Jerusalem Letter

No. 431   27 Iyar 5760 / 1 June 2000


Dan V. Segre

Israeli Citizenship for Jesus? / Beginning at the Synagogue of Rome / Following the Rules of Power Politics / A Matter of Courage / The Pope's Performance / The Hosts' Performance / Educating Israelis about Changed Christian Attitudes / A Common Interest Against Moslem Fundamentalism? / Israelis View the Church / Pressures Within the Church / A Strategy of Sacred Travel

Israeli Citizenship for Jesus?

In the 1950s, the French Catholic academician, playwright, and former Ambassador to the U.S., Paul Claudel, asked the cultural attaché of the Israeli Embassy in Paris to convey the following message to Martin Buber: Now that the Jews had recovered their sovereignty, would they consider granting citizenship to Jesus, thereby putting an end to his "statelessness" status both for Judaism and Christianity? This could contribute to the fight against anti-Semitism.

What Claudel meant by his call for the "restitution of citizenship" to Jesus, in both Christianity and Judaism, is what many people to this day seem to ignore. The appropriation of Jesus of Nazareth by the Church has been such an integral part of the process of the substitution of historic Israel by the verus (true) Israel of the New Testament, that it is difficult for most Christians to believe that the blond, long-haired, blue-eyed Messiah of Christian iconography could really be a member of an oriental, rejected people considered the "scum of the earth," always represented in caricatural images. Conversely, the long social-theological-political struggle of the Church against Judaism has made it difficult for Jews to consider the founder of Christianity as a Jew.

Claudel was one of the few French public figures who dared, in December 1941, to write a letter to the Chief Rabbi of France expressing the "disgust, horror and indignation felt by good Frenchmen, especially if Catholic," at the "iniquities, robberies and all types of bad treatment" suffered by "our Jewish compatriots." I wonder whether he would consider the plea for forgiveness and the symbolic gestures made by Pope John Paul II toward the Jews and Judaism before and during his pilgrimage as steps on the road to reconciliation and a reciprocal revision of Jesus' stereotyped image in both religions.

While the "Jesus question" is far from being resolved, other delicate political and religious questions for the Church were successfully dealt with by the Pope during his visit. One way to look at them is through the symbolism of the triple crown - the tiara - with which the popes have crowned themselves since the time of the Borgias.

The tiara symbolizes the three supremacies of the Catholic pontiff: as Bishop of Rome, over the other bishops; as king of the Papal State (today Vatican City); and as head of the Latin Church. During his stay in Israel, the Pope sent forceful message in all three directions at the same time, keeping them distinct and well balanced.

Beginning at the Synagogue of Rome

The Bishop of Rome had already stated his philosemitic position when he visited the Jewish synagogue of Rome in 1986. At that time, two small but significant incidents marked the event: A small group of Catholic fundamentalists waited for the papal cortege at the Vatican gate to demonstrate against the visit in a miserable show of opposition. For the Jews in general, and the proud Jews of Rome in particular (they have been living there since well before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), the visit was a momentous event.

Conscious of his role and historic responsibility, Rome's Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff insisted (contrary to Vatican wishes) that his chair and that of the Pope be at the same level and identical in size (which took some effort to find). This protocol incident was solved - so I am told - by the Pope himself. The visit to the synagogue confirmed the Church's "absolution" of the Jews from the crime of "deicide" - as already decided by the Second Vatican Council in spite of strong internal resistance - and the Pope proclaimed the Jews as "older brothers," a definition which did not satisfy everybody but which made the Jews "members of the family."

The visit to the synagogue - as the Vatican stressed at the time - had nothing to do with recognition of the State of Israel. That recognition came in 1991 as a direct consequence of the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, from which the Vatican - like India, China, and the USSR - did not want to be excluded. The synagogue visit had even less to do with Church theology, which still maintained that there is no "salvation outside the Church." Only in 1995 did a convoluted explanation published by the Vatican paper Osservatore Romano (May 7) suggest (after some discreet visits by a leading Israeli talmudist in Rome) that salvation could also exist outside the Church. It was the logical consequence of a previous revolutionary papal statement made in Germany on November 17, 1980, proclaiming that the divine "pact" with the people of Israel "had never been abolished."

