Last week’s news was dominated for a day or two by the triumph of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team winning a European championship. The final game was broadcast on Israeli TV and the victories were followed by phone calls to the coach from Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The coverage continued with celebrations by thousands of Israeli fans who flew to Europe for the game, in addition to the team’s welcome home at the airport and festivities in Tel Aviv.
Things got back to normal in news broadcasting the next day as Israeli writer Amos Oz caused a small ripple by describing the price tag vandals as Neo-Nazis. Along with this came coverage of Netanyahu’s strenuous efforts to have an impact on Israel’s presidential elections which are due to take place in the Knesset next month. One of the front runners for the presidency is Reuven Rivlin who, though from Netanyahu’s Likud party, has become such an anathema to Netanyahu that Bibi, in one of his politically less astute moves, proposed doing away with the office of president just so Rivlin would not get the job. The proposal was not well received by the public nor the prime minister’s political colleagues.
As the weekend approached, the focus of the news coverage shifted to the upcoming visit by Pope Frances. It was announced that part of the Pope’s Israeli itinerary would be a visit to the tomb of Theodor Herzl for a wreath laying ceremony, which made some pro-Palestinian sympathisers absolutely furious while most Israeli observers see it as something a very long time coming.
Vatican relations with Israel have never been very good. Back in 1904 Theodor Herzl, in his efforts to drum up international support for a Jewish state, had an audience with Pope Pius X. Herzl gave the Pope his best sales pitch trying to convince his holiness of the righteousness of the cause as well as the benefits that would accrue to the Catholic Church. The Pope’s response was a total rejection of the idea that the Jews should return to the Holy Land unless, of course, the returning Jews would all first accept Jesus as the true messiah and become good Catholics.
Olivetree planted by Pope Paul VI on a visit to the Holy Land in 2007. Wikimedia/Matzeab. All rights reserved. What Herzl may not have realised was that the dispersion of the Jews, at least since the time of Saint Augustine, was seen by church theologians as both punishment for Jewish rejection of Jesus and as proof that Christianity was the true faith and successor to Judaism. This coloured the church’s relations with Zionism and the State of Israel until well after the church’s attitude towards the Jewish people changed in the inauguration at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65).
Prior to that, Vatican-Zionist/Israeli relations had been quite rocky. Herzl’s Papal rejection was the first of many demonstrations of Vatican antagonism to Zionism. It was reported that the Vatican was disturbed by the award of the Palestine Mandate to Protestant Great Britain. However, this was mild in comparison to the rage expressed by Vatican diplomats at the idea that the goal of the mandate was the return of the Jewish people from exile.
When the partition of Palestine was under consideration by the UN, the Vatican was very active in trying to convince Catholic states to oppose the partition. In the early 1950’s after the State of Israel was established, but Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan, the Catholic Church made every effort to move its institutions from the Israeli side of Jerusalem to the Jordanian side.
The first papal visit the State of Israel was by Pope Paul VI who spent 11 hours in Israel in 1964. He made every effort to not meet any Israeli public officials. After the visit, as was customary, a letter of thanks was sent to all the countries the Pope visited. The letter to Israel arrived from the Vatican but was addressed to “The Jewish Authorities, Commercial Centre, Tel Aviv”. The letter was returned to the Vatican.
In August of 1974 Archbishop Hilarion Capucci was arrested by the Israeli police, brought to trial and given a twelve year prison sentence for using his vehicle to smuggle weapons and explosives to Palestinian terrorists. Through third party intermediaries the Vatican requested that Capucci be granted clemency by the Israeli president. The Israeli government replied that clemency would be favourably considered if a request in writing was made by the Vatican to the Israeli President. But this time it was suggested that it might be wise to use the correct address. A properly addressed Vatican request for clemency was sent and Capucci was released after serving about three years of his sentence.
Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican were established in 1994. Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Each visit was friendlier than the previous one. I suppose it is a historic moment, a kind of closing of a circle that 110 years after one Pope answered Theodor Herzl “non possumus” to a request for Vatican support, another Pope has chosen to visit and place a wreath on Herzl’s tomb in Jerusalem. For most of us here in Israel, it is even more significant than winning a European basketball championship.