential candidates had children who either are Jewish or have Jewish spouses, Jews in particular have watched social networks overwhelmed by some “alt-right” aggressors posting sentiments like “dirty kike, get back in the oven.” Separately, the platform of a consortium called the Movement for Black Lives—despite the fact that many American Jews, but also Israelis, have been in the forefront of championing civil rights—singled out Israel for depiction as an “apartheid state” that commits “genocide,” and that is thus deserving of divestiture and a cutoff of defense assistance.
These and many other realities underscore the precariousness of social cohesion even in the contemporary period, with all its blessings. Simple parallels to previous eras would advisably be avoided, if only because ours and its conditions may in some ways be unique. But a general sense of malaise and uncertainty—whether founded upon security, economic, cultural or other concerns—can lead to worse, with fringe elements seeming actually invigorated by the prospect of chaos and conflict. At times of apprehension, more citizens are susceptible to shallow solutions—or worse, the politics of divisiveness. (In turn, journalists and politicians tend to romanticize popular passion—just look at conventional wisdom within so many countries’ chattering classes, where the unarticulated view is that the “Arab street” is so angry and formidable, like the Arab bloc at the U.N., its claims against Israel could never possibly be wrong.) This climate is conducive to the deepening of mutual estrangement and an ethos of plain offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness.
Even where we’ve seen one step forward, such a step has often been followed by another back. Jarred by the heightened uproar this year, some governments pledging not to repeat unprincipled voting at UNESCO on resolutions whitewashing Jewish ties to Jerusalem have proceeded to vote “yes” on motions doing the very same thing at other U.N. bodies.
On the eve of his exit from office, after a full decade at the helm, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally acknowledged that Palestinian grievances are not the cause of all the Middle East’s wars, that Palestinian terror and incitement continue unabated, and that “bias” is manifest when “[d]ecades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel.” He added, “rather than helping the Palestinian cause, this reality has hampered the ability of the U.N. to fulfill its role effectively.” But the secretary-general went on to say, beyond recycling the same old shoddy condemnations of Israeli policy, that “another troubling measure of the current state of play is that, during my tenure, the Security Council adopted only two resolutions on the Middle East peace process, the most recent almost eight years ago.”
Sadly, one week later, last Friday, the council took the entirely unhelpful step of adopting a new resolution, which, while calling in general terms for an end to violence and incitement, singled out Israel by name for condemnation over Jewish settlements, even communities in Jerusalem, deemed the primary impediment to peace. (No heed, of course, was paid to the fact that Israel has over the years uprooted entire settlements or frozen their growth—and offered Palestinians statehood and virtually all the territory publicly demanded by their mainstream leaders—only to receive unending terrorism and intransigence in return.) The U.S. abstained on the motion, enabling its passage. American enablement of the council resolution, though widely seen as a swipe at Israel’s prime minister, was ironically perhaps most stinging to the Arab leadership of Egypt, which had taken the political risk of agreeing to shelve the text just one day prior.
While withholding an American veto on this type of resolution is not unprecedented, it is a departure from the common practice over the course of many years, and a breach of the principle that Palestinians can achieve political goals only through direct talks and compromise with Israel, not lobbying the U.N. The day before Jews were feted with greetings of “Happy Chanukah” for the festival recalling the lighting of the menorah on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—and the day before the birth of a Jew “in Bethlehem of Judea” was celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a subtle escalation of a position merely deeming further settlement activity “not legitimate,” made reference to the presence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria as having “no legal validity.” And, this week, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a speech on Middle East peace parameters in which he invoked a view that settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” He also employed, at a time when disputes over territory and demographics elsewhere continue to be wholly ignored by the international community, a straw-man assertion that regular criticism of Israel is often maligned as anti-Semitic.
