Saturday, January 04, 2014

Israel/Vatican: 20 years of diplomatic relations

http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/typo3temp/pics/c075752452.jpgDecember 30th marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Fundamental Agreement which initiated diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See. 

A sentence in the Preamble reflects the extraordinary nature of the two decades of diplomacy between the City-State representing over a billion Catholics in the world and the State representing nearly 6 million Jews: “Aware of the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews….
 
The precepts of “Nostra Aetate”,  the 1965 Vatican II document that ushered in a new era of dialogue and respect, ending nearly two millennia of erroneous interpretations of the New Testament that repeatedly led to contempt and tragic persecutions of Jews, penetrates not only the Catholic-Jewish dialogue but has also created a special atmosphere between diplomats of the two States.
 
2014 will see another milestone in Vatican-Israel relations: the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land planned for May.
 
 Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See Zion Evrony states confidently that “Pope Francis is a friend of the Jewish People, and I am sure that his visit in Israel will further strengthen the relations between Israel and the Holy See.”  
 
 Today’s relations between the State of Israel and the Holy See are based on mutual respect and dialogue” he says, “and although disagreements and challenges remain, we have made significant progress over the past three decades. This will be an important year for a number of reasons:  the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations, the expected visit of Pope Francis in Israel and the possibility of concluding and signing the Economic, Financial Agreement.”
 
Optimism prevails on the official, diplomatic level, and the flow of cultural/educational exchange helps create new generations free of prejudice.   Yet, occasionally, ancient wounds, misinterpretations and stereotypes still re-emerge.
 
A recent example is the upset created by the journalist-priest, Filippo Di Giacomo in an article published by ”Il Venerdi” of “La Repubblica December 27.   He accuses Israel’s political class of “near-sighted vision and petty calculations”, inferring however, that the Israeli people are much more open to good relations with Christians than their political leaders. He also accuses “a group of Italian Jews” for placing a text (now modified) critical of Pius XII beneath his photo at Yad Vashem, finding that this hardly reflects the true “Israeli” viewpoint.
 
Moreover, “Israeli Foreign Ministry officials” he says, made “coarse and false accusations against Benedict XVIth a few days after his election”.  But this time, when Pope Bergoglio comes, things will be different, Di Giacomo holds, because these officials will be restrained by the large community of Israelis of Argentinian origin who support him…
 
Immediate reactions came from the online daily of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities ( UCEI)  ”Pagine Ebraiche”, with an animated ongoing discussion spurred by comments from the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, and a former Israeli ambassador to the EU, Sergio Minerbi.
 
Referring to Pius XII, Rabbi Di Segni said “Italian Jews know how to distinguish between the clergy that helped them, and the actions of Pius XII.  The official silence of the Pope while Jews were being deported by the Nazi-Fascists is still an open wound for Italian Jewry.”
 
Ambassador Minerbi said that the “poisonous” comments of Di Giacomo “should surprise no one….they are based on a basic incomprehension between the two States, since in fact the Vatican has never approved the existence of Israel”.
 
He points out discrepancies in the relationship that carry over even into the speeches of Pope Francis.  Minerbi recalls a Meditation on the Acts of the Apostles (13, 44-52) delivered by Francis at the Domus Sanctae Marthae Chapel on Saturday, April 27. Quoting the homily from memory, the former ambassador says Francis called for Catholics to become “an open community  and not a  closed community like that of the Jews who, when the soldiers came and said, ‘We have seen him with our eyes, he has arisen’, they replied, take this money and get out of here.  Because they wanted to solve all problems with money.  This clearly anti-Semitic sermon (even if it is taken from the Gospels) did not call forth any Jewish reaction out of respect for the Pontiff” he concludes.
 
It is dutiful to note however, that in his introduction to this sermon (published by the Osservatorio Romano on April 28), Pope Bergoglio  specified that he (and the Acts) defined the community as “ ‘the closed-minded Jews’, because not all Jews were such”.   In other words, there was no intention to generalize to include all Jews of that time.

Regarding this discussion, Marco Morselli, President of the Rome Jewish-Christian Friendship Association,  issued a declaration to “Vatican Insider” as well as to “Pagine Ebraiche.”  
 
“It must be said first of all”, he commented, “that this Pope, who is particularly loved and respected by Jews all over the world and especially by those of his native Argentina -- who co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Skorka a dialogue-turned-book on the key issues of our time -- can certainly not be accused of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. Commenting on the passage from the Acts of the Apostles the Pope was clearly referring to the present time and to open and closed communities in Christianity.” 
 
“However, unfortunately”  Prof. Morselli continued, “every time one reads passages that emphasize the contrast between ‘the Jews’ and the early Christians (who, also being Jews, are considered as ‘the good Jews’), one faces the danger of reinforcing a negative image of the entire Jewish people of yesterday and today.”
 
Morselli  then refers to an editorial by Eugenio Scalfari also published by “La Repubblica” on December 29. “Reasoning in terms of the purest Marcionism, he contrasts the Jewish or ‘Mosaic’ God to the ‘Christian’ God, stating furthermore that Mosaic law does not include any rights or freedoms, only servitude.”
 
Rabbi Di Segni too expressed dismay over this editorial which, he says, serves “the old, banal Marcionist anti-Judaism  in a secular wrapping. Marcion was the heretic who contrasted the God of Revenge of the ‘Old’ Testament with the God of Love of the New.” 
 
“Years ago”, continued Di Segni, “when ‘La Repubblica’  published a front-page headline entitled ‘The Revenge of Israel’ , we were not wrong in seeing in this the signs of theological prejudice that went far beyond political criticism.”
 
Marco Morselli  stresses the ever-present need to further disseminate ‘Nostra Aetate’ and all subsequent documents promulgated by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.
 
“They provide a mandatory guide for Jewish-Christian dialogue:  reading and interpreting the Christian Sacred Texts in their historical context, so as to avoid repeating negative stereotypes that can otherwise so easily filter out of the New Testament” he says.
 
“When elements of the past resurface and misunderstandings arise… they can become an incentive to work even harder to repair the damage caused by a lingering ‘Supersessionist,  or Replacement Theology’ and ‘the teaching of contempt’ (as Jules Isaac  termed the volume he presented to John XXIII in their historic encounter in 1960.)”
 
Morselli criticizes the role played by the various media representatives in the ongoing controversy. “While don Filippo Di Giacomo’s opinions are very questionable” he says, “it does not appear he is expressing the Holy See’s official position or even the Pope’s personal thoughts.  One therefore wonders what was the point of asking the Chief rabbi of Rome and Ambassador Minerbi – described as one of the greatest experts in Israeli-Vatican relations – for their opinions.  Is there not a risk of giving formal importance to words that do not have it, with the possible result of reigniting controversy over complex and sensitive issues?”
 
“Does Don Di Giacomo believe that accusing Israel of ‘short-sighted visions and petty calculations’ against the Vatican is the best way to prepare for Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Israel?”
 
Fortunately, however, it seems that the higher echelons of diplomacy and religious authority on both shores of the Mediterranean are not tuned in to these problematic rumblings of discontent.

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