North Africa, West Asia

This week's window on the Middle East - June 9, 2014

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Syrian conflict transforms security regulations in Jordan.

Arab Awakening
9 June 2014
  • Syrian conflict transforms security regulations in Jordan
  • The rebel
  • Copts in El Sisi's Egypt
  • Fraud fighters wanted in the Middle East
  • The Pope’s visit to Israel
  • Syrian conflict transforms security regulations in Jordan

    By Nikita Malik

    Free Syrian Army fighters south of Syria near the Jordan border. Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.

    Free Syrian Army fighters south of Syria near the Jordan border. Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.

    Bordered by Syria to the north and Iraq to the East, lies the city of Mafraq in Jordan, 80 kilometres from the capital of Amman. The buildings and houses that make up the city are dilapidated and dusty, its inhabitants difficult to spot. Every so often, one can detect an old UNHCR sticker buried under some rubble, or freshly plastered on shop walls. Because of the heavy shelling in next-door Syria, rockets and missiles are commonplace here.

    George, a farmer who supervises a large organic farm in Mafraq, originally hails from Damascus. He completed a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Aleppo before moving to Jordan. His staff is entirely Syrian, and mostly women. He encourages me to stick my arm through the chicken wire circling the border of his farm. “Now your body is in Jordan, and your hand is in Syria”, he laughs. He points to a building on top of a hill within the shared zone between the two countries. “That belongs to Jordanian security,” he clarifies, “Syrians attempt to cross this border all the time, and they are taken to that building. Once the number reaches 300 or 400 Syrians, they are transported to the Zaatari camp”. But the Jordanians are very welcoming, he stresses.  

    The Jordanian security forces may not be very welcoming for much longer. The main threat to manning the 370 kilometre Jordanian-Syrian border lies in identifying suspected jihadist sympathisers and terrorists. Earlier this month, Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced ten Jordanian members of the Salafist movement for attempting to cross into Syria. Currently, 2,200 Jordanians are fighting under the banner of Al Nusra and its rival, former Al Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This number is growing at a rate of 50 new Jordanian fighters per week.  

    In the past, Jordan’s Minister of Interior Hussein Majali has stated that “terrorism is the most dangerous threat to Arab countries, as the current regional unrest provides a 'fertile' environment for spreading extremism”. In early May, the Jordanian Armed Forces engaged with an unidentified group of individuals trying to infiltrate the country, injuring two of them. A Jordanian security source said the targets, Syrian rebels with machine guns hiding in civilian vehicles, were seeking refuge from fighting government forces in southern Syria.

    Due to these threats, Jordan’s lower house of parliament recently passed amendments to its 2006 anti-terror bill, providing the state the power to detain and try citizens suspected of affiliation with terrorist groups. This law aims to target suspected members of Syrian militias likely to settle in Jordan. It is hoped that the new bill will aid the work of the Jordanian military and intelligence agencies.

    The amendments to the bill have been controversial, however, because of the addition of Article 3, which, in theory, criminalises “intent to commit acts damaging to the Kingdom’s relations with foreign countries”. In practice, such a modification allows the state to penalise those who criticise foreign countries and their rulers, with the Syrian ambassador to Jordan himself, Bahjat Suleiman, having been expelled from Jordan on Monday. Despite repeated warnings by the government to avoid using social media to make “provocative statements”, Suleiman continued to “use Jordan to directly insult brotherly and neighbouring Arab countries and insult their leaderships”, stated the official spokesperson for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, Sabah al-Rafie. In response, Syria has expelled its Jordanian ambassador in an unexpected ‘tit-for-tat’ move. As the spillover effect on Jordan from Syria escalates, this has important implications for the diplomatic relationship between the two nations. 

    The new stipulation, when put in practice, will also allow the government to detain and imprison citizens that support groups in Jordan like the Muslim Brotherhood, which are legal in the Hashemite Kingdom but outlawed in neighbouring countries. Jordan's new legislation comes after Saudi Arabia listed the Muslim Brotherhood and both Syrian jihadist groups as "terrorist" organizations, and ordered citizens fighting abroad to return within 15 days or face imprisonment.

