Israel's baseless charge against the synod

Reporting in Rome on it for a week, and having read almost every word to have come out of it in the course of its 14 days, I simply cannot recognize the description of the Mid-East Synod ending last weekend which was made on Sunday by the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister.

Danny Ayalon complained that the historic gathering of the region's Catholic bishops had turned into “a forum for political attacks on Israel, in the best history of Arab propaganda". The reason for his fury? A comment made at the synod’s closing press conference on Saturday by a Greek Melkite archbishop, Cyrille Salim Bustros, who is based in Newton, Mass.


Archbishop Butros said: "We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people,” adding: "This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”

No doubt the toes of the folks at the Vatican's Council for relations with Christians and Jews curled a little when they heard that, because it has echoes of the old Catholic doctrine - -repudiated by the Second Vatican Council -- of "supersecessionism", which holds that the covenant God made with the Jews has been "superseded" by Christ.

In fact, the Church has long taught that, far from abrogating His covenant with the Jews, God is faithful to it and to them.

But some fundamentalist Jews and Christians interpret that in terms of God granting the land of Israel exclusively to the Jews, and use that claim to justify Israel seizing land from Palestians, kicking them out of East Jerusalem, and expanding Jewish-only settlements. In that sense, Archbishop Butros' remarks were of a piece with the synod's final document, which notes that the “recourse to theological and Biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.”

Whether or not Butros' remarks were well expressed -- and the Vatican's spokesman, Fr Lombardi, has made clear that people should look to the synod document itself, rather than individuals, as the voice of the synod  -- they do not justify the Israeli minister's description of them as "a libel against the Jewish people and the State of Israel."

Even less true is the idea that the synod was a forum for attacks on Israeli policies. Almost all the speeches were taken up with the challenges for Christians in Muslim-ruled societies. What was said about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was limited to expressions of desire for peace, and a restatement of the Vatican's desire for a two-state solution. The concluding message spoke both of the damaging consequences of the occupation of the West Bank as well as of the suffering and insecurity of Israelis -- about as even-handed as you can get.

Indeed the absence in the synod of the kind of anti-Israeli posturing which so often accompanies gatherings of Arabs from different countries of the region was one of its most striking features. One thing anyone around the synod hall took away from the fortnight was this: the Middle East is much bigger than the Holy Land, and the Israel/Palestinian dispute.

And they would be amazed at the idea that the synod was a "forum for attacks on Israel". The charge is just plain silly.

[UPDATE: John Allen has a thorough analysis of the affair in his 'All Things Catholic' column here. And very usefully, he prints the full question and answer, which was as follows:

Question: In the “Message,” number eight talks about the dialogue with the Jews. That’s where you talk about the use and abuse of the Word of God and of faith itself. I would like to know why it’s under relations with the Jews, not relations with everybody -- since normally in the West we hear that it’s not the Jews who use the Scriptures to justify their actions.

Butros: In number eight of the Message, we say that we cannot resort to theological and Biblical assumptions as a tool to justify injustice. We want to say that the promise of God in the Old Testament, relating to the ‘promised land’ … as Christians, we’re saying that this promise was essentially nullified [in French, “abolished”] by the presence of Jesus Christ, who then brought about the Kingdom of God. As Christians, we cannot talk about a ‘promised land’ for the Jews. We talk about a ‘promised land’ which is the Kingdom of God. That’s the promised land, which encompasses the entire earth with a message of peace and justice and equality for all the children of God. There is no preferred or privileged people. All men and women from every country have become the ‘chosen people.’ This is clear for us. We cannot just refer to the ‘promised land’ to justify the return of the Jews in Israel, and [ignore] the Palestinians who were kicked out of their land. Five million Jews kicked out three or four million Palestinians from their land, and this is not justifiable. There’s no ‘chosen people’ any longer for Christians. Everybody is the ‘chosen people.’ What we say is something political. Sacred scripture should not be used to justify the occupation of Palestinian land on the part of the Israelis.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dexter Van Zile
8 years 2 months ago
Austen Ivereigh’s acknowledgement that Archbishop Bustros’s comments have echoes of supersessionism is laudable, but he misses the point of Jewish anger over the Archbishop’s comments and of the synod’s “message” itself. The official statement issued by the synod was not even-handed but in fact offers a distorted view of reality.
The document challenges Jews not to use Scripture to justify bad behavior but offers not admonition to Muslims in the Middle East.
Violence in the Middle East is more often justified with recourse to the Koran than it is to the Torah. The evidence on this score is overwhelming and yet the official message from the synod focused instead on the Jews and their Scriptures. This is not evenhandedness, but an inversion of reality.

