From Manfred Gerstenfeld: Israel's New Future - Interviews (1994)

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back -
The Vatican, the Jews and Israel

An Interview with Sergio Minerbi

Sergio Minerbi is a leading observer of the Vatican scene. Born in Rome in 1929, he came to Israel in 1946 and lived in Kibbutz Ruhama for nine years.

Minerbi holds a B.A. in economics and international relations from the Hebrew University and a Ph.D. from the University of Paris. He was a member of the staff of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1961-1989, when he took a leave of absence to work as a private consultant.

His last position at the Ministry was as Assistant Director-General of Economic Affairs. Before that, he was ambassador to Belgium and Luxemburg for five years, during which he also headed Israel's mission to the EEC. Minerbi is married and has three children.

He has written many academic articles and encyclopedia entries on relations between the Vatican and Jews and Israel. One of his books, The Vatican, the Holy Land and Zionism, originally published in Hebrew, has been translated in recent years into Italian and English.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that Minerbi's specialty is Israel-Vatican relations, he believes that Israelis tend to over-stress the Israeli perspective on a wide variety of issues. It therefore comes as no surprise that he downplays the significance of the recent steps taken to establish full diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican.

"If we want to understand developments, we should focus on Pope John Paul II's attitude toward the Jewish people first, and on relations with Israel second," he says.

Minerbi says Jewish observers usually lack the theological and political understanding needed to interpret correctly the Vatican's attitudes towards Jewish and Israeli issues. "Without comprehending Church history, Jewish leaders may commit major mistakes in their present and future relations with the Vatican," he warns.

"We have to realize that whereas a Jew can define his identity without referring to Christianity, Christians have to identity themselves with reference to Jews. The issue is not symmetric."

Minerbi maintains that for as long as Christianity has existed, it has encompassed a fundamental contradiction in its attitude toward Judaism. "They want to be the only legitimate heir of Judaism so that the real accomplishment of Judaism is in Christianity," he says, adding that Christianity stresses its Jewish roots as a tool to gain legitimization from this past.

"Thus," he says, "Jesus became King David's successor. At the same time, Christianity sought to define a new religion, so it had to separate itself from Judaism. These two concepts don't go together."

From this dichotomy emerged the claim that the Catholic Church is Verus Israel, the true Israel, which left no legitimate place for the Jews in society. In the fifth century, Minerbi notes, St. Augustin defined Jews as the popolo testimone, the 'witness people,' whose very existence testifies to the truth of Christianity. Without such a justification, he adds, Jewish history could have taken a very bad turn indeed.

"Initially, the apostle Paul confronted the material commandments of Judaism with the good spiritual actions of Christianity," Minerbi says. "This is where the label of materialism was first applied to Jews, as opposed to Christians, who were spiritual. These generalizations are deeply entrenched in European culture, which is basically a Christian one. Even opponents of Christianity, such as Voltaire, accepted these Christian anti-Semitic stereotypes.

"As far as the attitudes of the present Pope are concerned, one has to understand that while he takes an interest in Judaism, he has far more important concerns. His thinking is centered on Poland and Eastern Europe. He is convinced that his help to the Polish Solidarity trade union in the 1980s was the main catalyst for the collapse of communism, including the Soviet Union."

Today, the Pope worries that communism has been replaced by even worse values based on the consumer society and hedonism. Minerbi says the leader of the Catholic world blames the United States as the source of these bad influences on other nations.

The Pope is convinced that the answer to any breakdown of values must be a return to greater orthodoxy. Minerbi says that John Paul II sees this as the only way to keep the Church united in the face of today's modernism.

"This is a fighting Pope," he says. "He wants to return to positions from before the Vatican II Council, or at least not let the Council's ideas develop further.

"When he visited the United States, the Pope was confronted with important problems within his own church," Minerbi says. "Despite the fact that half of the American bishops have been appointed by him, he still faces substantial opposition to his policies concerning homosexuality, abortions and - above all - sexual relations. When he proposes sexual abstinence, when visiting the United States or Uganda, that sounds equally absurd to youth in both countries."

