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Search for the Promised Land: Zionism and the Church.

Gavin D'Costa - The Tablet - Sat, Mar 10th 2018

The father of modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, met Pope Pius X in 1904. Herzl wanted Pius’ support for his project. Pius replied: “We cannot give approval to this movement. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jewish religion was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity.”

This was the standard Catholic view. But what if the Church were to deem Judaism “valid”? If it had done so in the nineteenth century, would Pius have acted differently? The Church has, in fact, done this since 1965, step by slow step. The Holocaust caused European Christians deep soul-searching. The Second Vatican Council spoke decisively to the tragic history of European anti-Semitism. It forcefully denied the Jews were collectively guilty of killing God. Nostra Aetate says: “What happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

If “the Jews” were not guilty, the penalties for the crime evaporate. And one of the imagined penalties was that God had abandoned the Jews, leaving them to wander landless. Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium cited St Paul’s claim (Romans 11:29) that God’s gifts and promises to his people, the Jews, are irrevocable. Neither document applied this assertion to contemporary Jewry. But the question was to press upon the Church and the magisterium after the council.

The next steps were to come 15 years later. Jerzy Kluger, a lifelong friend of St Pope John Paul II, told me in Rome how “Karol” was very respectful and reverent towards Judaism. Addressing German Jews in 1980, the Pope dramatically applied Romans 11:29 to his audience, the “present-day people of the covenant”. The door had been opened. This teaching was repeated by Popes Benedict and Francis. It entered the Catechism and Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’”.

But central to those “gifts” was the land. Biblically, it was through the people’s righteous following of God in the land, that the Jews would be a light to the nations. In 2015 the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews produced a document with Romans 11:29 as its title. It acknowledged that many of the church fathers and medieval theologians had viewed Judaism as obsolete. It now declared that these teachings are obsolete. It is rare for Rome to say tradition got it wrong. It is also brave.

What should Catholics believe regarding the land of Israel: is it part of God’s promise to his people or not? Saying either “Yes” or “No” is dangerous, as the land and the state are closely related, though not indistinguishable. Either answer would seem to align the Church with a position it wisely avoids.

“Yes” might appear anti-Palestinian, denying the just claim to a Palestinian homeland. It might incur problems with certain Arab states, under whom fragile Christian communities sometimes struggle to survive. It seems to side with conservative Zionist Christians, such as the American Jerry Falwell (“To stand against Israel is to stand against God”.) Some right-wing Zionists want to rebuild the temple, invoke a military showdown with the Arab world and usher in the end days. On the other hand, to say “No” would seem to reject mainstream religious Jews’ claims about the land which are intrinsic to the covenant. “No” seems to contradict the Church’s teaching about the Jewish covenant being valid.

But could the Church say “Yes”? I think so. It would be wise to insist on four qualifications deriving from the Vatican’s slowly evolving approach to Israel/Palestine. First, it cannot say “Yes” at the cost of a Palestinian homeland. Since 1974 the Vatican has supported this and in 2015 it formally recognised a Palestinian state. These are matters of social justice, as important as the Church’s rapprochement with Judaism. Second, to answer “Yes” would not be to underwrite any and every Israeli government or its prudential decisions (as Falwell does). The Vatican recognises the need for a Jewish homeland. It formally recognised Israel and exchanged ambassadors in 1994 – but the people, the land and the state are not indistinguishable.

Third, a “Yes” cannot include decisions about borders. The Vatican insists these should be settled by negotiation between the parties. This rebuts those Jewish and Protestant Zionists who refuse any Palestinian demands. Fourth, the freedom of Jerusalem should be ensured by international guarantee, so that Jews, Christians and Muslims can permanently live and worship within the city. The Vatican has continuously argued this case.

So is modern Israel the promised land? The Church must decide its answer in the light of its theological understanding of the irrevocable covenant. But Jews are divided on the religious significance of the land. Secular Jews deny it altogether. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews claim the state is not legitimate and should not be recognised: only God can inaugurate the return.

Others disagree. God uses human hands and voices to establish his will – as an American Jewish settler once reminded me: “God used Cyrus, the Persian king, so why not use secular Zionist Jews?” Some religious Zionists have created settlements to expand Israel’s borders according to the biblical promises, and they have been supported by Protestant maximalist Zionists.

But most Orthodox Halachic Jews – the majority of religious Jews – are more circumspect. They do not believe the land or the state herald the end times and the return of the Messiah. There is no temple, no theocracy, no world peace. But there is an ingathering of the Jewish people, safety provided under Jewish authorities and an ability to live in a culture more shaped by Judaism. This they hold is guided by providence. On this account, the land must have an inherently religious, though not necessarily eschatological, significance. This Jewish view resonates most with what I’m calling “Catholic minimalist Zionism”.

There are some signs of a Catholic “Yes” momentum. The Pontifical Biblical Commission said in 2002 that the promise of the land is at the heart of the covenant in the Old Testament. The land was unconditionally promised but living there requires the “chosen” to live justly and righteously. At the signing ceremony of the 1993 agreement between the Vatican and Israel, the undersecretary for foreign affairs, Msgr Claudio Maria Celli, said that the land of Israel must be “acknowledged to have a fundamental religious and spiritual significance – not only for the Holy See and the state of Israel, but for millions of people throughout the world.” This is delicate minimalist Zionism.

The Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews produced a document in 1985 which states: “The history of Israel did not end in AD 70. It continued, especially in a numerous diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness – often heroic – of its fidelity to the one God … while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the hearts of their hope (Passover Seder).”

This underwrites two crucial points: the continuation of the people of Israel is a witness of fidelity to God, and its heroic witness. That term is usually reserved for saints who have died at the hands of persecutors: in this case, the persecutors were themselves sometimes Catholic. Second, it acknowledges Jewish liturgy as preserving the covenantal hope for the return to the land. That this was said before the diplomatic recognition of Israel by the Vatican is remarkable. It was a brave move.

But the document recognises the space between the “promise”, the land and the state. It continues: “Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship. The existence of the state of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law. The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact ... We must rid ourselves of the traditional idea of a people punished … It remains a chosen people.”

This is skilful Vatican juggling. It does not rule out a religious “Yes”. It intimates it, echoing the Jewish Orthodox view, by recognising the permanence of the “chosen people”, the land it is promised, and rejecting the view that the people are punished and landless. It is explicit that this “is a sign to be interpreted within God’s design”. The state is not given religious endorsement, but the land and its people are. Implicit Catholic minimalist Zionism?

Can Catholics continue to say “No” to the land promise once they say “Yes” to the irrevocable covenant between God and the Jewish people? Not for long. We owe it to our deepening understanding of revelation. We owe it to the Jewish people.

Gavin D’Costa is professor of Catholic theology at the University of Bristol. His many books include Vatican II: Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims (Oxford University Press).

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