    In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has criticised new amendments to the country’s anti-terror law, arguing that these changes are a sign that the Kingdom is devolving into a ‘police state’. Nonetheless, Jordanian officials have emphasised that the return of suspected jihadist fighters from Syria to Jordan is seen as a direct national security threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. 100 suspected militias have been referred to the State Security Court, which, since December 2013, has jailed 40. 

    In the long run, Jordanian officials hope that these new laws will prevent young people from falling victim to the extremism that may cross over from borders shared with Syria. The appeal of the Salafist movement lies, in part, with the erosion of power of Jordan’s strongest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist movements are theoretically based on the premise of religion, and can transcend borders in a time of war to unify people on the grounds of religious identity. 

    This unification may be short-lived, however. Though Al Nusra’s largest recruitment takes place in Jordan, leaders of the hardline Jihadi Salafist movement report a growing number of Jordanian jihadists returning home to Jordan because of infighting among the Islamist militias. Approximately 30 fighters return to Jordan from Syria each week. Whether they then remain in Jordan, or travel back to Syria, is uncertain. 

    For Jordanian forces, the careful monitoring of shared borders remains a necessary externality resulting from the Syrian civil war. In the months to follow, the strict security regulation that takes place beyond the boundaries of George’s farm will continue. 

    The rebel

    By Maged Mandour

    Che Guevara

    Che Guevara

    What makes a person a rebel? What drove millions in the Arab World to defy their oppressive states and face death, time and time again? Are they all rebels? Or were they simply swept up in a historical moment, driven by a small band of 'rebels'? And finally, after one becomes a 'rebel', can this sense of rebellion ever be replaced by a sense of normality, where one accepts the new status quo?

    All of these questions have haunted me since the outbreak of the Arab Revolutions, especially as I struggle with my own sense of rebellion while witnessing my friends shift to acceptance of the status quo, even becoming its staunch defenders. In essence, I am trying to understand the impact of the Arab revolutions on my own social surroundings.

    In my opinion, a 'rebel' is a person who rejects the social constructs with which he/she is presented, in essence, rejecting the current distribution of societal power, and most importantly, the ideological justification for this distribution of power. In other words, a person who has achieved a different 'state of consciousness' which contradicts the 'consciousness of the masses'.

    In essence, the 'truth' that is propagated as the most acceptable version of history, used to justify the past, is rejected by this individual as either mistaken, or in more extreme cases, as deliberately falsified. This means, that the 'rebel' at least feels that he or she has escaped from the hegemonic domination of the ruling classes and is creating his/her own 'anti-hegemonic narrative'. This, of course, as often as not, places this person in direct confrontation with the state apparatus, in both advanced democratic societies and oppressive regimes. The naming and process of repression might vary. However, the essence of the process is the same. The fate of someone like Edward Snowden attests to this.

    This definition of 'rebel' has an underlying assumption that political power is based on two pillars, coercion, in the classical physical sense of the word, and consent which is based on the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes - a conception of political power worked on by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, and to be found in his Prison Notebooks. Based on this conception, the 'rebel' who somehow escapes from the ideological domination of the ruling classes is often confronted with outright coercion by the state, or repressed by the organs of civil society, in the wider sense of the word. The case of Norman Finkelstein, the Jewish anti-Zionist professor, who was denied tenure largely because of his political activism, attests to this.   

    The 'rebel' may, if he or she is lucky, become an agent of change in the body of the dominant political order, attempting to de-construct it through attacks on its ideological base, attempting to replace it with another order based on a “counter-hegemonic” consciousness that has been developing in that society. In essence, he/she is paving the way for a “revolution”, even though he/she might not be participating directly in its events. A clear example is Ali Shariati who paved the way for the Islamic Revolution, and is considered to be its ideological father, even though he passed away before it erupted. 

