Today, twenty years ago, on a cold winter day in Jerusalem, Israel and the Holy See signed the Fundamental Agreement, establishing full diplomatic relations and exchange of ambassadors. The agreement was an historic milestone not only in relations between Israel and the Holy See, but also between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People. Forty-six years after the establishment of the State of Israel, an Israeli embassy to the Holy See and an embassy of the Holy See in Israel were opened. I am now the sixth Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See.
When I go to meetings and events in the Vatican, pass the Swiss guards, and walk the beautiful marble floors, I sometimes think about the long path we have traveled, Christians and Jews in the last 2,000 years — from rejection and denial, just over 100 years ago, to recognition, dialogue, and friendship of today. This shift has taken place as a result of the confluence and interplay of theological and political changes. I presented my credentials to Pope Benedict XVI and I have already met Pope Francis briefly several times. The meetings were warm and unforgettable and I thanked both of them for their friendship to the Jewish People. Pope Francis greeted me in Hebrew with “Shalom,” and I invited him to visit Israel. Pope Francis’ message of modesty, caring for the poor, peace and interreligious dialogue has a universal appeal.
A century earlier, in 1904, the founder of Zionism Theodor Herzl met Pope Pius X and asked his support for the establishment of a Jewish State. The Pope rejected the idea categorically and the Holy See objected to the Partition Resolution of 1947 on the basis of theological reasons and practical interests. From 1948 to 1967, and especially during its first years of statehood, Israel’s approach toward the Catholic Church was dictated not only by considerations of realpolitik, but also by the burden of history – not always simple. In 1964, during his 11-hour-visit to Israel, Pope Paul VI did not mention the name “Israel,” and when he returned to Rome he sent a thank you telegram addressed to “President Shazar, Tel Aviv,” mentioning neither Israel nor Jerusalem.
But only a year later, in 1965, a historical and theological change took place: the adoption of the document “Nostra Aetate” by the Catholic Church. This document revolutionized the Catholics’ position — exonerating the Jewish People from the collective blame of Jesus’ death, an accusation that has been one of the main sources of religious anti-Semitism throughout history.
After the Six-Day War, and in light of the new reality of Israel’s control over all of Jerusalem and the Christian Holy Sites, the Holy See adopted a more pragmatic approach to the dialogue with Israel in order to solve daily life problems of Christians living in the state. In 1984, for the first time, the “State of Israel” was mentioned in a signed Papal document and the historic religious bond between the Jewish people and Israel was recognized.
The Fundamental Agreement of 1993 was the next milestone. Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister who signed the agreement, later commented: “Even though it was a political agreement between two states, we all knew that it was also a historic agreement of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.”
The agreement is based on four fundamental points of mutual interest: the establishment of diplomatic relations, the commitment to cooperate in combating anti-Semitism, the promotion of cultural and academic exchanges, and cooperation in encouraging Christian pilgrimages.
In the last 20 years, relations between Israel and the Holy See knew periods of understanding and progress, but also of difficulties. Nevertheless, an open dialogue always continued. The upcoming year, 2014, will be important for a number of reasons: the celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of relations, Pope Francis’ expected visit to Israel, and the possibility of completing and signing the Economic Financial Agreement that deals with issues of property and taxation. This year will be an opportunity to celebrate and also to think together and plan ahead the future of our relations.
Pope Francis’ visit will follow the path of his two predecessors: the historic visits of Pope John Paul II in 2000, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Both visits contributed significantly to the process of reconciliation, recognition and dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People, and also to Israel’s relations with the Holy See.
The Economic Financial Agreement that we hope to sign soon would be another milestone in the relations. The negotiations of this long-awaited agreement are finally reaching a conclusion and, even though we have recently solved and overcome important obstacles, some work has still to be done before signing the document.
As for the future, some of the challenges we face, in addition to signing the agreement, are, first, to further upgrade relations and start a broader and more significant political dialogue on issues of mutual concern such as the fate of minorities in the Middle East, the rise of radical Islam, and Syria. Second, to achieve stronger cooperation in combating anti-Semitism by creating a realistic, universal program of education, supported not only by the Catholic and Jewish communities, but also by the network of Israeli and Holy See embassies around the world focusing on the spirit and message of “Nostra Aetate”, on the unique importance of the State of Israel in Jewish identity, and on modern Israel beyond the Holy Sites. Pope Francis’ strong words against anti-Semitism — “because of our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic” — should be spread to the furthest corners of the world. Finally, it is also important to educate Jewish people on the new approach of the Catholic Church towards Judaism.
Today’s relations between the state of Israel and the Holy See are based on mutual respect and dialogue, and although challenges remain, we have made significant progress over the past 20 years. Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Israel will further strengthen these relations.
Zion Evrony has been Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See since August 2012. He is a 40-year veteran of Israel’s foreign service. He previously served as Israel’s ambassador to Ireland and Consul General in Houston, Texas. He was also head of Policy Planning in Israel’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.