Israel and the Holy See

Well, 2009 is off to an all-too-familiar start for Israel. After months of a cease-fire that proved to be merely the latest stage in Hamas’ efforts to destroy Israel, Israel is conducting a difficult campaign to secure its south from Hamas rocket attacks and to reduce not just Hamas’ “military” (read terrorist) capacity but its political legitimacy. Crucially, the war should not deflect potential improvements in the wary relations between Israel and a state with no military potential but great moral force, the Holy See.

Sandro Magister, the Vatican correspondent for Italy’s L’Espresso, has described the long-standing imbalance in the Holy See’s public reaction to Israel’s actions, noting an ambivalence to Israel itself that still obtains in some Church circles. Little was said by the Vatican over the last few months about Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel. Little is said about Israeli efforts to minimize civilian casualties in an extraordinarily difficult environment, where Hamas leaders see the deaths of their own people as a useful communications tool in the battle for international opinion (and as a former military officer who flew the same fighters as the Israeli Air Force, I can assure readers this is nothing like an unrestricted campaign against civilian targets as some have charged). Little is said about the fact that the brutally self-installed Hamas rules in a Gaza evacuated by Israelis at considerable domestic political cost.

Why is there distrust between two states that should, in the grand sweep of history and culture, by this stage be strong allies against common threats and in promotion of shared principles? To begin with, it is important to note that Israel enjoys broad support within the Holy See, including from many in key “policy” positions. But some in the Curia – again, far from all – swim in their native political currents, the European left. That left has long disliked Israel, has disingenuously associated itself with Palestinian victimhood, and is comfortable in the company of Islamism and even terrorism for the “correct” cause (something even those most antithetic towards Israel in the Curia would roundly reject).

One example of this leftist tendency came last week from Renato Cardinal Martino, president of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. He first compared the situation in Gaza to a “concentration camp,” a code that doesn’t take much effort to break. Then, trying to dig himself out, he compared the conflict to a dispute between siblings who must be separated. This trivializes the enormous stakes in the war and typifies the leftist tendency to posit a moral equivalence (at best) between terrorists and those who fight them. It substitutes knee-jerk reaction for serious moral reflection.

There is legitimate concern in the Holy See for the plight of Christians in the Middle East, including in and near Israel where the Christian population in the West Bank has declined precipitously in recent years (for decades, the only Christian population that was growing in the Middle East was inside Israel). But there is the less legitimate attribution of that decline exclusively to Israeli actions, which do contribute to the condition, rather than principally to Palestinian violence. There is also a reigning belief in two highly dubious propositions: that a peace between Israel and a Palestinian state would solve the central problem in the region and secure a lasting peace, and that dialogue with groups and regimes who would like to erase Israel can produce such a peace. While both the two-state solution and dialogue should be energetically pursued, the pursuit must occur within the real context of the region, something Vatican statements seem to neglect.

Further, a few in the Vatican seem willing to support, or avoid reproving, regimes such as the Iranian clerics or the Ba’athists of Syria and, formerly, Iraq, because they are tolerant of educated and quiet Christian minorities. That tolerance, relative to Christian-cleansing Islamic violence like that seen since 2003 in Iraq, is a moderate feature of such regimes amidst an overwhelming counter-tide of oppression and internal violence, and hatred of Israel, which receives less attention from Vatican statements. Moreover, some in the Curia seem not to recognize that Israel is a democracy while its foes at the national and sub-national levels are authoritarian in inclination and practice. Israel’s democracy is imperfect, subject to the vicissitudes of domestic interests even as it faces perhaps the most difficult external security picture in the world. It makes mistakes, and it tries to avoid and correct them.

But despite these elements, Magister has noted a changed tone in Vatican statements on Israel in recent years. The new tone was evident in 2006 regarding Lebanon, especially in the words of the pope himself. He early on endorsed the G-8’s position (relatively sympathetic to Israel) and resisted calling for an “immediate ceasefire” until later in the conflict, possibly reflecting a deeper grasp of Israel’s dilemma in dealing with Hizbullah. It is present this time around as well, in the pope’s sadness for civilian deaths (especially of children) and call for dialogue, in line with broader international reaction, avoiding any blanket condemnation of Israel. The change in tone may be hastened by events this month. The sight of large Muslim crowds rallying for the Palestinian cause near cathedrals in Italy and burning Israeli flags has startled Church leaders. While some have oddly defended this exercise of political free expression on Church terrain, others have rejected it thoroughly. These developments should be read as an indication that the view of Israel in the Vatican has changed in recent years, and this war should not set that change back.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.