    What makes a 'rebel'? Does the 'rebel' make the 'revolution', or does the 'revolution' make the 'rebel'? This, I argue is a complicated process, where both the 'rebel' makes the revolution and the revolution, or the narratives of the revolution, make the 'rebel'. From my own experience, the causes of my own rebellion lay in the eruption of the revolution at large. Although I had sufficient reasons for discontent, I was only visited by a 'counter-hegemonic consciousness' through a series of rebellious and revolutionary acts that, interestingly enough, were conducted by others.

    In other words, my passive status was sufficiently aroused by this spirit of rebellion, which was based on the sacrifices and struggles of others. Thus, one could argue that it is through a dialectical process of struggle that this sense of rebellion becomes ignited, in a positively enforcing loop that makes rebellion contagious. On the other hand, there are those who pave the way, and create this rebellion, the fathers of revolution, while others are the sons of this revolution, carrying it forward. These pioneers also take inspiration from others who preceded them, usually from past moments of rebellion. 

    What are the social origins of this 'rebel'? Does he/she belong to the downtrodden masses? Surprisingly, the answer to this question, I would argue, is no. The 'rebel' usually belongs to a disenfranchised elite, an elite that craves a larger portion of societal power and aims to recreate society in its own image. The masses hitherto have usually been led towards rebellion by an elite group that capitalises on popular grievances and is able to oppose the state. This, unfortunately, has tended to mean that once the 'rebel' has achieved his goal of taking over the state, he aims at directing the tide of the revolution to achieve the goals of his social group, which naturally enough involves the repression of the aspirations of the masses, following the Orwellian dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure”. The word 'elite' here does not necessarily only refer to economic elites: it is used in the broader sense to refer to leaders of certain social classes, or social groups, for example labour aristocracies.

    Like any other human condition, there is a spectrum of rebellion, where one can theoretically oscillate from one side to another. There are those who participate in a certain historical moment, and then revert to the protection of the new status quo, and there are others who seem to go through what can be called 'perpetual rebellion', who appear to be never satisfied. The clearest historical example is Che Guevara who seems to have had the compulsion to globalise his struggle rather than participate in the benefits of the, then, new order established in Cuba. These 'pure rebels' seem to be in a process of perpetual revolution, not only against the current political order, but against any set of established ideas that they are compelled to attack and deconstruct. These 'rebels' are destined to live restless lives, because their desired utopia always seems close at hand but at the same time far away. Their rebellion is, to a large extent, a rebellion against themselves, or to be more accurate, a rebellion against their old belief system. Those who fall into this extremity of rebellion have what can be called a “Jacobin spirit”, a desire to push the revolution beyond its limits. 

    This kind of 'rebel' is destined to live a solitary life. With the rejection of current political and social orders, and not subjected to direct state repression, he/she is oppressed by other members of society who are still under the ideological hegemony of the ruling classes, in effect suffering from what I call 'decentralised repression'. This sense of alienation is only alleviated in those rare historical moments when the tide of revolution seems to sweep through society like a tidal wave or a volcanic eruption. However, once this wave has passed, and those who are less 'rebellious' start to consolidate their gains, the struggle between the various elements of the revolutionary left begins, the sense of unity evaporates, and the revolution commences to eat its own children.

    Copts in El Sisi's Egypt

    By Mina Fayek

    Egypt's Copts gather in April 2013

    Egypt's Copts gather in April 2013. Demotix/Tahsin Bakr. All rights reserved.One can’t argue against the fact that the year under Islamist rule was one of the worst years in recent history for the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Many Copts view former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, as their saviour from fundamentalist rule. During the months after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi there was an unprecedented number of attacks on Coptic churches and Christian institutions throughout the country. This sparked renewed fears among a Coptic community who had already been suffering from discrimination for years.

    Prior to the current presidential elections, the Coptic Church officially announced that it would not support any candidate and instead would encourage Copts to read the electoral programmes of both Sabbahi and Sisi, urging them to vote. 

