Rarely has a single event shown just how far Jewish-Catholic relations have advanced in recent decades. Pope Francis’s 27-hour visit to Israel this week came five decades after the first papal visit to the Jewish state. And it is difficult to imagine a more different trip.
Israel received Paul VI enthusiastically back in 1964, but he almost pretended that the state did not exist. He even avoided using the name of the country that was hosting him, as the word “Israel” would have been tantamount to recognition.
The state was fully recognised in the subsequent two papal visits, both of which took place after Israel and the Holy See established full diplomatic relations.
But the Vatican went further this time. Pope Francis did not just honour the state of Israel. He also endorsed the ideology on which the country was built, namely Zionism.
As the Jewish character of the state causes controversy internationally, and as the Palestinians refuse point blank to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, the pope stuck his neck out. On Monday morning he laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.
Herzl popularised the idea of a Jewish state, but this idea used to be anathema to the church. Jewish dispersion was viewed as punishment for rejecting Jesus. When Herzl floated his idea in Rome, the pope of the day told him that Catholics could “never sanction” Jews settling in Jerusalem, adding that the church would convert them if they did.
At Mount Herzl on Monday, Pope Francis underlined the theological changes in the church regarding Jews, and their impact on attitudes towards Israel. He stressed that as far as he was concerned, the Holy See’s recognition of Israel was not just the acceptance of a political reality, but also of a Jewish dream that survived intact after the birth of Christianity, even though it was an aberration according to most of his predecessors.
The papal trip was not all such smooth sailing in terms of ties with Israel. He did and said all the right things at the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and with the president and chief rabbis — he honoured Judaism and acknowledged the Holocaust and the state.
The meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also fine, except for when Mr Netanyahu, who sees every parallel between modern Israelis and ancient inhabitants of the region as a coup for Zionism, insisted that Jesus spoke Hebrew while the Pope said he spoke Aramaic. But the Pope’s decision to stop and pray at the West Bank separation barrier, and have his photo snapped next to graffiti urging the world to “Free Palestine” and claiming that Bethlehem is suffering like the Warsaw Ghetto did was an assault on Israeli sensitivities.
The Palestinians have worked hard to cast the security barrier, which was erected to prevent terror attacks, as a symbol of oppression by Israel, and the Pope’s stop there was interpreted as endorsement of this claim. The pictures are an exceedingly strong weapon for Israel’s critics and are likely, despite his bridge-building emphasis for most of the visit, to be the lasting image of the trip for many. The fact that he tried to address Israeli anger by going to a terror victims’ memorial in Jerusalem will not change this.
The Pontiff handed the Palestinians another important propaganda victory. They have made a unilateral bid to gain recognition as an independent state at the UN, even though Israel, the US and their allies say the state can only be created through negotiation. The Pope referred to the “state of Palestine”, in what will become a vital video clip for Palestinians in favour of unilateral statehood. The Pope also invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to go to the Vatican to discuss peace and pray for it. But Israel’s Shimon Peres is at the end of his term, and even if he were not, the Pope does not have a magic ingredient that will make the talks come alive.
For all the inevitable razzmatazz of this summit, and for all the advances in Catholic-Jewish relations showcased during this week’s trip, it will be the security barrier images and the “State of Palestine” reference that will be best remembered.