Following the Rules of Power Politics

While the "Bishop of Rome, heir of Paul the Apostle," reinforced the special relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the King of the Papal State carefully followed the rules of power politics in order to foster its "worldly" interests. In the Middle East, that meant dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the not less delicate relations between the Roman and the Eastern Churches. One result was the signing of a "religious" agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which rejected any unilateral control over Jerusalem. This was followed by the Pope's declaration, during his visit to the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, that Palestinians had "suffered too long." During his visit, the Pope took special care to show Arafat the respect due to a head of state and to bolster his international image.

It could hardly be otherwise since the Vatican - as one former Israeli diplomat concisely put it - was aware of the fact that "Moslems may like the Pope, but they also like to kill Christians, while the Jews may not like the Church but do not kill Christians." There was, clearly, no reason for the Pope to make political concessions to Israel, knowing that Jerusalem would do nothing to spoil the pilgrimage.

Criticism of the Pope in Israel was thus scattered and mild. Some rabbis considered the papal mass held at Korazin on a Saturday a "slap in the face of Jewish dignity." It could have been postponed until after sunset - they said - in order not to oblige many Jews, responsible for papal security, to desecrate the day of rest. Considering the huge, nationwide precautions taken to protect the Pope and his entourage, such a change of schedule would not have made much difference.

A Matter of Courage

Others complained that the Pope had not mentioned the ambiguity of Pope Pius XII toward the Nazi regime. It would have been quite inappropriate for John Paul II to criticize his predecessor. What he did was to refrain from mentioning him at all (contrary to Paul VI, who used the few hours he spent in Israel in 1964 to deliver a strong defense of Pius XII). Curiously, the Papal Nuncio, Pietro Sambi, in a lively discussion on that topic on Italian TV, remarked from Jerusalem, without entering into the matter, that human behavior is often "a matter of courage."

John Paul II showed plenty of this, so much so that a leading Italian political commentator and historian, Indro Montanelli, asked whether his policy of all-around apologies was not "a life or death challenge for the world's oldest institution."

"Where is this Pope, who looks ever more tired, ever more suffering, but ever more determined to pursue something which we do not understand, leading us?" he asked. "If the Church recognizes that it has been wrong in almost everything, towards what new Church does Pope Wojtyla intend to lead Catholicism?" (Oggi, March 26, 2000).

Nobody really knows, including the Jews who wonder what the position of the Church may be in the future.

It is no secret that within the Curia, the Vatican government, not everyone shares the present Pope's policies. The beatification of Pope Pius XII and that of Pius IX who was directly involved in the Mortara case (the stealing of a Jewish boy, secretly baptized by his Christian nurse in the middle of the nineteenth century and never returned to his parents) will be a significant signpost on the road to future Jewish-Christian relations. On the other hand, it has become clear that this Pope, thanks to his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, has greatly improved the image of the Roman Church, demonstrating its strength, its prestige, and the quality of Vatican diplomacy. This diplomacy showed how able it was in transforming the religious topography of a pilgrimage into a crescendo of symbolic gestures, in bolstering the universal message of the Church, and in creating a world stage on which the Pope could successfully play the role of "king-savior" and "traditionalist renovator."

The Pope's Performance

The stage is not unfamiliar to Pope John Paul II. A few days before his arrival in Israel, Haaretz published a photograph of him dressed in nineteenth century costume, taking part in a students' theatrical performance in Warsaw. Those who watched his performance during the pilgrimage could not help but notice the spontaneity with which he created his role of penitent, herald of peace, and man of faith and courage. It was a splendid, moving, cathartic performance, played with sincerity, but also with full control of theatrical art. The Pope fully exploited his physical weakness to enhance his moral stamina; he continuously changed his facial expression from authority to humility when he switched from public utterance to meditation. Not once, under the obsessive pressure of the media, did he slip. On the contrary, this superb actor allowed himself to improvise like a true master of the commedia dell'arte (the Italian theatrical genre which allowed each performer to "invent" his own role on stage).

When he placed his letter of apology to the Jewish people into the Wailing Wall, he looked as uncertain and humble as an uninvited guest; in his second, unplanned visit to the Holy Sepulcher, he gave a moving demonstration of silent meditation before the TV camera. Filming for the first time in the history of that church inside the tomb, the camera caught the message of spirituality which the Pope wanted to send to Christendom and the world.

