Opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 November 1986.
“Yesterday, Rabbi Raymond Apple met the Pope. Here he explains why the word ‘Israel’ was not mentioned.”
Yesterday’s meeting in Sydney between the Pope and Jewish community leaders is significant mostly because it happened. Centuries of Church contempt for Jews and Judaism have given way to an increasing desire on both sides to be on speaking terms.
The Catholic Church has firmly repudiated anti-Semitism, proclaimed that “The Jews should not be represented as rejected by God or accursed”, and acknowledged that its own roots are in the Hebrew Bible. In Australia, as elsewhere, cordial contacts between Catholic and Jewish leaders and laymen have built up, and there is solid cooperation between the two communities on many levels.
But there remains a major bone of contention – the strange Vatican attitude to Israel. At yesterday’s meeting between Jewish leaders and the Pope the word “Israel” did not occur once in the Pope’s carefully prepared statement. He did speak about the Holocaust and its trauma, was eloquent about the Catholic and Jewish concern for human rights, the sanctity of life and religious education, but there was not a word about the historic Jewish attachment to the Holy Land and the almost messianic sense of fulfilment that Jews everywhere feel to see Biblical prophecy come true.
The first modern attempt to gain Vatican support for the Jews’ return to Zion occurred in 1904. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, was received in that year by Pope Pius X. As recorded in Herzl’s diaries, the Pope said: “We are unable to favour the movement. We cannot prevent the Jews going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it. The ground of Jerusalem, if not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the Head of the Church I cannot answer you otherwise. The Jews have not recognised our Lord, therefore we cannot recognise the Jewish People.”
Since then there have been three major Church proclamations concerning Catholic-Jewish relations – at 10-year intervals, in 1965, 1975 and 1985. Each in its own way has been a massive step forward in the development of Church thinking about the Jews and Judaism. Increasingly, the Church found itself able to view Judaism in positive terms and say so; echoing these formulations, the Pope in Sydney yesterday spoke of God’s “irrevocable” covenant with Abraham.
But not until 1985 did these documents really begin to recognise Jews and Judaism in terms of Jewish self-understanding, without constricting them into the straitjacket of Christian preconceived notions. The earlier formulations failed to give adequate recognition to the reality that Jewish identity is more than theological and it has elements of community and peoplehood and a historic attachment to the old-new homeland, that cannot be denied if it is a real and not a partly imaginary Jewish people with whom understanding is on the agenda.
Jews and Judaism always understood history as a having a goal – the messianic redemption of mankind, towards which the restoration of the Land and the rebuilding of Jerusalem were preconditions.
It may be that the Church viewed with some uneasiness the idea of Jews being restored to Israel. The theory that Jews were destined, as a mark of Divine disapproval, to go for ever wandering until they accepted Jesus, seemed to be dislocated by the facts of history which saw modern Jewry very much alive, finally coming back and rebuilding the Holy Land in literal fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.
There are enough references in recent statements by Pope John Paul II to “State of Israel” to make nonsense of the suggestion that the Vatican pretends Israel does not exist. Indeed, on Tuesday morning in Canberra the Pope asked the Ambassador of Israel to convey greetings to the Government and people of Israel, and in a de facto sense there are already diplomatic connections between the two States.
The recognition of Israel is there on so many levels already – what is wanting is the coup de grace. If the Pope was not disposed to make any such official announcement in Sydney yesterday, this is no ground for surprise. Rome or Jerusalem – indeed, Rome and Jerusalem simultaneously – are far more appropriate for this historic act. There can be no doubt that it will come. The world is watching: in a symbolic sense, the official rapprochement between Rome and Jerusalem would truly be the Pope’s longest journey and dramatically encourage the coming of peace.
Rabbi Apple is Senior Minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.