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Vatican favors Palestinian homeland


In 1974 I published a study on the relationship of Christian theology and anti-Semitism in Western Europe (Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism). Thanks to this book, I was often invited to speak at synagogues and Jewish-Christian dialogue conferences. The book was even distributed by the Jewish organization, B’nai B’rith. I was happy to accept such invitations to discuss my research and conclusions. In this study I saw a close relationship between the way Christianity formulated its affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and its hostility to the Jews for rejecting this identification. I have not changed my mind on this subject in any way. Christianity has shaped an anti-Jewish “shadow side” of its Christology. This needs to be purged by reshaping Christology to allow for the autonomous validity of Judaism.

However, in the question-and-answer period to my lectures on this subject I was frequently asked by Jews, “Why has the Vatican (or the pope) not recognized the state of Israel?” This question at first puzzled me. I had seen theological anti-Semitism as a Western problem that demanded a theological reformulation to undergird a rejection of religious and social discrimination against Jews. I had not made any connection between this issue and the politics of the state of Israel. I really had no idea of the Vatican’s reasoning on nonrecognition of the state of Israel and said so in my replies. But it soon became apparent to me that my questioners assumed a close relationship between these two issues.

They saw Christian repentance for anti-Semitism as calling for a compensatory support for the state of Israel. Any Christian individual or group that was less than totally supportive of the state of Israel was presumed to be still harboring anti-Semitic views, such as the notion that the Jews should be exiled under divine wrath and not allowed to return to their land. They assumed that the pope did not recognize the state of Israel for this reason. As this presumed connection between Christian repentance for anti-Semitism and support for the state of Israel became apparent to me, I began to research the history of Zionism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Western Christian involvement in this conflict. The result was a second book, The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (1989). I am presently engaged in an update of this book for a 2002 publication with Fortress Press.

Today I know in some detail the actual history of the relationship of the Holy See to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I believe this should be better understood by U.S. Catholics. When the state of Israel was first founded in 1948 there may have been some advisors in the Vatican who still harbored ideas of a theologically mandated Jewish exile. But by the mid-1970s, under the pontificate of Paul VI, this view was no longer a part of Vatican thought. Rather the pope forged a policy based on a demand for the rights to a national homeland of both the Israelis and the Palestinians equally.

In 1975 Pope Paul VI stated, “we are conscious of the still very recent tragedies which led the Jewish people to search for safe protection in a state of its own, sovereign and independent,” but for this very reason “we would like to ask the sons of this people to recognize the rights and legitimate aspirations of another people who have also suffered for a long time, the Palestinian people.” Recognition of the state of Israel was withheld by the Vatican in part because it saw the legitimacy of the state of Israel as resting on the 1946 U.N. partition plan that also granted to the Palestinians a state of their own on the remaining territory of historic Palestine. The Vatican declined to recognize the state of Israel until a Palestinian state was also recognized.

In 1993, with the Oslo accords that seemed to lay the basis for the recognition of a Palestinian state within the territories seized by Israel in 1967, the Vatican formally granted diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel. It appeared for a time as if the Holy See had abandoned its concern for the equal rights of Palestinians. What remained largely unreported in the U.S. press at that time was that, in October 1994, the Holy See also recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the political representative of the Palestinian people, at a time when the PLO was still headquartered in Tunisia.

This diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian people was formalized on Feb. 15, 2000, when the Holy See entered into a “Basic Agreement” with the PLO on behalf of the Palestinian Authority parallel to the Vatican’s Basic Agreement with Israel. Both agreements stipulate that the ministerial work of the church and its property will be respected by the two “authorities,” Israel and the PLO. In addition, the agreement with the PLO has a special section on Jerusalem that calls for religious freedom and equality before the law of the members of the three religious communities, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and their equal access to their holy places in Jerusalem. This demand critiques the policy of the Israeli government that has sought to Judaize Jerusalem and make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to enter the city.

During the pope’s visit to Bethlehem March 22, 2000, Pope John Paul II responded to Yasir Arafat’s greetings by declaring his support for Palestinian human and national rights. The Palestinians are said to have a “natural right to a homeland.” The pope reiterated the Vatican’s position that no peace in the area would be possible without “stable guarantees” for the rights of all peoples involved, based on U.N. resolutions. The pope deplored the sufferings of the Palestinian people, rooted in the denial of economic and cultural development, deprived of a “home of their own, their proper place in society and the possibility of a normal working life.” From the Vatican’s perspective, it is clear that “peace” in the area is not simply a matter of stopping exchange of violence on both sides, but, more fundamentally, establishing for Palestinians a just and viable basis for daily life in a homeland of their own.

In a June 2001 memo written by Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, counselor for international affairs of the U.S. Catholic Conference, to advise the U.S. bishops on their recent statement on the Middle East conflict, the basic tenets of the Vatican’s position were outlined. In addition to equal access of all three religious communities to Jerusalem and a cessation of violence by both sides, Christiansen makes clear the deeper basis of the Vatican’s policy. This rests on full respect for international law, as expressed especially in U.N. resolutions #242, #228 and #194. These resolutions call for the return of all the territories seized by Israel in 1967 and the right of refugees to return to their former homes or be compensated. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, all annexation of the land taken by Israel in 1967 and the building of settlements on it is totally illegal.

Christiansen quotes the pope in saying that Israel’s “contempt” for these foundational principles of international law is one of the key sources of the continued conflict. These positions put the Vatican on the side of the right of the Palestinians to a homeland, and also assume that the nonnegotiable boundaries of this homeland must be the West Bank and Gaza area seized by Israel in 1967. There must also be recognition that refugees were unjustly prevented from returning to their homes, with some partial return of refugees and compensation of the rest. The Vatican thus takes as fundamental a view that has been increasingly violated not only by Israel, but by the United States as well. It is a position that U.S. Catholics need to better understand. For it is U.S. policy that allows the state of Israel to hold out against the opinion of much of the rest of the world that Palestinians have a right to a viable homeland within the 1967 borders.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill., and the author of Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press, 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001