The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Statement on the Middle East, adopted unanimously during the bishops’ fall 1989 bicentennial meeting in Baltimore, is a surprisingly straightforward document. When the U.S. government deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, its language is often more ambiguous. President Bush and Secretary Baker are trying to bring the parties to the conflict together, and this aim is frequently not served very well by too much clarity. Formulations that are less than crystal clear enable enemies to accept language that each can interpret to suit its own needs, thus creating the appearance of agreement”albeit partial agreement”when full agreement is not yet attainable.

But the U.S. bishops do not need to obtain the consent of the parties. They only need satisfy themselves that their position is a just one, suitable for teachers of the Christian faith who have come to realize in recent years that the faith has something to say to the problems of the day. So twice a year when the bishops meet, the faithful have come to expect from them guidance on perplexing issues, some of which have defied solution for decades.

The bishops’ solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict boils down to two propositions. The first consists of the claim, affirmed in a December 23, 1988 Vatican press statement and quoted in the bishops’ statement, that “the supreme pontiff . . . is deeply convinced that the two peoples have an identical, fundamental right to have their own homeland in which they live in freedom, dignity, and security in harmony with their neighbors.” With this as their point of departure, the bishops further suggest a process of negotiations to achieve three objectives: “First, it should formalize Israel’s existence as a sovereign state in the eyes of the Arab states and the Palestinians; second, it should establish an independent Palestinian homeland with its sovereign status recognized by Israel; third, there must he negotiated limits to the exercise of Palestinian sovereignty so that it is clear that Israel’s security is protected” (my emphasis).

The bishops’ statement thus constitutes a significant modification of the Vatican’s position. While the Vatican speaks of a “homeland in which [the Palestinians] live in freedom, dignity, and security,” the bishops’ statement speaks of “an independent Palestinian homeland with its sovereign status recognized by Israel.” The “homeland” referred to in the Vatican pronouncement could conceivably be a Palestinian autonomous region under Israeli sovereignty. But this interpretation is ruled out by “an independent Palestinian homeland with its sovereign status recognized by Israel.”

True, there is a certain amount of fudging. Were the bishops to have spoken of “an independent Palestinian state with its sovereign status recognized by Israel,” then the last vestige of ambiguity would have been removed. By avoiding the word “state,” a minimum ambiguity is left in place, though only marginally. A homeland whose sovereignty is recognized is a sovereign state. Being sovereign is the essence of being a state, so any entity whose sovereignty is recognized is a state. One can only speculate that some bishops wanted to recommend a sovereign Palestinian state while others had reservations about such a course. The compromise struck gave the sovereign-state faction a 98 percent victory, even if a trace of the anti- sovereignty view remained. Should anyone doubt the bishops’ commitment to the sovereignty solution, he need only consult another passage in the document that advocates “Palestinian representation in Middle East negotiations leading to Palestinian territorial and political sovereignty.” While here again the word “state” is avoided, the meaning is clear.

What is newsworthy in the bishops’ statement is thus the recommendation of a sovereign Palestinian state. The bishops were aware, of course, of the body of opinion that believes that a sovereign Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza is not compatible with Israeli security. Such a state would be ruled by the P.L.O., whose charter, never revoked, specifically calls for the abolition of Israel and the substitution of a secular, non-Jewish state. And even if the P.L.O. were to revise its charter, many would see this as a tactical maneuver designed to enable a sovereign Palestinian state to emerge which would then devote itself to the “liberation” of the rest of its lost territory.

Because the bishops do not wish to produce this result, they advocate “negotiated limits to the exercise of Palestinian sovereignty.” Here again the language is most telling. Sovereignty is like pregnancy, one either is or one is not. In the early stages, pregnancy may not he very noticeable but it would be a grave error”as I am sure the bishops would agree”to interpret it as anything less than full pregnancy. The same is true of sovereignty. A sovereign state remains a sovereign state, even if it negotiates limits to the exercise of its sovereignty.

Notice the language the bishops use. The Palestinian state will not place limits on its sovereignty but on the exercise of its sovereignty. But a sovereign state that places limits on the exercise of its sovereignty can also cancel those limitations. To be sovereign means to he autonomous, to live by a law that is self-imposed. But what is self-imposed can also be self-annulled. What would the Catholic bishops say if the sovereign Palestinian state invited half a million Iranian volunteers to bolster its “defenses”? They would probably deplore it and, in due time, issue another policy statement.

While support for a sovereign Palestinian state is the most important of the statement’s recommendations, it is its missing dimension that is most significant. There is very little theology in the paper. It contains reference to the sacred character of the area as the homeland of the three monotheistic religions and, more important, its guiding motif is the search for justice, a category not without theological roots. Nevertheless, the paper is essentially guided by the language of the 1985 Vatican statement in which “Christians are asked to understand the religious ties [of Jews to the land of Israel] that have deep biblical roots. But [Christians] are not to make their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship.” It adds: “With respect to the existence and the political choices of the State of Israel, they must be seen from a point of view that is not in itself religious but based on general considerations of international law.”

Here is the crux of the problem. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians find too little difficulty validating the Jewish right to the land of Israel on the basis of biblical promises. But the Vatican and the recent bishops’ statement err in the other direction. Clearly, the biblical promises do not validate every political choice of the Israeli government. But for believing Jews and Christians, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not just another international problem to be approached only “based on general considerations of international law.” It is not enough for the Catholic Church to take note of Jewish ties to the land “that have deep biblical roots.” If they have deep biblical roots, then the Church must also take these ties seriously, not only as something that Jews have but as something the Church must struggle with. That decision was made when the Church decided to make the Hebrew Bible its own. And this is so even if the Church chooses to persist in spiritualizing the promises of the land, an ancient strategy not easy to defend in the new theological climate of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

To repeat: all this does not dictate one particular stance, for Jews or for Christians. But it does exclude the kind of non-theological treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict to be found in the bishops’ statement. It is curious that a Church that has the courage to deal theologically with many public issues loses its theological nerve when it comes to the Jewish return to the land of promise.


Michael Wyschogrod is Professor of Philosophy at the Baruch College of the City University of New York and formerly Director of the Institute for Jewish- Christian Relations of the American Jewish Congress.

Articles by Michael Wyschogrod

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