The content of last Friday’s U.N. resolution is, admittedly, not very novel and, by itself, of limited direct impact on realities in the Middle East. What is significant about the resolution is its timing. Coming as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been conducting preliminary consideration of Palestinian accusations against Israel, fresh Security Council action could push the ICC to direct a full probe at the Jewish state. At least until a new U.S. administration settles in, Palestinians will surely be emboldened to further pursue a strategy of combativeness and unearned, unilateral recognitions of statehood (notwithstanding the new resolution’s own censure of “all measures aimed at altering the… status of the Palestinian Territory”). And, not least, the resolution’s call for countries “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” will be used as fuel by partisan activists agitating for discriminatory boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Arguably, coalition politics in Israel—the joining of those leaning rightward with those leaning to the left, or the recurrent succession of one by the other—have helped encumber Israeli efforts to advance a clear defense, in historic, security, legal and ethical terms, of the country’s settlement policies. After all, whatever the long-term future may be of any given settlement under a final peace agreement, these are communities in the heart of Jews’ ancestral homeland, with long roots prior to their various forcible displacements. The existence of the settlements has broadly shifted Arab focus from the elimination of Israel entirely to the resolution of a dispute over final borders. The settlements actually comprise a tiny fraction of the landmass of the West Bank, and none remain in Gaza. Their growth mirrors, but pales in comparison to, the continuous increase in size of the Arab population on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 lines. The applicability of particular international conventions regarding the settlement of contested lands is also highly dubious considering that the territory in question, acquired during a defensive campaign, lacked a previous sovereign.
This said, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is undoubtedly seen by Palestinians as an occasion to ratchet up a global diplomatic offensive against Israel. Whether the international community fully re-immerses in such combat will depend on an array of factors, from the course taken by new leaders in Washington and at the U.N. to the degree to which other crises, including the carnage in Syria and Iranian nuclear activity, allow focus to shift back to the Palestinian narrative.
Recently, Israel blew the lid off of deplorable Hamas operations to divert humanitarian aid from development projects in Gaza into their efforts to attack Israeli civilians. And, sadly, the United Nations, and by implication, our tax money, was also affected.
The more notorious of the humanitarian aid scandals in Gaza was the arrest of Mohammed El Halabi, Gaza director of World Vision, a Christian charity, for funneling millions of dollars worth of money and supplies to Hamas over a multi-year period. World Vision gets funding from individual donors, churches, foundations and grants from many Western governments. The large amount of money that was diverted is staggering and deeply disturbing. The scandal has led some countries to withhold aid to World Vision, which has suspended operations in Gaza while it investigates. World Vision issued a statement condemning terrorism in only a general way, and instead of showing genuine horror that funds sent from donors (who thought it would benefit Palestinian children) were instead diverted to a terror organization bent on killing Israeli children, expressed skepticism about the allegations and lectured Israel on transparency.
The U.N. connection? Prior to working at World Vision, El Halabi worked at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). As Israel alleges, as part of his work for UNDP, El Halabi sent “farmers” to the areas near the border between Israel and Gaza, where they acted as scouts for Hamas terrorists (see more information on the El Halabi case here). The U.N. honored El Halabi as one of its “humanitarian heroes” in 2014 as part of World Humanitarian Day. That webpage was taken down, but is still archived here. World Vision has still not taken down an identical article about El Halabi on its own website.
After El Halabi was detained, a second arrest was made, this time of a UNDP Gaza staffer named Waheed Borsh, who allegedly funneled concrete, which was used to construct a base for Hamas’s terrorist operatives.
The U.N. reacted to news of the arrest similarly to World Vision—with concern about the allegations but also some skepticism and hectoring of Israel on judicial transparency. It should go without saying that Israel is a democracy with a strong standard of rule of law, while being careful not to endanger security. Gaza, on the other hand, is run by a terrorist gang that summarily executes people.