Of course, Minerbi points out that there are some friendly relations, and even some collaboration, between American Jews and Catholics. Both groups are minorities in the United States, and both are comprised of people who came as poor immigrants and have done well economically.

"American Jews go by mistaken analogy," he explains. "They know the attitudes of US cardinals and are convinced that they can accordingly understand Vatican policies. The Jewish-Catholic dialogue, held mainly by American Jews, is based on a major misunderstanding of how the decision-making process in the Vatican functions, and incomprehension of its long-term policies.

"American Catholics are a minority in both the United States and the Catholic Church," he notes. "Their attitudes differ radically from those of the Vatican's Curia and of the Pope himself, who sometimes even surprises the Curia.

"Catholic authorities can be pleasant and tolerant towards Jews. There is more and more interest in Judaism in order to understand the roots of Christianity. They want to see how we do the Seder in order to understand the gospel, which explains the Last Supper. They want to get closer to Jews, yet they fear this closeness. I never understood why the Church has this ambivalent attitude."

But Minerbi doesn't need to understand why in order to see that the current Pope gives conflicting messages as far as Jews are concerned. He terms it a policy of two steps forward, one step backward.

What does he mean? Minerbi notes that in the 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration at the Vatican II Council, Jews were partially absolved of the killing of Jesus. "The change was not as big as I wished for. The responsibility for deicide was still there," he notes, "but it was limited to those who actually killed Jesus."

Minerbi gives another example of these internal contradictions in the Pope's position. "He has said that the old covenant - with the Jews - was never revoked by God. Two or tree times, however, he has claimed that the old covenant could not continue because the Jewish people were not faithful to their God. Thus, there was a need for a new covenant to replace the old one. I would like to understand from the Pope clearly what he thinks is right or wrong doctrine.

"The Catholic Church has shows certain signs of sensitivity to Jewish issues," Minerbi continues. For example, Pope John Paul II calls the Holocaust by its Hebrew name, Shoah, and he even visited Auschwitz. In 1990, Polish bishops in Poland asked forgiveness from the Jews.

"With the agreement of the Pope, Cardinal Cassidy, who is in charge of the dialogue with the Jews, used the Hebrew word, teshuva, when referring to the Catholics' obligation toward the Jews. This statement, made in Prague, is very positive."

Notwithstanding the positive developments, Minerbi hastens to stress that all is not rosy. He characterizes the beatification of German-born Edith Stein, who grew up in an assimilated Jewish family, studied philosophy, converted to Catholicism, became a nun and ultimately was killed by the Nazis, as "one of the most negative signals from the Vatican in the past 20 years.

"In his beatification speech of May, 1, 1987, the Pope said that she died for the glorification of God. He translated literally the Hebrew term, kiddush hashem. I am revolted when the classic formula for Jews who preferred to die rather than change their faith is used with respect to somebody who changed her faith to Christianity."

The Pope's words cut even further, Minerbi says, in the damage they did to Jewish-Catholic relations. "He compared Edith Stein to Queen Esther, who saved her people, the Jews," he says. "How could Edith Stein do this? She was killed and could not even save herself, let alone anybody else.

"The only logical interpretation is that she saved her people by showing them the right path, Christianity. What makes it even worse is that it is said about somebody who died at Auschwitz. At the supposed site of her tomb in Birkenau, a place nobody can know, there is - I am told - a Star of David together with a cross, a clear sign of syncretism."

Perhaps the worst thing about the Edith Stein beatification is that it is not the only such case. Minerbi says that the Catholic Church has long tried to expropriate Jewish symbols. This expropriation lies at the very origin of Christianity. Catholicism was born converting Jewish values and symbols to Christian ones.

"The wine of Kiddush became the wine of the Holy Mass," he says. "The blessing of the bread on Friday became the Host. The Passover Seder became Christ's Passion. The originators of Christianity took known symbols and gave them a totally different meaning.

