Thursday, April 19, 2018

Israel at 70

A lot of good things happened in 1948.  Harry Truman was re-elected President of the United States. The present Prince of Wales was born. I was born. And Israel was born - or, rather reborn, after almost 19 centuries which the Jewish people had spent in exile. That exile ended 70 years ago, on May 14, 1948, with modern Israel's establishment as a sovereign sate. In the Jewish calendar, the date was 5 Iyar 5708. According to that calendar, Yom Ha'atzmaut  (Israeli Independence Day) is being celebrated today.

The United States, under President Harry Truman's forthright and courageous leadership, immediately recognized the Jewish state. Israel's Arab neighbors, however, did not. They immediately invaded the territory of the new nation, resulting in the first Arab-Israeli war. Seventy years and several wars later, some Arab states (Egypt, Jordan) have since made peace with Israel. But Israel remains beleaguered by the implacable hostility of many of its would-be neighbors who still deny its right to exist, and the Jewish nation remains the object of vehement hatred by enemies around the world.

Belatedly, the Holy See, under Pope Saint John Paul II (Pope 1978-2005), who strenuously promoted Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, finally recognized Israel in 1993. Although 45 years overdue, this was nonetheless an important step in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, which was such an important agenda item for the 20th-century Church.

That was still far from the case, however, at the beginning of the 20th century. On January 26, 1904, Theodor Herzl had an audience with Pope Saint Pius X (Pope 1903-1914)  to seek support for the Zionist effort to restore a Jewish state in the Jews' biblical homeland (in what was then still a part of the Ottoman Empire.)  Herzl recorded his account of the meeting in his diary. [Cf. Raphael Patai, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, tr. Harry Zohn, 1960)].

According to his account, the Pope responded: "Noi non possiamo favorire questo movimento. Non potremo impedire gli Ebrei di andare a Gerusalemme—ma favorire non possiamo mai. ... Gli Ebrei non hanno riconosciuto nostro Signore, perci√≤ non possiamo riconoscere il popolo ebreo. [We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. .... The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people]."

Thus was a powerful opportunity missed to move forward toward reconciliation between the Church and the Jewish people. 

Twenty years before the restored State of Israel came into being, in March 1928 the Holy Office under Pius XI (Pope 1922-1939) decreed: "just as it reproves all hatred between peoples, so [the Apostolic See[ condemns hatred against the people formerly chosen by God, the hatred that today customarily goes by the name of anti-Semitism" [AAS 20, Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich, tr. Kenneth Kronenberg, p, 82]. But a sort of religiously rooted antagonism remained - for example, in the infelicitous wording of the Good Friday prayer pro perfidis judaeis. Some serious proposals were actually made at the time to reform the prayer's unnecessarily harsh-sounding language and also restore the genuflection which accompanied all the other 8 Good Friday intercessions but was - for absurdly spurious reasons - omitted from the prayer for the Jews.  But unfortunately nothing came of those efforts. Another missed opportunity!

It was only finally in the 1955 Holy Week reform of Pius XII (Pope 1939-1958) that the genuflection was restored to the Good Friday Prayer for the Jews. Then four years later, Pope Saint John XXIII (Pope 1958-1963) ordered the omission of the word perfidis.

Then came the Second Vatican Council. Already in the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council declared "In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (Romans 9:4-5). On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (Romans 11:28-29)." [Lumen Gentium, 16]. Then, in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, the Council recalled “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham's stock.” Citing Saint Paul again, the Council repeated: "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle (Romans 11:28-29)." Finally, the Council asserted, "the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ." [Nostra Aetate, 4 ].

The Council's repeated privileging of Romans 11:28-29 implies a renewed appreciation of God's covenant with Israel. Obviously that does not answer every immediate question or provide a practical solution to every political problem involving Israel's still contentious relationship with some of its neighbors. But it ought at least to exclude any sympathy or support for those who still, 70 years on, deny Israel's legitimacy.

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