The U.N. also absurdly claimed that Borsh, as a U.N. employee, was entitled to diplomatic immunity. Borsh, however, was a local staff person, not a diplomat. If a local staffer at U.N. Headquarters in New York was accused of giving money to Al Qaeda, or a staffer at UNESCO in Paris of supporting ISIS, would the U.N. also claim diplomatic immunity for them? Highly doubtful.
In an added insult, the U.N. demanded that Borsh be let go from the prison where he is being held in Be’er Sheva. But, they did not write it Be’er Sheva, they chose to use Bi’ir as-Sab, the Arabic name for the city—a city with ancient Jewish historical connections. This tactic of purposefully mislabeling Israeli cities and towns with Arab names is a favorite of those who hate Israel and want to see it destroyed and replaced with an Arab state. For the U.N. to degrade itself in this way while demanding that Israel release a staffer accused of using U.N. resources to support terrorism is an unnecessary added provocation. These types of games should have no place under U.N. letterhead. Was this done by mistake? Then the U.N. should admit to it and apologize.
Israel hinted when El Halabi was arrested that there could be more arrests coming down the line. Unfortunately, these examples are also not the first time that Palestinian groups have taken advantage of well-meaning donors. During Operation Protective Edge, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. agency funded by many Western donor governments that takes care of Palestinian refugees and their offspring in perpetuity (while all other refugees are taken care of under the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—UNHCR), found Hamas rockets hidden in their schools. It is not only Hamas that takes advantage—the Palestinian Authority takes in massive amounts of aid from Western donor governments while continuing to run a pension system for terrorists.
Indeed, transparency and accountability is needed, but from the humanitarian NGOs and U.N. agencies working in Gaza who are being used to further Hamas war aims against Israeli civilians.
The Times of Israel ran an op-ed written by B'nai B'rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin on Europe's tilt toward the Palestinian's and how many EU countries help the Palestinians game the the United Nations against Israel in the conflict.
You can read the full op-ed below or click to read it on TimesOfIsrael.com
Through this summer’s din and uncertainty of Brexit, the migration crisis and a wave of terror, Europe has remained constant in one respect: its singular fixation on a wrong-headed policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
If the Middle East were an arrivals and departures board at a train station, the Israeli-Palestinian question would be down somewhere at the fifth or sixth spot, behind the war on ISIS, the Syrian civil war, the Libya fiasco and Iranian hegemonism. All those decades in which the mantra “if you solve the Palestinian issue, all outstanding issues will fall into place,” has been proven to be nothing more than hollow conventional wisdom. The Sunni-Shia divide has become a roiling ocean, creating aftershocks in nearly every corner of the region — and beyond.
For years, the Palestinian leadership has become accustomed to “pride of place” on the issue, picking up supporters and apologists globally, but no more so than in Europe itself. Explanations for this are varied: some countries were concerned at one point about the spread of PLO terrorism in Europe, and sought accommodation with the terrorist organization. Some European governments were driven by ideological considerations and looked the other way at the thuggery, then the obstructionism of the PLO and its successors, while coming down hard on a succession of center-left and center-right Israeli governments. Some European leaders saw themselves as mediators and interlocutors, worrying that a shortage of obeisance to the Palestinian narrative would disqualify them from being “honest brokers.”
Indeed, since its 1980 Venice Declaration, in which the then-EEC (European Economic Community) supported the Palestinian’s call for “self-determination,” Europe has always tilted to the Palestinian side, despite the existence of generally good bilateral relations between a number of European Union (EU) countries and Israel.
As the EU grew in size, some differences in this approach became discernible. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of the new democracies could be found voting against, or abstaining on issues considered to be biased against Israel at the United Nations (U.N.) and other international fora. Increasingly, though, the demand for consensus in EU voting has seen the voting independence of the former Central and Eastern European states dissipate in the face of pressure from Brussels and from a number of the senior EU member capitals.
