Unfinished Work

As we mark this month the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” the Israeli government has taken numerous initiatives to increase awareness of the document that did away with the so-called “teaching of contempt” for the Jewish people and opened the path to dialogue and reconciliation between Catholics and Jews. In Rome, Israeli Ambassador Odeh Ben Hur has urged greater prominence for the Vatican’s official commemoration of the event. He also arranged for Israel’s chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, to meet with Pope Benedict XVI on Sept. 15, to mark the anniversary. In the United States, Israeli consulates have produced educational materials on the declaration and the advance of Catholic-Jewish and Vatican-Israeli relations that followed it (info@israelfm.org). They are also fielding speakers to address congregations in both communities.

Against the background of this well-planned, concerted effort to help improve Catholic-Jewish relations, the contretemps that followed Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks at the Angelus on July 24 condemning recent terrorist acts in several countries, but not in Israel, was an enormous, if passing, disruption in relations. While the formal disagreement was settled by a personal letter from Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, on Aug. 23, underlying difficulties remain.


No Surprise

Part of the problem certainly lies in differences of diplomatic style, not only between Israel and the Vatican, but among Israeli diplomats and policymakers themselves, between those who seek to build relationships with the Catholic world and those who are antagonistic to it. Chief among the latter group is Nimrod Barkan, the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s office for diaspora and interreligious affairs, who is reported to be a tough negotiator, a sort of Israeli John Bolton.

In negotiations, like the desultory talks with the Vatican over fiscal arrangements for church institutions, Barkan’s preferred approach, say Israeli insiders, is to “break” the negotiating partner before coming to agreement. So Barkan’s aggressive manner—charging in a published interview that the exclusion of Israel from the set of victimized nations the pope cited was deliberate—should have been no surprise to diplomatic observers.

Likewise, the question he put to an interviewer from The Jerusalem Post, “What could be worse than implying it is O.K. to kill Jews?” seems consistent with his no-holds-barred diplomacy. All the same, that a man in Barkan’s position would make such statements at all shows how badly Vatican-Israeli relations have frayed in recent years.

Following Prime Minister Sharon’s letter to Cardinal Sodano, the on-again, off-again fiscal negotiations between the two sides were rescheduled, but Barkan is said to have proposed an agenda that re-opens long-settled questions. A breakthrough may depend on the talks being moved from the Foreign Ministry, where Barkan holds the reins, to the Prime Minister’s office, where there is greater sensitivity to the importance of Catholic relations.


The flurry of charges and countercharges between Jerusalem and Rome in late July and early August demonstrates the gap of misunderstanding between the two sides on international affairs, and the almost total lack of knowledge and appreciation on the part of most Israelis, including the political elite, of the advances in Catholic attitudes and policies toward Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel.

Barkan claimed that his démarche came only after repeated efforts to engage the Vatican in a campaign against terrorism. The Vatican Press Office responded with a lengthy list of papal statements on the topic. More revealing, though, was the comment of the Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls that “the Holy See cannot allow itself to take instructions and directives from another regarding the orientation and the content of its own declarations.”

In other words, the Vatican will not allow itself to parrot the Israeli line, nor will it let itself be used as part of an Israeli propaganda campaign. It strongly opposes terrorism, including Palestinian terrorism, but it insists on opposing it on its own terms. For the Israelis and diaspora Jews, who regard terror attacks as an existential threat and see others’ reserve at their losses as unacceptable, such hesitation is alienating. For the Vatican, complying with such expectations would not only diminish its moral authority, but also allow the Israelis to continue to overlook the grave and repeated injustices that lie behind Palestinian violence against innocent Israelis, abhorrent as it is.

International Law

Another factor is the very different approaches to international law held by the two parties. Navarro-Valls explained that one reason the Vatican sometimes avoided commenting on Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians was the routine retaliation Israel practices against the alleged offenders. Such retaliation, he noted, was “not always compatible with international norms. It would thus be impossible,” he said, “to condemn the former and remain silent about the latter.”

In the wake of the Second World War and especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the preventive war against Iraq in 2003, the Vatican has been a strong proponent of international law and particularly of what has come to be called humanitarian law, which protects “innocents” (noncombatants) in wartime. Though a signatory of the Geneva Convention, Israel has resisted the application by others of the rules of war to the Palestinian conflict. Israeli retaliation, for example, has frequently taken the form of what the Israelis call targeted killings—what others regard as assassinations or extrajudicial killings—forbidden under international law.

Ignorance and Indifference

Finally, it has to be said that Nostra Aetate has never penetrated Israeli society at large. Most Israelis do not know about the church’s condemnation of anti-Semitism, its rejection of general Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel or the advances in Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

On the eve of a major academic conference in Jerusalem a couple of years ago, the organizer, who held a chair in the study of anti-Semitism at a major Israeli university, confessed she knew nothing of the 35-plus years of developments in Jewish-Catholic relations, beginning with Nostra Aetate and culminating in recognition of Israel. Whereas Catholic textbook treatments of Judaism in the United States have been evaluated three times since the council and the texts subsequently revised, nothing comparable has been done in Israeli schoolbooks.

The same ignorance permeates the Israeli political class, despite fine work by many, like the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Civil servants, diplomats and Israeli members of international dialogues frequently comment about the ignorance and indifference of the present generation of Israeli leaders to things Catholic. For their political leaders, these Israelis say, everything is a political calculation. No special consideration is given the church. Nimrod Barkan is no exception. Because of his position, however, he has the potential to do greater harm than most to the postconciliar relations between Catholics and Jews.

Forty years on, the message of Nostra Aetate still must be made known—especially in Israel.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years ago
Bravo for the forthright expression of opinion set forth in “Unfinished Work” by Drew Christiansen, S.J. (10/10). The message of Nostra Aetate has yet to reach the Israeli political class. Will we ever see the day when sensitive fundamental issues that involve criticism of Israel can be discussed freely and without risk of the indictment of anti-Semitism?


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