"This expropriation of symbols continues to this day, and can take various forms," he continues. "At the road to Auschwitz, where most of the people murdered were Jews, nobody can miss the seven-and-a-half meter high cross. I have been told that there is a cross on the building of the Kommandatur at Birkenau, where all those killed were Jews. At Sobibor, where also only Jews were murdered, there is a church. In Dachau and Majdanek, where people from many religions died, the only place of prayer is a Catholic church. Why should one religion have the monopoly on remembrance?

"On the other hand, there are positive developments," Minerbi says. "The Jews can consider the fact that the nuns finally left the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz a success. This is particularly important in light of the anti-Semitic statements made by Cardinal Glemp of Warsaw. But nobody should be surprised that it has taken the Polish Church 25 years to translate Nostra Aetate into Polish."

Alas, despite the achievement, Minerbi points out that the nuns' departure took much more time than the written agreement called for. "They moved only because the Pope wrote to them and invited them to leave," he notes. "They are no longer within the perimeter of the historical site of Auschwitz, which the Polish government has agreed should not be touched."

Against this mixed bag of achievements and setbacks, Minerbi's criticism continues. The Jewish agreement to a compromise may have made the situation worse, he says. The nuns moved a few hundred meters away from the death camp itself. Instead of a closed convent where they sat inside and could not speak with anybody, he says there is now a Christian propaganda center at Auschwitz. "It is called an inter-religious center, but it is a highly Catholic institution," he says. "The difference with the previous convent is that the new one is much bigger, much more impressive and has much greater means at its disposal. Whoever visits Auschwitz is attracted to visit this center as well. Thus, in spite of the fact that the move is an achievement, I do not think that we have solved the problem."

History, Minerbi says, has been rewritten by the Church, but a larger issue overshadows this. "The real issue is that the Church still considers itself the true Israel," he says. "Another example of the Christianizing of themes is the Pope's speech at his Auschwitz visit. He stood before the inscription in Polish and spoke about remembering the six million Poles who perished. The number six million rings a bell. It is another Jewish symbol expropriated."

For all the importance of the Pope's visit to Auschwitz, Minerbi can't help but feel that the message of reconciliation was lost in the blurring of the Jewishness of the tragedy. During his entire visit, John Paul II did not mention the word "Jew" once. Minerbi notes that even when he stood before the Hebrew inscription there, he referred only to "the sons of Abraham."

"I guess that he meant to say that in Abraham we are all related," Minerbi says. "If we go back to Abraham, Jews and Christians are at the same level of heritage.

"When he visited Jerusalem, New York Cardinal O'Connor stated that the Jews have made a great gift to humanity through the Shoah," Minerbi says. "The Pope said in Mauthausen that the Jews in World War Two are like the grain that has to fall to earth in order to give life to a greater plant.

"That almost means that God did a bookkeeping exercise and when the sins were too great, the Shoah came. I am not willing to give legitimization to the Nazis as if they were the executive arm of God. Cardinal O'Connor thought he had said something good, but I am opposed to the idea that we have to give something to the world through our suffering. I prefer to make other gifts.

"Following a strange request of American Jews, the Pope is preparing an encyclic on the Shoah," Minerbi says. "This will force him to write all that separates us and all that unifies us. We can only hope that he won't do it. Otherwise, we will be helping to consolidate the extreme differences between us and the Catholic Church on the Shoah."

Minerbi maintains that any progress in improving Vatican-Jewish relations has happened only because of the existence of the State of Israel. Catholicism has been forced to face the reality of Israel's existence, which makes it reconsider its premise that the Jews are punished and have to wander around the world forever because they did not recognize Jesus.

For instance, he says that John Paul II is the first Pope to mention the State of Israel by name. He points to the Vatican's Commission of Peace and Justice that has called for eradicating anti-Semitism as well as anti-Zionism, which it says is sometimes a form of anti-Semitism. These developments warrant guarded optimism on the part of Jews and Israelis.

It should come as no surprise that Minerbi is skeptical about the Jewish-Christian dialogue. "If we ever get to a discussion on the core of the problems with the Catholic Church, there is a border which they cannot cross," he warns. "We will get to a point where the Church will have to say that it defines itself as the Verus Israel. The problem is that they claim that the only true religion is theirs."