The 2012 decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to “non-member state”—despite the EU’s call for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with the object of reaching a two state solution—was supported by no less than 14 EU members. Only the Czech Republic voted against; 12 others abstained. The message to the Palestinian Authority couldn’t have been clearer: why negotiate with Israel when the international community, including key European countries, could do the heavy lifting for it?
Gaming the U.N. system has become a PA specialty.
One recent case in point is a resolution singling out Israel recently adopted at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Assembly in Geneva. The measure, introduced by Kuwait on behalf of the Arab Group and Palestine, singled out Israel for “physical and procedural barriers to health access” in the territories, east Jerusalem and what they call the “Syrian Golan.” The text also cited the “prolonged occupation and human rights violations on mental, physical and environmental health…”
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians knows that emergency rooms and hospital wards in Israel treat Palestinians on a daily basis. Indeed, the Israeli organization, Save a Child’s Heart, which performs, gratis, pediatric cardiac surgery, has treated more than 2,000 Palestinian children since its inception in 1996. Beyond that, Israel has been treating hundreds of cases of civilians from across Syria who have been wounded in the barrel bombings and other carnage of that bloody war in medical facilities in the northern part of Israel.
And yet, 107 countries supported this libelous WHO resolution, including all 28 EU member states. On a continent where the blood libel against Jewish communities was a prominent fixture of life in the Middle Ages, and on the basis of facts widely known in European capitals, it is both incomprehensible, and reprehensible that Israel should be castigated in this way.
Another recent example of Palestinian influence at the U.N. is the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Executive Board’s vote in favor of a resolution on “Occupied Palestine.” There are 40 points in the resolution, some of it rehashing previous resolutions condemning Israel for all manner of absurd accusations of “desecrating” holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. But this measure makes no reference at all to the Temple Mount, only to its Islamic/Arabic name, Al-Haram Al-Sharif. In the resolution, the plaza in front of the Western Wall is referred to as the Al-Buraq Plaza; “Western Wall Plaza” is noted in quotes only.
This isn’t only a matter of semantics, or “sensitivity.” In the past, the United Nations documents have referenced the holy site by both the name recognized by Judaism and Christianity (the Temple Mount) and Islam (Al-Haram Al-Sharif). This current re-writing of history, and the elimination of both the Jewish and Christian places in that history, was supported by 33 countries overall. Four EU countries actually supported the measure, and five did oppose, with two abstentions. But why was there a division in Europe over this blatant historical revisionism?
To the Palestinians, all of this has a purpose: to erase or delegitimize Israel’s, and the Jewish people’s claim to the land. That European countries, no strangers to either the Jewish narrative on their own continent or to the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, would, for the sake of diplomatic expediency, dismiss that history with a simple keystroke or a voting show of hands, is unacceptable.
There’s even more counterproductive meddling beyond the U.N. system. Case in point: Last fall’s EU directive to label products from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights prejudges an issue (settlements) that belongs in a direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. The EU itself, as a member of the Quartet (which also includes the United States, the United Nations and Russia), wants to have it both ways. Calling for face-to-face negotiations but siding with the Palestinians before those talks have even begun on this issue.
This all amounts to flawed diplomacy. Those European countries which engage in this kind of voting behavior or in extra-curricular diplomacy could better spend their time encouraging the Palestinians to end their quixotic sullying of Israel, rather than enabling it. These resolutions set back what remains of the peace process, they don’t advance it. Palestinian expectations are inflated when Europe backs these initiatives, and in Israel, the belief that it can never get a fair break at the U.N. and other international fora is reinforced.
It’s time for Brussels and other European capitals to send a simple message to Ramallah: if you’re serious about peace, get to the table. If not, there is no shortage of crises to occupy our time and attention.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been in the news over the past few months for outrageous attempts by the Palestinians to seek to use the institution to erase Jewish history. These attempts are toxic to any hope of finding a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and put the reputation of UNESCO in grave danger. It is also not a new phenomenon.