The Hosts' Performance

When one compares these performances with those of Arab and Israeli religious representatives, one appreciates the ability of the Church to make use of symbols. "The Pope," wrote an Italian paper, "is a post-modern prophet ruling through signs." In this respect, the performance of the political lay establishment in Jordan, Israel (with the exception of President Weizman's notably uninspiring speech of welcome), and the Palestinian Authority was superior to that of the respective religious representatives.

The Moslem dignitaries seemed unaware of the religious role of the Pope. They used their meetings with him to try (unsuccessfully) to drag him into political discussions. They used the occasion to display their hostility to Israel without a word on the difficult coexistence existing today between Moslems and Christians. They were not satisfied with papal apologies for the Crusades; they asked for a more extended apology for the suffering caused by the Church to Islam, ignoring the centuries of Moslem piracy in the Mediterranean, the Moslem white slave trade, and their conquest of Christian territories in the Balkans, not to speak of the contemporary persecution of Christians in many Islamic lands. There was anger and revenge in their statements, but also ignorance and a tone of aggressiveness covering a feeling of inferiority.

The representatives of the rabbinical establishment were not much better. Their meeting with the Pope turned out to be an occasion for competing with the secular establishment in recalling the fact that "Jerusalem was to remain the eternal capital of Israel," and for asking Vatican intervention in the liberation of Jews arrested in Iran. It revealed, in spite of Israel's Chief Rabbis' claim of religious independence from the state, their status as religious functionaries. They left it to the prime minister to speak of "Jerusalem, capital city of many faiths." It was the Government Secretary, Yitzhak Herzog, who, in a radio interview from Rome, explained to the Israeli public the spiritual importance of the papal visit. It fell to the Minister for Diaspora Relations, Rabbi Michael Melchior, on the windy Wailing Wall plaza, to advance a half-baked proposal for the establishment of an interfaith organization to put an end to the political exploitation of the sanctity of Jerusalem.

The weakness of the rabbinical performance was to be expected, considering the history of Jewish suffering, and suspicion, hostility, and indifference from the Church. Although the distance between church and synagogue has shortened in the course of the last half century, when Cardinal Ratzinger came to Jerusalem in the spring of 1994 to attend a Jewish-Christian interfaith meeting, a call by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Kulitz to boycott the congress was sufficient to stop any significant Orthodox rabbinical attendance.

Educating Israelis about Changed Christian Attitudes

Things began to change, at least on the official level, after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993, partly thanks to unofficial efforts by several lay personalities who realized the historical importance of the papal visit. One of these, former Ambassador Moshe Erell, who served for a number of years as special advisor for Christian-Jewish affairs at the Foreign Ministry, took it upon himself to explain to the rabbinical establishment the significance of the theological changes taking place in the Vatican under the personal influence of the Pope. To this end, he wrote a small book in Hebrew called Christianity Harks Back to Zion in the Context of Inter-Faith Diplomacy (Tel Aviv: Cherikover, 1998), in which he collected many statements showing the evolution of Christian (Catholic and Protestant) Church attitudes toward Judaism and the Jews. The aim of the book was to explain to the Israeli Jewish public the profound changes which - in spite of reticence, prejudices, and historical misunderstandings - were taking place in the Christian world in relation to the other monotheistic religions (Judaism and Islam) and the spiritual and political importance of these changes. "Through this book," commented Bar-Ilan University Professor Daniel Sperber, "emerges an historic change demanding an additional effort to better understand its significance for the State of Israel and the entire Jewish people."

The announcement of the papal visit intensified the efforts of a number of Israeli personalities to promote a rabbinical initiative to reciprocate papal efforts at reconciliation with Judaism. A joint declaration seemed to be the best way to express a cautious Jewish religious opening toward the Church. It was also meant as a gesture to stress rabbinical independence from the political establishment in matters of faith and theology. In practice, it led to no concrete action and left it to the political establishment to grant recognition of the changes, and to a statement made by Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron.

Future connections between Christianity and Judaism remain an open question, the main point being not the formal contacts but their content. After all, as Professor Jacob Neusner has argued, since the fourth century there has never existed a dialogue between Jews and Christians but only disputes, the outcome of the existential situation of Jewish powerlessness. However, the main obstacle to reconciliation was and remains the difficulty for Christianity to accept the idea that Judaism is a different religion (like Islam) and not the "betrayal" of the true Judaism preached by Jesus.

Recognition of the difference between the two faiths could be the starting point of a creative dialogue in which the Church would stop asking the Jews "why are you not like us?" and the rabbis would be invited to explain "why the Jews are what they are."