This inversion of reality, coupled with the echoes of supersessionism in Bustros’ comments – acknowledged by Ivereigh – should be a great cause for concern by both Jews and Catholics.
John Allen raised this issue in the text Austen Ivereigh included in the update. Allen asked why the admonition not to use the Word of God to justify bad behavior was directed solely at Jews “since normally in the West we hear that it’s not the Jews who use the Scriptures to justify their actions.”

Bustros’s response included an erroneous statement that even a casual observer of the Arab-Israeli conflict should have been able to catch: “Five million Jews kicked out three or four million Palestinians from their land, and this is not justifiable.”
Most estimates indicate that approximately 750,000 to 800,000 Palestinians tragically lost their homes as a result of the war in 1948. Moreover, the number of Jews in Israel in 1948 was significantly lower than 5 million that Bustros reports. Moreover, the Jews who fought for the creation of Israel in 1948 were fighting for their very survival against armies led by Arab leaders who promised their destruction. This is what Archbishop Bustros calls “unjustifiable.”

The Archbishop has likely mistaken the number of Palestinians currently in refugee camps for the number of Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948. There are approximately 4 million people in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East, but most of these people were born in these camps most of which are in Arab countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.

The failure of these countries to accord the people born in these camps the full rights of citizenship is a scandal that rivals the mistreatment of Christians in the Middle East by the Muslim majority in the region.

No one is doing the Jewish people any favors by affirming that God’s promises to the Jewish people are still valid while at the same time affirming such a distorted and unfair narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
8 years 2 months ago
I would agree with your charge from all I have read in mainly your excellent and extensive reporting on the synod; however, when a deputy foreign minister speaks wrongly isn't this just about equivalent to a Greek archbishop in Massachusetts speaking for the synod, or being taken wrongly for being the voice of the synod as Fr. Lombardi points out? This makes the headline, "Israel's baseless charge against the synod", wrong.
No doubt the deputy foreign minister was expecting and awaiting a political attack on Israel and had his response ready at hand to launch at the least perception of an attack; the one closing statement outlining the plight of the Palestinians should have been the target; instead, the bepuzzling archbishop got the attention. Wrongly so. Let the deputy foreign minister defend the Israeli actions against the impoverished and maltreated and virtually captive Palestinian people; that needs to be his target and that needs to be the issue that Israel too needs to deal with.
If Israel is in the right, then they are being subject to, “a forum for political attacks on Israel, in the best history of Arab propaganda" However, turn the shoe - if this were a Palestinian state, would the Jewish people accept such treatment like the Palestinians are subject to without complaint? Hardly. Therefore I ask whether even the people of Israel are really aware of the situation with the Palestinians. Equivalent would be the people of the US and their awareness of the plight of the American Indians on Pine Ridge or Rose Bud Reservations, for instance.
Again, thank you Austen Ivereigh for this excellent series of reporting on the Synod.
8 years 2 months ago
Thank you Austen for your extensive and excellent reporting on the Synod. We all have much to learn about that part of the world.  On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, two years ago, we were fortunate to have a Palestinian Catholic tour guide and Palestinian Catholic bus driver.  They were residents of Nazareth and stated they preferred living under Israeli rule rather than Muslim.  From the time we boarded the bus each day until we left it, we had an Israeli soldier accompanying us.  None of us felt in danger at any time.  In Bethlehem we saw the wall and encroaching settlements.  We spent several hours in a store there and visited with the staff.  The store is ecumenical Christian, with Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox  ownership and staff.  They appreciated so much our visiting with them and our prayers.  They are truly suffering and need our encouragement, prayers and visits.
Thank you, again.


The latest from america

Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019
The study found Latina immigrant women in Arizona who were pregnant during the contentious S.B. 1070 passage had babies with lower birthweight compared with those in prior years. Average birth weights did not decrease among U.S.-born white, black or Latina women during the same time.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 18, 2019
This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019