May 14 is Israel’s Independence Day (celebrated according to the Jewish rather than the Gregorian calendar), recalling the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. For Palestinian Arabs the following day, May 15, is a day of mourning, “Disaster ( Naqba ) Day.” It has gone unmentioned that Pope Benedict’s Holy Land pilgrimage falls on just these days. On May 15, the final day of his visit, the pope will share a podium in Israel’s capital Jerusalem with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The pope’s appearance in Jerusalem with Israel’s head of state on Naqba Day underscores his commitment to the State of Israel. From the founding of the State of Israel to 1993, when the Vatican at length established diplomatic relations with the Jewish State, the Holy See has had to balance its commitment to Middle Eastern Christians with its efforts to improve relations with the Jewish people. Christians endured in the birthplace of their religion under Muslim rule as a dhimmi , or subject people, anxious to avoid giving offense to the far more powerful majority.
With the advent of the State of Israel and the hostile Muslim response, dhimmitude became less viable. It is estimated that thirty-five percent of the Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have emigrated since the 1967 war, mostly in response to harassment by radical Islamists. Although Arab Christians have suffered at the hands of Muslim militants who oppose the existence of the Jewish State, many of them blame the Jews for rousing the Muslim militants in the first place.
Well before the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993, then Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly explained to Jewish representatives that the delay in diplomatic recognition solely reflected the concern of the Holy See for the vulnerable Arab Christian communities. His pilgrimage this May devotes considerable time to pastoral meetings with the Arab Christian community. Nonetheless, Benedict has made clear that his concern for Arab Christians is embedded within an unwavering commitment to the Jewish community in the Holy Land.
It is hard not to see an evolution in Vatican policy towards Israel, from a pragmatic approach to the problems of religious constituencies, to explicit theological sympathy for the Jewish State. Benedict XVI is first of all a theologian, and he views the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as a theological matter.
In 2008, on the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s independence, Benedict XVI told Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, “The Holy See is united with you and thanks God for the full realization of the Jewish people’s aspirations to live in its homeland, the land of its forefathers.” Meeting with the Israeli rabbinate on March 12, the Pope affirmed the election of the Jewish people “to communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, true and unique God.” Theologically it is difficult to separate the election of the people from the promise of the land, and Benedict’s commitment to Israel seems strongly grounded in theology.
The Magisterium of the Church does not take an explicit position on the question of Jewish statehood. Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, “The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” in the formula given in “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985). But the Church also knows that Israel is more than just another small country like Finland or Ecuador, for the very next sentence of the 1985 document cites John Paul II’s recognition of the theological significance of Jewish survival: “The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design . . . . It remains a chosen people, the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles.’”
Middle Eastern Christians remain an important constituency opposing Vatican support for the Jewish State. Their position is difficult. On March 25, the Holy See expressed “profound concern” about Middle Eastern Christians in the Middle East in the wake of the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Archbishop Antonio Maria emphasized the pastoral function of the pope’s visit, nothing that he “constantly comforts Christians, and all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, with special words and gestures, coupled with his desire to make a pilgrimage in the historical footsteps of Jesus . . . The wounds opened by violence make the problem of emigration more acute, inexorably depriving the Christian minority of its best resources for the future . . . The land that was the cradle of Christianity risks ending up without Christians.”
That is not quite true, for although Arab Christians are indeed leaving areas controlled by Muslims, Christians are immigrating to Israel itself, whose Christian community has doubled in size in the past fifteen years. Nearly 300,000 Eastern European immigrants are Christians, as well as many Filipinos and others who came as guest workers and have settled in Israel. Hebrew-speaking Israeli Christians are becoming a more numerous constituency than Arab-speaking Palestinian Christians. The retirement in 2008 of Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a vocal critic of the Jewish State, was symbolic of the generational change that shifted the balance of Christian life to Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Patriarch Sabbah belonged to an older generation that blamed Israel for the disruption of Christian life in the Holy Land.
The most important issues outstanding between the State of Israel and the Holy See involve the practical life of Church institutions ministering to Catholic citizens of the Jewish State, including taxation, the status of Church property, and so forth. It is possible to look forward to a happy day in which the most important source of antagonism between Catholics and Jews will be tax treatment of Church property¯provided, of course, that the Holy Father’s theological sympathy for the existence of the Israeli state prevails in the Church. His predecessor John Paul II transformed Catholic—Jewish relations during his pilgrimage nine years ago, and the image of the pope praying at the Western Wall did more to persuade Jews of Christian goodwill than all the conference resolutions in history. Benedict’s presentation of the theology of election adds an inestimably important dimension to the story. But nothing strengthens the bond between the Church and the Jews as plainly as the pope’s appearance in Israel on the anniversary of its independence.
David P. Goldman is a writer in New York.