A Common Interest Against Moslem Fundamentalism?

Moving from the theological to the political level, it has been suggested that a field of cooperation between the Vatican and Israel could be found in their common interest in resisting Moslem fundamentalism. This sounds like diplomatic wishful thinking, considering the advantages the Curia can gain in Moslem countries by openly distancing itself from a state they still consider their main symbolic enemy and from which the Vatican has nothing to fear. As long as Israeli governments give priority treatment to the Catholic Church (which represents a tiny minority among Israeli Arabs) at the expense of the Greek Orthodox Church (which represents the majority of the Christian Arab population in Israel and the territories), there is no reason why the Vatican should consider Israel's interests in the area.

Israelis View the Church

This does not contradict the fact that the papal visit has considerably improved the common Israeli view of the Church, thanks to the media impact on the public. It is significant, for instance, that 42 percent of Israeli Jews told pollsters that they liked the Pope more than they did former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the largest religious party, Shas. No less significant is the fact that throughout his visit, the Pope was referred to as "His Holiness." Before his arrival, no agreement was reached even by the government philatelic office on how to refer to him on the stamp issued in his honor. No less important was the unprecedented and massive exposure of the Jewish public to the Jewishness of Jesus.

Pressures Within the Church

Turning to the results achieved by the Vatican in this pilgrimage, the most evident one is that such a risky event took place without a hitch. Its organization, planning, world media coverage, and the balanced mixture of diplomacy and faith, of political self-interest and religious generosity, have enhanced the image of a Church in crisis. This crisis is far from being resolved; it remains part of the ongoing struggle of Catholicism with modernity, of its efforts to contain the growing de-christianization of society. The Holy See has to face the competing proselytism of both Islam and New Age spiritualism, and the many trends of internal dissidence due to theological issues such as celibacy of the clergy, feminine ordination, abortion and chastity, theology of liberation, etc. Seen in this perspective, the papal trip to the Holy Land was the crowning event of his twenty-year effort to promote the restoration of Catholic orthodoxy as well as spiritual innovation.

When the relatively young Polish bishop Karol Wojtyla, an enthusiastic supporter of and participant in the "revolutionary" Vatican II Council, was elected to the seat of St. Peter on October 16, 1978, the search for innovation initiated by the Council itself had shaken - not strengthened - the foundations of the Latin Church: worldliness and politization of the clergy in Europe tended towards a dangerous kind of "ecumenical protestantism"; in Latin America there was a risk of "marxification" of a large strata of the clergy due to its involvement in the (often armed) rebellion of the poor. Very soon the new Pope flexed his traditionalist muscles, saying no to contraception, not to divorce, no to homosexuality, and no to women priests.

This return to orthodoxy met with strong internal opposition, especially in Germany, Holland, and the U.S. where the ecumenical dialogue with the Protestants was extensive. The Pope - who is a democratically elected but also an absolute ruler - used his "royal" privilege to fight dissidence. In the best ancient monarchic tradition, he turned to "the people" to fight his own aristocracy. New "fighting orders" were created or promoted: Opus Dei (created by a Spanish priest), Communion and Liberation (created in Italy by Luigi Giussani), Focolarins (created in England by Chiara Lubich), and Neocatechuminalists (created in Italy by Kiko Argurillo).

These orders have in common the fact that they were established by lay men and women for the purpose of living a life of "mutual and continuous" charity. A book written by a disgruntled British member of one of these orders (Brian Urquhart, The Pope's Armada [London: Bantam Press, 1995]) describes how church leaders are capable of mobilizing thousands of (mainly young) people, often in opposition to the old strong orders such as the Jesuits.

A Strategy of Sacred Travel

To show the "strength of the faithful," the new Pope followed a strategy of sacred and social traveling (summarized in Centesimus Annum Encyclical, published on May 1, 1991, on the centennial anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the first official social document of the Church in modern times). These "pilgrimages" served his ambition to promote the Church as a potential ideological filler for the vacuum left by Communism, and to oppose the selfish materialism of capitalism. John Paul II turned into a defender of the derelict masses of the Third World. He engaged in whirlwind tours of "overseas countries." He went twice to Africa, in 1992 and again in February 1993. He visited the Caribbean, Mexico, and the U.S.A. in August 1993; Asia, Australia, and again Africa in 1995; Latin America in 1996 and in February 1997; Lebanon and Brazil in that same year. He went to Cuba and Nigeria in 1998; to Mexico, India, and Georgia in 1999; and to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Portugal in the first months of 2000.