    But what does Sisi offer the Middle East’s largest minority? In a recent interview, Sisi disclosed some views about Copts. He was questioned on many topics including the Hamayouni Decree, which is a law enacted under Ottoman rule that regulates church construction and maintenance and is notorious for the obstacles it put in place. Asked whether he thought it should be replaced by a unified law for places of worship, and also about discrimination against Copts in government institutions including the military, SIsi looked surprised at the questions. He reserved his comments to the role of Copts in the military, denying that there was any discrimination. The anchors tried to expand on their question, detailing misrepresentation of Copts inside the army especially with regards to their promotion to higher ranks. But Sisi still avoided answering the question and told them to check the lists of those who join the army. So, according to Sisi, there’s no discrimination against Copts in the military.

    This, of course, is not true. There’s not a single Coptic Christian officer in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the top military body, and you can barely find any Christian officer at the rank of 'Major General' (eighth rank in the Egyptian military) or any higher rank. Even low-rank Christian officers or soldiers can’t join sensitive branches inside the army, like intelligence.

    Elsewhere in the interview, he praised the Coptic community saying that they played a “patriotic role after June 30”, yet whereas every unit inside the army has a mosque where Muslims can practice, Christian soldiers may spend up to three or four weeks inside their units with no chapels. Copts face discrimination in other state institutions too, such as the ministry of interior; top governmental ranks such as governors and ministers; as well as university presidents.

    Sisi, pushed under questioning, finally said: “we will try to offer a comfortable climate for everyone in Egypt”, which is a vague statement that promises nearly nothing.

    When asked about the ultraconservative Salafi Al-Nour party, who announced their support for him in the elections, Sisi described them as “national patriots” and “aware of the threats that surround the country”. The Salafis are known for having very controversial views about Copts and minorities in general. For example, they oppose Copts' right to run for presidency or to holding senior posts in the state. Their clerics also prohibit their followers from greeting Christians on Christmas or at Easter because it is “haram.” They have strongly supported the forced displacement of Christians after sectarian tensions in many regions across the country (Alexandria and Shurba Al-Kheima, for example). Sisi, however, has nothing but praise. 

    In another interview, Sisi addressed the position of the state towards religion. Regarding the religion of the state, he said: “The president of the state is responsible for everything in the state, including its religion”, which is Islam according to the first article of the constitution. “I’m responsible for the values, principles, ethics and religion” he continued. More like the speech one might expect from a caliph rather than a president of a republic, if these views are implemented they are likely to raise further fears in Coptic Christian breasts.

    The attempt seems to be under way to portray Sisi as no less pious and devout than the Islamists. This coincides with a vast crackdown campaign on atheists and homosexuals by the government. The head of the Alexandria police department said that he was forming a special squad for the purpose of arresting atheists who 'promote their ideas': “We will identify them and legalize the procedures of arresting them”. At the same time, gays and transgenders are being arrested and sentenced to prison. This is very likely to continue under Sisi’s rule.

    If anything, history shows that this type of a strategy to confront Islamists will not end well for the Coptic minority. Former president Anwar El Sadat also tried to quell the Islamist critique by trying to prove that the regime was no less devout than them. He introduced article two into the constitution, which states that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”. He is well remembered for saying that he was, “a Muslim president for an Islamic country” and that Egypt was, “a country of faith and science”. By the end of Sadat’s tenure, he had ordered the late Pope Shenouda to be banished to a monastery, and jailed a number of bishops and priests.

    Although the majority of Copts are perceived as supporters of Sisi and many do see him as a saviour from the Islamists, time may reveal that Sisi is not striving for their aspirations of equality or their attainment of full rights as first degree citizens. At some point, those he fails might well be expected to jump off the bandwagon and join the revolutionary arena along with their fellow Copts who already see through this.

    Fraud fighters wanted in the Middle East

    By Rayna Stamboliyska

    I was recently approached by a scholar from the American University of Sharjah (UAE) who asked me to edit a draft of a research paper of his which needed “rephrasing and unifying”, a common request by non-native English speakers prior to submission in a peer-reviewed journal.  