In recent years, the Palestinian leadership has pushed a consistent strategy of avoidance of direct negotiations with Israel in favor of internationalizing the conflict. They do this by going to international institutions to attack Israel in the wildly misguided hope of having the international community impose Palestinian negotiating positions on Israel.
One of the first targets the Palestinians set was UNESCO, where, thanks to an automatic majority at U.N. bodies, they were accepted as a member “state,” even though no such state exists. The Palestinians showed their gratitude to UNESCO for this newly-acquired illegitimate “state” status by politicizing the organization as a tool to both erase the Jewish connection to our people’s history in our ancient homeland, and to advance the Palestinian narrative. This was not necessarily a new strategy (for instance, in 2010 the UNESCO Executive Board passed a resolution declaring the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Palestinian holy sites), however it was ramped up.
The Palestinians quickly moved to place the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage site in the “State of Palestine,” and moved to place it on a list of heritage sites in danger, even though there is no threat to the church, unlike sites of ancient civilizations in other parts of the Middle East that have seen wholesale destruction. Following the Church of the Nativity, the Palestinians also convinced UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to place Battir, a town south of Jerusalem that sits on the 1949 armistice line, on the list of heritage sites in danger.
By far the most dangerous of the games played at UNESCO by the Palestinians is the attempt to strip Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, from Judaism and the Jewish people. The Temple Mount, the section of Jerusalem’s Old City where the ancient Temple was housed before its destruction, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans, is the holiest site in Judaism.
What is undeniable, unless, that is, you are a UNESCO delegate from certain countries, is the connection between Judaism and this site. It is the center of our collective heart. The site is also important for Christians (who also know the site by the name the Temple Mount) and Muslims (who refer to it as Al-Haram Al-Sharif). UNESCO resolutions have taken to calling the site only by its Arabic name and described it as a Muslim site, ignoring millennia of Jewish history.
More on the United Nations and its Agencies
As if this was not appalling enough, the Palestinians even had the gall to try to claim the Western Wall (the Kotel in Hebrew) as well. Last October, the Arab Group presented (on behalf of the Palestinians) a resolution to the Executive Board that said the Western Wall Plaza (referring to it as “Al-Buraq Plaza,” an uncommonly used name) was an “integral part” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which sits atop the Temple Mount). An international uproar ensued, and the offensive language was removed from the final (and still deeply-flawed) resolution.
But the attempt at historical revisionism has not ceased. The following Executive Board session, in April 2016, passed a resolution that referred to the Kotel plaza in the following disrespectful way: Al-Buraq Plaza/“Western Wall Plaza.” The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in July 2016 copied this language on the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, as if the Palestinians can simply get UNESCO to disregard historical fact by repetition.
Why are the Palestinians and their fellow-travelers trying to re-classify the Western Wall (and when that fails, rename it)? It comes back to the Temple Mount. The Western Wall is the sole remaining still-standing structure of the Temple compound. It is the retaining wall on the western edge of the compound. It is an inconvenient reminder for the Palestinians, who have their own aspirations for a capital in Jerusalem, that the heart of the city is deeply and fundamentally tied to Jewish history and the Jewish people.
All of the UNESCO moves by the Palestinians are part of a broader strategy to rebrand history so that it fits within the Palestinian narrative while at the same time trying to erase the Jewish ties to Jerusalem. It won’t work. Jerusalem is holy to three religions, of course, but the link between Judaism and Jerusalem is unique in history. By seeking to use UNESCO resolutions to loosen the ties between Judaism and Jerusalem, the Palestinians will only succeed in sullying UNESCO’s reputation.
For more than a year now, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Nostra aetate, on Catholic relations with other faiths, has been celebrated. Though lamentably still unknown by most people irrespective of their religion, Nostra aetate is indeed of great importance in a positive sense. Catholic bishops’ formal post-Holocaust adoption, not without internal struggle, of an essentially constructive approach to Jews marked a pivoting away from the contempt and estrangement that had characterized much of nearly two millennia of relations between the church and the Jewish people. Even more substantial, though, has been the remarkably rapid and continual deepening of Catholic-Jewish friendship in the few decades that followed 1965.