Such a "follow me" fighting policy was bound to take its toll: in 1981 the Pope was wounded in an assassination attempt planned by Bulgarian intelligence, acting out of the growing communist awareness of the dangers represented by this fighting Polish priest. He underwent surgery in 1992 for an intestinal tumor; in 1993 to repair a broken shoulder; in 1994 for a broken collar bone; in 1996 for a serious attack of appendicitis; and then faced the onset of Parkinson's disease. The Pope faced these physical trials - as anyone could see during his pilgrimage in the Holy Land - as a challenge of mind over matter which increased, rather than diminished, the volume of his activities.

His workload is exemplified by the publication of 13 encyclicals, 10 apostolic constitutions, by the proclamation of 284 saints, of 938 "blessed people," by the nomination of 157 cardinals, the chairing of 14 synods, of 921 general audiences, and his meeting with 574 heads of state and 195 heads of government.

Often criticized for his "traveling activism," the Pope seemed determined to prove that he was moved not only by duty but by a mystical inspiration. This became evident on May 13, 2000, when he decided to disclose the "third prophecy of Fatima." These prophecies were inspired by the visit of a messenger of the Virgin Mary to three young, ignorant Portuguese shepherds at Fatima on May 13, 1917. The first two prophecies dealt with the horrors of the twentieth century, and forecast the fall of communist Russia. The third one, which five popes refused to reveal, forecast the assassination of one of them. Since John Paul II was almost killed in an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, he saw in that event a divine sign for his mission.

One has to remember these feats and events in order to understand the force of the Pope's motivation and the power of his charisma. In a world of political gnomes and ideological ruins, the Pope appears as a superb performer of the restoration role which he has taken upon himself. In spite of the fact that most Israelis could hardly hear - or understand - his spoken words, the expression on his face, the royal simplicity of his gestures, and the absolute control of their political, theological, and psychological symbolism made them realize that they were witnessing the creation of history by a man who refused to be its prisoner.

As for the Christians, no one could miss the political-religious meaning of a Latin mass conducted by a pope standing at the center of an Orthodox church where for centuries the Catholics had not been allowed to celebrate. The presence of 70 Latin bishops, representing the universality of the Roman Church, sitting next to their competitors - the heads of the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian, the Copts, the Ethiopians, and the Protestants - gave millions of TV viewers the feeling of the new, world prestige of the Church. Those who could understand the words of the solemn rite at the Holy Sepulcher heard a Catholic churchman reading the Ten Commandments in Arabic, condemning idolatry, and recalling the unity of God in front of the empty tomb of a Jew, as the Pope constantly reminded his listeners that he was the incarnation of God. Many people appreciated his "political correctness" in asking a woman, a Protestant, an African, an Asian, and an American to read, in sequence, portions of the Gospel.

Jews, in Israel and in the world, heard the Pope reminding them that their "pact" with God was "unchanging"; proclaiming the superiority of biblical ethics over physical and economic power; speaking of the need for contemporary Judaism to approach Christian and godless universalism with Old Testament values - in sum, to understand the greatness of the challenge of being a Jew.

No wonder the Pope left his hosts - as the Le Monde correspondent wrote - "acquis et emus" (conquered and moved). The visit did not make them more secure, but possibly a bit less provincial and skeptical about their role in contemporary history.

*     *     *

Dan V. Segre, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, began his long career with service in the British army in World War II and in the Israeli army as a paratroop officer during the War of Independence. After a period with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, he became Professor of International Relations and Reuben Hecht Professor of Zionism at Haifa University, retiring in 1986. Concurrently, he was Israeli correspondent for the dailies Le Figaro and Corriere delle Sera. He is currently Director of the Institute for Mediterranean Studies at the University of Lugano, Switzerland. His books include the highly-acclaimed Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew; Israel, Society in Transition; and Israel and Zionism, A Crisis of Identity.

The Jerusalem Letter and Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints are published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Internet: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: 1515 Locust St., Suite 703, Philadelphia, PA 19102; Tel. (215) 772-0564, Fax. (215) 772-0566. © Copyright. All rights reserved. ISSN: 0334-4096.

The Jerusalem Letter is a periodic report intended to objectively clarify and analyze issues of Jewish and Israeli public policy.