Editorial: The pope in Israel

The following is an archive article dated March 21, 2000: In 1964, Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land, but in political, emotional, and theological terms, he did not visit Israel. The former pontiff spent 12 hours on Israeli territory, but met with president Zalman Shazar at the archeological site of Megiddo. The visit of Pope John Paul II, beginning this evening, is not only a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the near culmination of the incredible journey of the Catholic Church toward the Jewish people and Israel. In the history of conflict between adherents of the world's great religions, it is hard to think of a parallel to the existential struggle, spreading over centuries, between Christianity and Judaism. Throughout most of its history, Christianity defined itself as the "new Israel," supplanting the relationship between God and the Jews described in the Scriptures that both religions claimed as their own. For centuries, the debate among Christians was whether Jews must convert or die, or whether they should be spared to live in ignominy as witnesses of the consequences of the rejection of Jesus. In comparison with the span of history, the Catholic Church has sought to revolutionize its relationship with the Jewish people at a lightening pace. The shock of the Holocaust, committed in Christian Europe, was the obvious turning point necessitating a radical self-examination. The result was the 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration issued by Pope John XXIII, which sought to theologically uproot the notions of Jewish responsibility for killing Jesus and of the Jewish covenant with God having been supplanted by Christianity. Since Nostra Aetate, the Church has worked to further purge its theology of antisemitism, most dramatically under the leadership of the current pope. John Paul II has repeatedly referred to the Jews as "our dearly beloved [elder] brothers" and "the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God." In 1990, he said explicitly, "For Christians, the heavy burden of guilt for the murder of the Jewish people must be an enduring call to repentance; thereby we can overcome every form of antisemitism and a establish a new relationship with our kindred nation of the Old Covenant." The process of the redefinition of Christianity as companion religion to Judaism is not complete, but theologically much of the work has been done. Certainly, the current pope has taken great strides in this regard, for which he should be recognized. Ironically, it is in the normally faster-paced realm of diplomacy that the Church has lagged behind its reformed theology. Following Nostra Aetate, the existence of the State of Israel should not have posed a challenge to the Church. But it was not until 1993, long after the beginning of the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, that the Vatican formally opened full diplomatic relations with Israel. The current papal visit, including an official meeting with the president in Jerusalem, is the most concrete manifestation of that recognition to date. The importance of the pope's personal example in visiting not just the Holy Land, but Israel, should not be underestimated. Yet just as there is emotional and theological distance between uprooting antisemitism and establishing bonds of friendship, there is a political difference between recognizing Israel"s right to exist and becoming an ally in securing that right forever. The political revolution in Vatican-Israel relations exemplified by the pope"s visit should not end with the fact of the visit, but should continue with the political equivalent of a change in theology. Though the Vatican no longer speaks of internationalizing Jerusalem, neither has it fully recognized Jerusalem as Israel"s eternal capital. As a religious body with adherents living throughout the region, it is understandable that the Church would seek not to take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This principle of neutrality, however, cannot be absolute without clashing with the goal of building the desired brotherly relationship with the Jewish people. Given the history that the Church is sincerely trying to overcome, the necessity of departing from strict neutrality toward Israel's predicament should be obvious. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not a symmetrical one: Israel is still in the process of establishing the terms of its existence, and significant currents in the Arab world still regard Israel's existence as circumstantial, not axiomatic. It is not necessary to deny Palestinian interests and rights in order to recognize that Israel has a paramount interest in retaining as whole the city that has been the lodestone of the Jewish people since becoming David"s capital 3,000 years ago. The people of Israel should welcome John Paul II as a friend of the Jewish people, and welcome the path of repentance upon which the Church has seriously embarked. Today, this path could be extended most powerfully by the Church calling on the Arab world to end its enmity with Israel, as the Church has done with the Jewish people.