At the same time—ironically, since Nostra aetate is probably more often commemorated by Jewish institutions than by Catholic communities worldwide—the document is not quite, from a Jewish vantage-point, a “perfect” one. The text, which makes clear the special status afforded by the church to Judaism in light of Christianity’s Jewish roots, is nonetheless a decidedly Christological one, written by Christians for Christians. Even as it continues to be abhorred by a tiny fringe of Catholic ultraconservatives, its content fell somewhat short of what Jewish communal professionals at the time (and some theologically progressive Catholics) had hoped for. The declaration established, vitally, that “the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures,” and that a charge of responsibility for the death of Jesus cannot be applied to “all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” It does say, though, that “the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ,” and that most Jews did not adopt Christianity, adding, “indeed not a few opposed its spreading.” Finally, Nostra aetate affirms belief that while God “does not repent of the gifts He makes,” including to the “chosen people,” “the Church is the new people of God.” Its all-but-explicit eschatological vision is one in which all people ultimately find salvation through acceptance of the truth represented by the church. Accordingly, the text’s assertion that achieving “mutual understanding and respect… is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies,” and not only of “fraternal dialogues” and cooperative coexistence, deserves more attention by Jewish readers.
The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
Arguably, Jews should also be better attuned more broadly to the theological framework within which, and the lexicon using which, modern Catholic overtures to Jews have been conducted at the official level. Again, this outreach has been momentous and laudable; the global Jewish community, no less than the Catholic community, can do more to make the genuine progress in relations known to its members; and even any “deficiencies” in the church’s conciliation have been situated primarily in the realm of theoretical belief rather than that of practical engagement. However, while the Vatican has been largely consistent, and uniquely artful, in crafting careful messaging to and about Jews, the nuances of its positions are often lost on Jewish observers keen to take the overtures only at face value.
“Constructive ambiguity” that might be overlooked by master diplomats characterized even some of the celebrated relevant pronouncements of Pope John Paul II, who had an undeniable personal kinship with Jews. For example, his written prayer at the Western Wall in 2000, which spoke of being “deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of Yours to suffer… the people of the Covenant,” did not quite spell out the perpetrators and victims to whom he was referring. (Likewise, even Pope Francis’s statement in 2013 that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” can be interpreted in different ways. Did he mean to absolve all Christians, including senior churchmen across time, of anti-Semitism, or simply that anti-Semitic hatred is incompatible with a faith whose call is to love and whose focal point was a Jew?)
More substantively, was John Paul’s 1987 reference to Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” not merely a moving expression of esteem but an attempt to equate and link the “old” and “new” covenants, or, even more problematically, in keeping with the biblical propensity for younger brothers to have spiritual superiority over their elder ones, a subtle nod to the theology of Christian supersession of Judaism? (Pope Benedict XVI—who himself in 2008 reauthorized a Good Friday liturgy that includes a revised prayer for Jews’ hearts to be “illuminate[d]” so that they “acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men”—wrote in a later book that he chooses to call Jews “fathers in the faith” rather than “elder brothers” in order to allay such concerns.)
In a gesture at the dawn of Catholic-Jewish rapprochement that could similarly be understood in different ways, Pope John XXIII received an American Jewish delegation in 1960 with the stirring words, “I am Joseph, your brother!” The pope—a champion of the reconciliation with Jews who had personally worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust, and whose given middle name was the Italian for Joseph—was invoking the story in Genesis in which the youngest of the patriarch Jacob’s first eleven sons is reunited with his long-estranged siblings, but in which Joseph also effectively reveals to them the fulfillment of the prophecy of his privileged station after they had rejected and persecuted him on account of it.
