The Church's 'Israel problem'

  • October 28, 2010
Do Catholics have an Israel problem? The recent Middle East synod of bishops ended last weekend with a bitter exchange with Israeli authorities, who accused the synod of singling out Israel for critical treatment, and of making a serious theological error regarding the covenant with the Jews.

Respected Vatican journalist John Allen wrote that acrimony was expected between the region’s Arab bishops and Israel, but that it took so long to surface was the surprise. Arab hostility to Israel is intense and commonplace — it is routine to hear Israel blamed exclusively for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also for all manner of problems that stretch anywhere from Algeria to Afghanistan. Catholics in the region, almost entirely Arab, are not immune from this anti-Israeli hostility. Indeed, because Catholics are a tiny minority in an otherwise Islamic Arab world, they are often tempted to demonstrate their Arab bona fides by vocally demonstrating that they are not friends of Israel. A synod of bishops held in the Middle East itself would have had a constant anti-Israeli refrain. But held in Rome, the Vatican, which prizes good relations with Jews, restrained for the most part the anti-Israeli rhetoric.

For generations the Holy See has supported a two-state solution and special status for Jerusalem. The Holy See does not uncritically support Israeli policy, but is committed to Israel’s right to exist in security. So the final message from the synod included that familiar language about Israeli suffering and precarious security situation, but also catalogued a list of Israeli sins.

“We have evaluated the social situation and the public security in all our countries in the Middle East,” wrote the synod fathers. “We have taken account of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole region, especially on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees.”

It is not out-of-bounds to criticize Israeli policies, and it is not anti-Semitic to do so — after all, many Israelis exercise their democratic liberties to do just that every day. But is it fair to ask why, in a survey of “all our countries in the Middle East,” Israeli policy is singled out for point-by-point criticism, while not a word is said, for example, about Saudi Arabia, the largest and most fearsome persecutor of Christians in the region? Either it is due to the Arab bishops being unwilling to criticize fellow Arabs or because they expect less from Muslims and fear reprisals from them. Neither alternative is attractive.

The final synod message, in its section on relations with Jews, also contained the following line: “Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.”

Aside from being tautologically true — it is always wrong to justify injustices, especially using the Word of God — it was a clear rejection that the biblical promises to Abraham and Moses could be used to justify current political positions, namely the right of Jews to live in the land of Israel, including the West Bank.

There are few Israelis who argue that way — it is, after all, not a very religious country. Israelis are more likely to invoke the UN resolutions that created the Jewish state than they are to invoke biblical promises. Yet surely those who view the world with biblical eyes, including Catholic bishops, must see something of Providence at work in the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland?

Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros, who is based in Newton, Mass., added fuel to the fire at the closing press conference for the synod.

“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people,” Bustros said. “This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people — all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”

That’s a serious theological error, that Christ cancelled the covenant God made with the Jewish people. St. Paul teaches otherwise in Romans, and the Second Vatican Council explicitly taught that God has not set aside His promises to the Jewish people. The connection between that and today’s political issues is open to debate, but it is not Catholic teaching to say that Christ nullified the promise made to the Jews.

Too many secular and religious voices do treat Jews and Israel unfairly, meaning using standards that don’t apply to others. For many years now I have being involved with Jews in Canada on questions relating to Israeli advocacy, and it does create some friction with my Arab Catholic brethren. I do so because I believe Israel to be under serious threat from her neighbours, because her treatment of Christians is better than in most places in the Middle East and because I think her custody of the holy places is advantageous for Christian pilgrims when considering the region’s alternative regimes.

This work has occasioned conversations that make it clear that some Catholics do have an Israel problem. I remember one Ontario archbishop, now deceased, telling me to my face that, “I just don’t like Israel.” That sentiment, while not determinative, is abroad more than it ought to be. That it marred the conclusion of the synod is sad.

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