Nostra Aetate, issued at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council almost 60 years ago, represented a historic, dramatic change in the Catholic approach to Jews and Judaism. We might describe it as marking a transition in how Catholics perceived the Jews—a transition from seeing them as the murderers of Jesus to seeing them as “our elder brothers,” a phrase first used by Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986. This visit was a significant milestone in the process of change, as was his official visit to Israel in 2000. Each event was the first of its kind.
In between these two events, diplomatic relations were established between Israel and the Holy See in 1993. The two successors of John Paul II—Pope Francis and the recently deceased Benedict XVI —also continued the process of change, each in his own way. They did this with gestures (each visited Israel and the synagogue in Rome), with their positive attitudes toward Jews, and with their commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism.
There is no doubt that the Holocaust deeply influenced the process that led to Nostra Aetate. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, who acted in various ways to save Jews during the war, was one of many who understood and felt strongly that the genocide required a profound transformation. Although Nostra Aetate was signed after his death, the initiation of the shift in the Catholic approach to Judaism is largely credited to him.
Unfortunately, the positive spirit blowing from Rome for the last sixty years has not always reached every corner of the Catholic world. It seems that in various circles, support for the Jewish peoples’ right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is weakening. In the Jewish-Catholic context, this should be seen as a withdrawal from the process of rapprochement that began with Nostra Aetate.
An unfortunate example is Jesuit priest David Neuhaus's recent article “Revisiting the Partition of Palestine,” published in La Civiltà Cattolica.
Neuhaus opens his article by asserting that the Jewish Holocaust and the 1948 Palestinian Nakba are linked together in history. This statement does not reflect any historical truth but only a political view. As Neuhaus himself points out, Zionism—the movement for the national liberation of the Jewish people—began picking up steam at the end of the nineteenth century, more than 50 years before the Palestinian Nakba. The latter was caused—and this Neuhaus omits—not because of the Holocaust, but because of the Arab leaders’ overt refusal to accept any possibility of partition. Throughout his article, Neuhaus consistently tries to understand, perhaps even justify, their reluctance.
Neuhaus states that recognition of the need for a Jewish State is a “post-Shoah belief,” but he contradicts his own statement when he mentions that this need was recognized as early as 1917 in the Balfour Declaration, which received an international endorsement from the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference in 1920.
In reality, the Palestinian Nakba is not connected to the Holocaust but rather to the Jewish Nakba, which Neuhaus also does not mention. While 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes during the war of 1948–1949 that their leaders declared, almost a million Jews in Arab countries were expelled from their homes in and after those years by the local rulers, just because they were Jews.
When discussing the situation on the ground in the 19th century and the existence of a Palestinian national identity at that time, Neuhaus prefers cherry-picking: He cites statements that fit his political views but ignores an abundance of evidence contradicting them. Contrast his references to the words of Lords Shaftesbury and Morgenthau with the words of Mark Twain, who summed up his gloomy impression of the region in his 1869 book A Pleasure Excursion in the Holy Land, based on a journey he conducted there in 1867: In essence, he calls the people there a sparse, primitive, neglected, poor and idle population. His impression of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Jericho is equally negative. Twain was for the purpose of that trip a journalist. Some questioned his descriptions, yet they are supported not only by other similar testimonies but also to a large extent by the work of a professional British survey expedition that did a detailed and unprecedented mapping operation in the country in the years 1872–1878, showing that the country was very sparsely populated.
As for national Palestinian identity: Most historians state that the local population in the 19th century was not unique in any respect compared to the other Arab populations in the region. Most of these scholars agree that Palestinian nationalism, which distinguishes itself from general Arab nationalism, only took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some point out that about a quarter of the Arab residents in the country, at the time of the beginning of the new Jewish settlements in 1882, were immigrants, mainly from Egypt, who had come during the years of Egyptian occupation, 1831–1840. Moreover, parallel to the period of Zionist immigration in the years 1880–1940, the country was hit by a massive immigration wave from neighboring countries, which mostly resulted from the improved economic climate created by the entrepreneurship of the Jewish immigrants. Only political bias makes it possible to call one group of people “indigenous” and accuse the other of “colonialism” just because a few decades separate the dates of their immigration.
Neuhaus presents his narrative on behalf of the Arab Supreme Committee as an explanation, perhaps also as a justification, for the Arab leadership’s opposition to the Partition Plan. In any case, and as already mentioned, he does not have a single word of criticism for obstinate Palestinian resistance to the Partition Plan, which motivated its supporters to start a bloody war that resulted in the Palestinian (and Jewish) Nakba and is the reason that to this day the Palestinians do not have a state.
Linking the Zionist movement to Western colonialism is one of the most common weapons in the anti-Israel arsenal. Another is blaming Israel for apartheid—also echoed by Neuhaus in the article.
The concluding paragraph begins with the sentence, “Catholic bishops are neither politicians nor diplomats.” This is self-conscious irony at its worst. This is an article that any anti-Israel propagandist would sign with both hands. Because the author is a Catholic priest, it indicates a dangerous revisionism that constitutes a withdrawal from the blessed process that began with Nostra Aetate. I hope that Neuhaus expresses an unusual, solitary opinion. Anyone who holds Christian-Jewish relations close to their hearts should dissent from this. Opposition to the existence of a nation-state with a Jewish majority is not only an anti-Israeli position, but also an anti-Jewish one.
Raphael Schutz is ambassador of Israel to the Holy See.
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Image by Roderick Eime licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.