Minerbi states that Catholicism has other fundamental aims, which Jewish leaders do not notice. "The Pope wants the unification of Europe to be done under the sign of the cross. He said this clearly a number of years ago at Santiago de Compostella, Spain. That is, not accidentally, the place where the Reconquista of Spain and the Inquisition began. He returned to the same theme in Prague in 1990."

Minerbi says the Church bases its dream of a Christian Union of Eastern and Western Europe partly on the role many Christian and Catholic politicians have played in promoting the EEC. Names such as de Gasperi, Adenauer, de Gaulle and Robert Schuman come to mind. The Church has started beatification procedures for Schuman, and claims that the only period in which Europe was united was under the Church in the times of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages.

"European Jews should feel some unease with this approach," Minerbi says. "I do not say that this European concept of the Catholic Church is a central one and has major influence. I think, however, that the idea of a Christian Europe puts the Jews aside, and we should not remain quiet."

The Church has had to overcome deep-rooted prejudices and long-held opinions about the Jews, Minerbi notes. In view of all these factors, he still expresses satisfaction at the progress that has been made.

In order to develop another perspective on Catholic-Jewish relations, Minerbi compares the Pope's attitude toward Islam with that toward the Jews. Christianity has a major pragmatic problem with Islam, which is growing quickly worldwide. Soon there will be three Moslems for every two Catholics in the world. There is a struggle between the two religions along the whole Atlantic Coast of Africa.

"Entire tribes descend from the Sahel to the coast in search of something to eat," Minerbi says. "They do not find any framework willing to deal with them except for the mosques. The Church is confronted with increasing conversions to Islam. It is powerless to do anything. Only in the last 50 years has it started to appoint African cardinals. Before that, the Church was identified with the white colonialists, and Islam was black. The nature of this old conflict is changing only very slowly.

"Despite Islam's successful competition, the Catholic Church views Moslems with much more tolerance and sympathy than the Jews," he says, noting that the Church has no major theological problem with Islam. Islam was founded after Christianity and it recognizes Jesus as one of the prophets. The Christians do not claim to be true Islam, and Islam does not claim to be true Christianity.

The Church did not protest when the cathedral in Algiers became a mosque after Algeria gained independence. Likewise in Tunisia. Minerbi notes that the current Pope is very friendly to Islam, even to cruel anti-Western dictatorships such as those in Iraq and Sudan.

"The synod of Mid-Eastern bishops, which came together in Rome in March 1991 - after the Gulf War - lauded Saddam Hussein," Minerbi says flatly. "It linked the issue of the Palestinians with that of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Before the Gulf War, the Pope condemned all use of force and spoke out against the war the United States had decided to wage. This is another expression of his anti-American attitude."

Turning to the issue of emerging ties between Israel and the Vatican, Minerbi says, "Israeli sources have been overly optimistic about the rapid establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. I never believed these optimistic predictions.

"In July 1992, the Vatican and Israel created a permanent bilateral committee," he notes. "If it is 'permanent,' then it can work for a week or for 2,000 years. The move was necessary for the Vatican, in order to remain close to the Mideast peace process. In its July 1992 communique, the Vatican said it had decided to establish this committee with Israel because the Arabs also had started discussions with Israel. In this way, the Vatican struck Israel and pandered to the Arabs by saying that it did not do more than the Arabs do.

"This committee is supposed to identify the problems between the parties and determine how to deal with them," Minerbi explains. "Israel has agreed to a process that first clarifies all the claims which the Vatican has against it, and only then will explore the possibility of diplomatic relations. Normally, there is no link between whether you agree or disagree with the policy of a certain government and the establishment of diplomatic relations with it.

"We should have said, 'Let us first establish diplomatic relations and then we will see what problems we have.' The current approach gives the Vatican a major instrument to raise the price, as the number of potential problems is unlimited."

