Artful mending

Does a loan of Jewish manuscripts from the Vatican point to repaired relations with Israel?

Israel and the Vatican engaged in an uncharacteristically public war of words this summer, after a papal statement issued in July excluded a bus bombing in Israel from a list of terrorist attacks that occurred in other parts of the Middle East and London. Any lingering tensions were set aside Tuesday, however, as Vatican officials took part in the official opening of the Israel Museum's newest exhibit, "Rome to Jerusalem: Four Jewish Masterpieces from the Vatican Library." The works, which include a fifteenth century copy of the Rambam's Mishne Torah, are the first manuscripts from the Vatican library to be displayed in Israel. In remarks to an audience of several hundred museum-goers, museum director James Snyder described the exhibit as an important "diplomatic enterprise" taking place "at the highest level of cultural diplomacy." With the flags of Israel and the Vatican side by side in the background, the Papal Nuncio (Vatican ambassador), Archbishop Pietro Sambi, called the exhibit just one example of "cultural collaboration between Israel and the Vatican [that] is going on in many fields." Sambi was joined by Israel's two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger and Schlomo Moshe Amar, who praised the Vatican library for making the four-month loan and warmly recounted their meeting this earlier month with Pope Benedict in Rome. The Vatican formally recognized Israel in December 1993, and relations have frequently been strained over papal statements regarding Palestinian terrorism and Israel's military response. Yet Snyder noted that the rising and falling political tensions have not had an adverse effect on cultural relations, adding that the museum enjoyed "very good relations" with the Vatican library and museums even before he became director in 1996. The Vatican made its first loan to the Israel Museum two years ago when, for the holiday of Sukkot, it temporarily loaned an 1,800-year-old Roman artifact depicting a sukkah in the courtyard of the Temple. As preparations got under way for the museum's fortieth anniversary this year, curators contacted the Vatican about displaying some of the hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts in the Church's collection. The head of the Vatican library was receptive to initial contacts about the loan, Snyder said, and discussions benefited from the participation of Israel Museum staff who could arrange the loan in Italian. Among them was the exhibit's chief curator, Daisy Raccah Djivre, who was born in Algeria and raised in Italy before immigrating to Israel. At Tuesday's opening gala, she addressed the audience in both Hebrew and Italian, addressing her counterparts from the Vatican in their own language and thanking them for their help in organizing the loan. In his remarks, Archbishop Sambi noted that the Vatican is currently working on another project conceived in Israel a catalogue documenting the hundreds of other items in the Vatican's Judaica collection, an idea suggested by Israeli President Moshe Katsav at a meeting with Pope John Paul II in December 2002. Also in attendance at the ceremony were Italy's ambassador to Israel, Sandro De Bernardini, and a representative of the Foreign Ministry, Zvi Ben-Tal. Despite the presence of the government officials, the event remained mostly apolitical. Snyder joked that, contrary to long-standing rumors, the Vatican does not have among its holdings the large gold menorah taken from Jerusalem during the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. And in response to Rabbi Metzger's remark that he would like to "kiss the manuscripts but that the glass is stopping me," an amused Snyder reminded the audience that the exhibit is protected for a reason, and that it is "for looking, not kissing or touching." Archbishop Sambi maintained his focus on the cross-cultural elements of the exhibit even after the ceremony concluded, avoiding questions about whether the loan might suggest warming relations between Israel and the Vatican. Asked again about Catholic-Israeli affairs, he said only that "when there is a proper way to interact and a will to truly collaborate, you can achieve what is useful for both sides and for the world." While the museum's cultural activities operate independently of the political situation, Snyder told In Jerusalem that the museum has nevertheless "benefited from an improving climate of diplomatic relations." There was, he said, "an instant rapport" between museum curators and their counterparts at the Vatican and the sharing of treasured cultural items can play a helpful role in drawing Israel and the Catholic Church closer together. "We do all of our work in a collegial fashion, from institution to institution," he said, "but obviously when there's a cultural-diplomatic dimension, we are thrilled that our work can make a contribution."