More than a half-century since John XXIII signaled a promising but complex trajectory in Catholic-Jewish ties, the two communities (or one, if you’re a Catholic seeing Judaism as “intrinsic” to the church—a view reflected in the inclusion of its office for relations with Jews within the Vatican’s intra-Christian, not interreligious, affairs wing) continue along this path. By now, interspersed with disputes such as those over papal ties to Kurt Waldheim or Yasser Arafat, sainthood for Edith Stein or the war-era pope Pius XII, a convent at Auschwitz or the taxation status of Catholic assets in the Holy Land, the church has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism (and, less prominently, anti-Zionism) as a sin. The Holy See and Israel have established diplomatic relations (if rarely convergence on Middle East politics). And successive popes have regularly met with such Jewish organizations as B’nai B’rith, paid tribute at sites where the crimes of the Holocaust occurred (Francis is expected to do so in Poland this July), visited synagogues and made pilgrimages to the Jewish state.
And, in late 2015, following several prior publications on Catholic-Jewish engagement since the adoption of Nostra aetate, the Vatican’s commission on the relationship released a new document, “‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29): A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations.” The text validates some of the hallmarks of the process of relationship-building between the Catholic and Jewish communities, while also attempting to keep in check what Catholic traditionalists can perceive as theological oversteps emanating from the “reforms” of the Second Vatican Council. The result is that the document confirms, most importantly, that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews,” and also disputes the suggestion that “Jews are excluded from God’s salvation because they do not believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God.” At the same time, the document states that “Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews,” albeit “in a humble and sensitive manner,” and that because “God has never revoked his covenant with his people Israel, there cannot be different paths or approaches to God’s salvation.” It strongly rejects any “theory that there may be two different paths to salvation, the Jewish path without Christ and the path with the Christ,” saying that this “would in fact endanger the foundations of Christian faith.”
It is clear, then, that the theological strains that complicate this exceptional interfaith relationship have not vanished. Neither is the relationship free of political tripwire: the Holy See’s recent agreement prematurely recognizing a “State of Palestine” (and one, it is implied, with oversight in Jerusalem), Arab Christian clerics’ mimicking of one-sided Palestinian narratives concerning Israel and Pope Francis’s surprise 2014 photo-op at an imposing section of Israel’s security barrier near Bethlehem are only a few examples. (Francis could perhaps be counted among those world leaders, with longtime Jewish friends, who have maintained friendships with Jews as well as Israel, but who may be less sentimental than some predecessors about that relationship and most personally invested in other “liberal” concerns that now also resonate more with younger constituents.) This said, in how “normal” and well-established the Catholic-Jewish engagement has become, featuring as it does commonalities and differences alike, this relationship may be optimally positioned to model for other communities the possibility of overcoming even the most longstanding of divides, and even those hardened by a religious orientation. At a time when the challenge of “holy war” overshadows international affairs—nearly 15 years following the 9/11 attacks—any cause for hope in the potential for such peacemaking could not be more welcome.
Moreover, as the Jewish community looks this summer to yet another round of proposals in mainline Protestant churches for harming Israel practically—and Israel alone—through economic pressure campaigns, the larger Catholic Church certainly manifests a friendlier interfaith partner.
To be sure, the Catholic orbit, too, is not immune to a skewed, astoundingly simplistic post-1967 view of who in the Arab-Israeli conflict represents “David” and who “Goliath.” As disturbingly, some anti-Israel activists in the Christian world are quick to invoke Jesus’ challenge to “the Pharisees” in their treatment of complex contemporary geopolitics. But Roman Catholicism, characterized by more centralized and cautious decision-making than certain ecumenical counterparts, has solidified ties with the Jewish community on a rather firm footing—undergirded by warm personal relationships and by ongoing channels of communication.
In this sense, the ostensibly modest 1965 document Nostra aetate demonstrates that a start may be only a start, but it can have a profound and lastingly positive impact on what is to follow.
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