    Having agreed on fee and timeline, I edited and returned the paper. The scholar's response was astounding: “when I checked your rephrased document on a plagiarism detection site, it indicated that 87% is copied...the aim is to reach 10% at most”. His expectation, as it turns out, was for me to rewrite the paper, concealing plagiarised chunks of text. Though I had noticed entire paragraphs in irreproachable English, I had assumed co-authorship, not academic theft. Replying that I did not expect to devote my time to forging research papers, I was not surprised when payment was withheld. 

    This all took place while news made the headlines of a miracle cure developed by the Egyptian army for HIV and hepatitis C – today remaining in the anthology as 'KoftaGate' –  someone needed to address this culture of unethical scientific behaviour.

    Forgery, plagiarism and other plagues

    Plagiarism is one of the most widespread manifestations of scientific misconduct: it happens everywhere. When misconduct is identified, the publication is generally retracted. An independent watchdog launched in August 2010, Retraction Watch, has become the go-to institution for remarkable work in this field. 

    In 2012, a close examination of more than 2,000 retracted biomedical and life-science research articles showed that two-thirds were removed because of proven or suspected misconduct. Plagiarism accounted for nearly 10% of retractions. Fraud or suspected fraud, e.g. photoshopping images and “arranging data” to support one's claims are other types of forgery. Last but not least, there are also scientists so fond of their own work that they practice duplicate publishing.  

    Follow-up studies make it clear that misconduct can happen at any stage of a career, from the trainee to the senior researcher. Some blame the “publish or perish” rules that govern research. Others explain it by limited resources: if a lab does not have enough money to sustain its projects, then it might as well resort to crafting what is deemed necessary to publish the study in the hopes of getting better funding. Whatever the reason, however, lies and copy-paste habits are unethical and harm science as they influence research trends, waste public funds and can have a direct impact on people's lives

    Misconduct also spans across all scientific domains. Some experts even believe that as much as 90% “of all [archeological] artefacts and coins sold on internet auctions as genuine are nothing but fakes.” Among antiquities forgery cases fall the largely overlooked traffic of real but stolen artefacts, a long-lived practice found to occur in many countries across the Middle East including embattled Syria.

    Scientific misconduct in the Arab world

    Gallons of digital ink have been spilt discussing depressing laundry lists of misconduct cases in the west (and more recently, in China). There is, however, very little on unethical behaviour in the Arab world, despite the wide number of Mid-Eastern students from local and foreign universities who work and publish, both at home and abroad, prior to entering academia. 

    Fixing misconduct is also a topic of concern for editors and practitioners from the MENA region. The Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (WHO's regional branch) for instance supports a professional association – the Eastern Mediterranean Association of Medical Editors, – which organises its eponymous conference. Its sixth edition was initially scheduled for 1-4 September 2013, but has been postponed. The sixth edition's conference-desired outcomes included a draft declaration endorsing “uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: writing and editing for biomedical publication”, including, reads the website, “a clear statement on adherence to ethical conduct in research and publishing.”  

    Plagiarism and duplicate publications have also been addressed during an earlier edition, resulting in a wrap-up and call for the inclusion of research ethics in the university curriculum. Published in 2009, the text showcases that editors are mainly held accountable for misconduct identified in publications. In a bid to curtail unethical behaviour, “many medical journals [from MENA] have taken it upon themselves to carry out a sentence in case of proven guilt,” citing journals which bar guilty authors from publishing for years.

    Editors cannot and must not, however, be solely held to account for frauds, forgery and plagiarism. Yet nothing suggests that research institutions and universities in the Arab world have engaged in actual policy-making to prevent misconduct. A quick search on Retraction Watch lists 16 retractions for Egypt, one for Kuwait, three for Lebanon, two for Morocco, ten for Saudi Arabia, nine for Tunisia and five for the United Arab Emirates. If you scroll through the explanations, you will notice a lot of plagiarism (including self-plagiarism), author's lack of consent to publish the paper, duplicate and even triplicate publishing. Among these quite traditional cases of misconduct a particularly dreadful one is the retraction of three studies “by a group of Lebanese researchers who appear to have been engaging in illicit trafficking of human kidneys.” 

