While staying at the Ramada in Jerusalem between the 23rd and the 26th of May, Pope Francis visited Jerusalem. He visited the Western Wall and Mount Herzl while in the city. His visit came with a lot of excitement, security, and controversy that I thought was not particularly complicated (silly me) until I came across Paul Merkley’s book in the library: Christian Attitudes toward the State of Israel and started reading about Pope Pius X’s conversation with Theodore Herzl in 1903. I will outline the very broad topic of “Christian attitudes toward the State of Israel” with the contempory experience of Pope Francis’s visit in mind.
Pope Francis was very interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace, inviting the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican to pray for peace (<http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/religion-relics/pope-holy-land-visit/1.592611>). The leader of the Roman Catholic world addresses a predominantly Jewish group and a predominantly Muslim group to pray together for peace in Rome, which the two leaders apparently accepted. Pope Francis then visited Yad Vashem and laid a wreath on the grave of Herzl. He also visited a Palestinian refugee camp. On his way to Bethlehem he made an unscheduled stop at the partition wall to pray. While Ahern of The Times of Israel quotes the Vatican saying that the Pope’s visit was strictly religious and not political, Pope Francis made some very political statements. (http://www.timesofisrael.com/popes-rabbi-friend-hails-significance-of-wreath-laying-at-herzls-grave/)
With many Christian living in Israel and many places being holy to Christians, it seems like the Christian stance on Israel as a state is important. Merkley outlines the history of Christians and their relationship to the State of Israel well, but the relationship with the Roman Catholics is most important in terms of Pope Francis. He documents an exchange between Herzl and Cardinal Merry del Val in 1904, the Cardinal explains: “I do not quite see how we can take any initiative in this matter. As long as the Jews deny the Divinity of Christ, we certainly cannot make a declaration in their favour… How then can we, without abandoning our highest principals, agree to their being given possession of the Holy Land again?” (Cardinal Merry del Val quoted by Merkley, 137). Herzl was asking the Vatican for their support, and was met with unfriendly conversation. “The next formal encounter recorded between official Zionism and the Vatican did not take place until April 1945… when Moshe Shertok of the Jewish Agency was greeted in private audience by Pope Pius XII” (139). This exchange was again unproductive. The Catholic Church was aware of the concept of Zionism and had considered it a possible answer to the Jewish problem, but “until such time as the Roman Catholic church could succeed in making itself the acknowledged custodian of the holy places” they were not willing to support the Zionist movement (139).
The well acknowledged turning point was the revelation of the Holocaust. Merkley explains nicely: “[t]hen came the revelation of the truth about the Holocaust, which brought world opinion around abruptly in favour of a Jewish State” (139). While many began to change their mind and support Zionism when the horror of the holocaust came to light, Catholic publications like Sign and Catholic World that were more urgently concerned about control of Christian holy sites and spoke out against the establishment of Israel (Merkley, 140). However, “the news of the Holocaust, of course, had a chastening effect on most Catholics: compassion for the suffering Jews of Europe, mixed with alarm at the prospect of having to accommodate perhaps a hundred thousand Jews and immigrants, disposed most Catholics to support partition and the creation of an Israeli state” (145). In October of 1965, The Second Vatican Council published that “The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (quoted by Merkley, 147).
With the Second Vatican Council being the turning point, the relationship has been developing since. Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, where he visited Yad Vashem and the Western Wall “and, in emulation of pious Jewish practice, to leave in a crack of the wall a copy of the prayer he had uttered publically just before… “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant. (Signed) Johannus Paulus II” (quoted by Merkley, 158). So the Catholic attitude then, has developed from being concerned about the control of holy sites to supporting the state of Israel, understanding that the Jewish people needed a homeland. Pope Francis’s visit could not help but be political, but his visit to Mount Herzl was a clear statement in support of the state.
In my research I came across a term I was sorry to have never heard before: Christian Zionism. Naturally I read on to find another very interesting dimension to Israel and its support. Pieterse explains the simple understanding of Israel by Pentecostal and Fundamental groups: “The fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell pointed out that “God deals with nations in relation to how nations deal with Israel”. One of the foundations of this belief was the passage in Genesis (12:13), “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you.” (Pieterse, 75). But this is not the single reason that Christian Zionists are in support of Israel- while fundamental Christians (mostly in the United States) are waiting for the end times, Israel is the most important place to those events. “[I]n apocalyptic Christianity the restoration and conversion of the Jews have often been regarded as signs of the endtime and of the return of Christ being imminent. The endtime or apocalypse, ushers in the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ returned to establish a kingdom of peace” (Pieterse, 76). This interest in Israel is very different from the Catholic understanding of Israel where the Catholic authorities recognize Israel and must co operate with Israel because of the holy sites- the American fundamentalist interest in Israel is much more active, where Israel plays a major role in their vision of the endtime that they are hoping for.
In 1809 the London Society for Promoting Christianity among Jews was founded by Reverend Louis Way, and in 1829 “issued a summary of their doctrine which constituted an elementary outline of premillenialism: …2. The Jews will be restored in Palestine during the time of the judgement; 3. The judgement to come will fall principally upon Christendom;” (Pieterse quoting the doctrine of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among Jews, 85). The next major development was in the United States in 1881 when William E. Blackstone “organized the first American lobby for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and initiated an intensive campaign which had the support of U.S. Senators… When Herzl began discussions with the British government on the possibility of establishing a Jewish colony in Uganda or Argentina, Blackstone sent him a Bible with all passages referring to Israel and Palestine underlined” (Pieterse, 90). As just a small taste of how the Christians were involved with the Jewish Zionist movement.
Jump one hundred years into the future, in the 1980s the United States Pieterse highlights the imminent feeling of the endtime and Israel became a focus of funding and theology among Evangelical Christians. “The privileged status of the evangelicals as true believers who thus form a spiritual “Israel”, destined to be taken away through “rapture” at the planetary endgame.” (Pieterse, 94). The relationship of Evangelical Christians to Israel is rather complicated but the fact that they support the state, expecting the end to come and the Jewish people of Israel to convert is a very interesting dynamic to the story of Israel and its international support.
A third layer to the situation is Christian pro-Zionists, Merkley explains that “[t]he Zionists’ opportunity to win the hearts of mainstream Protestants was brief, created by extraordinary and unrepeatable circumstances: the uncovering of the Holocaust; the intolerable situation of Europe’s surviving “displaced” Jews; and the realization that Jews not admitted to Palestine would have to be admitted in vast numbers to the Western democracies” (162). This describes a time between the end of World War II into the beginning of the 1950s where Protestants were in support of the State of Israel not for theological reasons necessarily, but as a resolution to the remaining Jewish problem. Of course the topic of “Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel” has a long history and is very complicated, but over simply- the Roman Catholic concern is with the control of the holy sites, the mainstream Protestant concern is generally with the place of the Jewish people, and the Evangelical and Fundamentalist concern is with the second coming and Israel’s place in the final battle.
Ahren, Raphael. “Pope’s Rabbi Friend Hails Significance of Wreath-laying at Herzl’s Grave”. The Times of Israel. May 21st, 2014. <http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/religion-relics/pope-holy-land-visit/1.592611> [Online]
Maltz, Judy and Khoury, Jack. “Pope Francis Calls for Peace in First Visit to Israel.” Haaretz. May 25th, 2014. <http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/religion-relics/pope-holy-land-visit/1.592611> [Online]
Merkley, Paul Charles. Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2001. [Print]
Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. “This Histroy of Metaphor: Christian Zionism and the Politics of Apocalypse”. Archives de Sciences Socials des Religions 36. 1991. 75-103. [JSTOR]