As if to prove that his analysis is correct, Minerbi mentions that in December 1992, Cardinal Sodano, who is the Vatican's Secretary of State, a position similar to that of a Prime Minister, told the Italian daily, La Stampa, that the Israelis were preventing the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. He cited Israel's unwillingness to solve the problems of the Palestinians, Jerusalem, the Church in Israel and the territories as the 'barriers' to relations Israel has erected.

"If you have to solve two giant problems first, they can draw out the diplomatic relations issue at least until after a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has been achieved," Minerbi says. "The Vatican wants to be both inside and outside. As a matter of fact, after Israel and the PLO signed the agreement of principles in September 1993 there were rumors in the press that the Vatican would establish diplomatic relations with Israel shortly.

"Surprisingly, Israel has few claims against the Vatican. In order to have some symmetry, Israel asks the Church to fight anti-Semitism. The Church has already issued a decree labeling anti-Semitism a sin. A Christian who is an anti-Semite commits a sin against his Church, so Israel's sole demand from the Vatican is somewhat superfluous.

"Other things not mentioned are much more important. We should not limit our discussions with the Vatican to political problems. We should deal with spiritual problems as well. We should have said, for instance, that we would appreciate it very much if the Church would not declare Spanish Queen Isabella, who drove the Jews out of Spain, to be holy.

"There are other issues. We should have asked them to check what is written in Catholic seminary texts on the Jewish people and Jewish history. There are many more issues, which we should not leave to Diaspora Jews. Israel is the representative of millions of Jews who have the only Jewish government."

While progress has been made, Minerbi says much remains to be done. "There has been no progress on the question of Jerusalem," he says. "The Catholic Church still wants a special internationally guaranteed status for Jerusalem. It refers to the rights of the three monotheistic religions. Who has authorized them to speak on behalf of others?" For the time being, he notes that the question of Jerusalem has been left out of negotiations, but it is a central question for the Holy See, and it will be raised later.

Despite the difficulties, Minerbi remains convinced that good relations with the Vatican are of great importance to Israel. The Church has 800 million followers worldwide, and it has significant influence on European culture and politics.

He notes that the Holy See has been preparing for diplomatic relations with Israel for a long time.

"On January 25, 1991, during the Gulf War, the Vatican's spokesman published a five page communiqué about relations with the State of Israel," Minerbi says. "It was one of the longest I have ever seen on a political subject. It explains that the Holy See - a more accurate expression than the Vatican - recognizes Israel fully, but does not have normal diplomatic relations with it. It almost a Talmudic pilpul reasoning, because if you have recognition, why not draw the full consequences?

"To prove that the Holy See recognizes Israel, the communiqué lists Israeli prime ministers who have been received by the Pope," Minerbi continues. "The reasons stated for the absence of full diplomatic relations are juridical and not theological in nature. This is important because the latter could pose eternal obstacles."

Minerbi lists some of the juridical reasons. "They note that the State of Israel does not yet have internationally recognized borders, Jerusalem has been annexed without international approval, and the situation of the Catholic Church in the territories and Israel is unclear. The latter argument, that something is wrong here, is a new one and a step backward.

"We have to doubt some of the other arguments as well," he says. "The Vatican was the first country to recognize Croatia. It even preceded the EEC, which was under great German pressure. Croatia was recognized in spite of the fact that it does not have recognized borders. The clear impression is that Croatia was recognized because it is Catholic.

"The Pope did not care that the Croatian leaders were the successors of the Ustasha of Ante Pavelic from World War Two, and that the present president of Croatia writes anti-Semitic books," Minerbi says in a sarcastic tone.

"The Catholic Church has a lot of concern about Catholics in the Arab countries and wants to have the best possible relations with Islam," he concludes. "The Church plays up the argument that these small Christian communities in Arab lands could be held hostage because of the Vatican's policy.

As the conversation draws to a close, Minerbi is asked to comment on the December 1993 agreement between the Holy See and Israel. He says it is yet another hesitant step in a long hesitant process. "This long process is due not only to the Vatican's wish to be prudent," he says, "but probably to their decision to act in tandem with the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors."

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.