    The latter case brings to the table an overlooked yet essential question: clinical trials regulation. Those encompassing prospective biomedical or behavioural research on human subjects are conducted only after comprehensive information is collected that justifies an ethical authority's green light. Each country has its own legislation; so that an authorisation to proceed issued in one country is only valid within its borders. The US, the EU and the WHO, among others, have their dedicated clinical trials registries. In 2010, the estimated cost of bringing a new drug to the market was of approximately 1.8 billion USD (and is rising rapidly). A major part of it is dedicated to human clinical trials. As one of the biggest players in the field of outsourced clinical trials phrases it, “outstanding access to patients in the Middle East region with a population of over 200 million means that the Middle East is an important emerging region for the biopharmaceutical industry.” From an easily-accessible patient base to developing “niche blockbuster” drugs, the region is a gold mine for large pharmaceutical companies. 

    And what would dissaude them from fraudulent activity? No universal and internationally valid legislation exists, so every company does as it pleases. The Indian government finally came up with a law and companies increasingly turn their eyes to the vast Mediterranean. There is neither a clinical trials registry in MENA as a whole, nor on the national level. Only Jordan, the UAE and Syria have developed relevant legislation. Thus, clinical trials can be and are conducted without any accountability mechanism whatsoever, without ethical supervision and on entirely naïve patients. Is it then surprising that Lebanese researchers can publish (at least) three studies based on human trafficking material?

    Mid-Eastern Lysenkoism

    One cannot speak of policy-making and public oversight without mentioning one very worrisome trend in the MENA: the politicisation of science. The latter is not new: former Soviet Union agronomist Lysenko is a textbook example of the manipulation of science for political gain. And a long history of politically-motivated cures for AIDS in Africa already exists.

    The most recent example that springs to mind is of course the Egyptian army's miraculous cure for hepatitis C and AIDS. The diagnostic story made a relatively brief appearance in international media in 2013, nothing comparable with the 2014 great fanfare. A surprising scientific breakthrough, Egyptian physician Mostafa Hussein pointed out, as “the Egyptian military isn't exactly on the map of worldwide biomedical research. It is an institution, when it comes to medicine, that has a reputation for virginity checks, operating on protesters without anesthesia and targeting field hospital doctors.” The military also announced its firm intention to allow only Egyptian nationals to be cured and to maintain the miracle in a classified file. 

    On 26 February 2014, the man behind the breakthrough, General Abdel Atti gave an even more surreal turn to the whole story by saying that he would turn AIDS into kebab, then feed it to a patient as nourishment. And #KoftaGate was born. While citizens were furiously discussing the value of such statements, the newly appointed Minister of Health announced his involvement in the team that developed the miracle. The Egyptian interim president's scientific advisor said that the whole invention had no scientific merit whatsoever and described their discovery as, “illusionary solutions to real problems”. The media, overwhelmingly supportive to the army, reprimanded him for such lèse-majesté. When famous satirist Bassem Youssef (a trained physician) voiced concern over the alleged cure, he was promised a military trial by no less than General Abdel Atti himself. 

    A research paper of abysmal quality showcasing the results also surfaced. The journal turned out not to be peer reviewed, but blacklisted for predatory open-access publishing. The alleged breakthrough became the media's focal point in no time, operating an even clearer divide within Egypt's already polarised society, with some asking for all critics to be denied the cure. 

    This story is polysemous. It crystallises the lack of functional science communication: science journalists and researchers blogging about science are non-existent in the region. 'KoftaGate' is also a manifestation of political abuse of public health issues. With El Sisi revered as president even before elections were held, instrumentalising the health of 12 million Egyptians with hepatitis C to serve fleeting political interests is obvious. But more absurd than everything that has come before, this story actually constitutes the most far-reaching public debate around AIDS to have happened in Egypt.  

    Egypt is just one of the places in the Arab world where scientific misconduct is tolerated. But the onus is global. What are research institutions waiting for to enforce policies and mount adequate responses? And what is the international community waiting for to curtail the use and misuse of populations as guinea pigs? 

    The Pope’s visit to Israel

    By Efraim Perlmutter

    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. 

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