The Vatican and Israel – foreign relations

Ernest Evans

Two important phenomena of the same nature and yet antagonistic, manifest themselves nowadays in Turkish Asia but have drawn very little attention to themselves. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent effort of the Jews to reconstitute on a large scale the ancient Kingdom of Israel. The two movements are destined to fight each other continually. . . . On the final outcome of this struggle may well hinge the destiny of the whole world.(1)

The author of the quotation cited above is Niguib Azousy, an early Palestinian nationalist writing in 1905. Today, everyone can agree that he was quite prophetic in what he wrote; the Arab-Israeli dispute has clearly been one of the major conflicts of the twentieth century. In this conflict, one of the key actors has been the world’s oldest continuous international institution, namely, the Vatican.

This article will examine Vatican diplomacy toward the state of Israel. First, there will be a historical overview of Vatican policy toward Israel. Second, there will be a discussion of why for so long the Vatican refused to recognized Israel. Third, the article will conclude by evaluating why in late 1993 the Vatican finally established diplomatic relations with Israel.


The Vatican was involved with the Zionist movement long before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In 1904, Theodore Herzl had an audience with Pope Pius X; in this audience the founder of the Zionist movement sought Papal support for the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland. Herzl was disappointed, however. Pope Pius X stated flatly that the Church would not support Zionism.(2)

The Zionist movement tried again to get papal support when Zionist envoy Nahum Sokolow met with Pope Benedict XV in 1917. Pope Benedict XV was not as negative as Pope Pius X had been, but he, too, refused to support the idea of a Jewish homeland: When the British government promised such a homeland in its 1917 Balfour Declaration, the Vatican made its opposition.(3)

As Jewish settlement grew in the Palestine Mandate in the 1920s and 1930s, the Vatican continued to oppose an independent Jewish state. However, by the time of the 1947 United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, the Vatican had decided that the creation of an independent state of Israel was inevitable; so it quietly dropped its opposition to a Jewish homeland and became a de facto supporter of the partition plan.(4)

After Israel’s war of independence in 1948-1949, the Vatican withheld diplomatic recognition from Israel but continued to have contacts with prominent Israelis. In 1969 Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban had an audience with Pope Paul VI, as did Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973.(5)


The question arises as to why, if the Vatican was willing to accept the reality of the state of Israel and if the Pope was willing to give audiences to prominent Israelis, the Vatican was unwilling to grant diplomatic recognition to the state of Israel until 1993. In answering this question it is first necessary to say that anti-Semitism was not the reason Vatican recognition of Israel took so long. To be sure, any fair history of the Roman Catholic Church must acknowledge that there has long been considerable hostility toward the Jewish people by the Church. Church father Origen wrote: “And therefore the blood of Jesus falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world.”(6) Prior to the twentieth century, many Christians held that the Romans’ destruction of the state of Israel in the first century A.D. and the dispersal of the Jewish people all over the world was God’s divine punishment for the Jewish people; as Saint Augustine wrote: “The Jews who rejected Him and slew Him were accordingly dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”(7)

However, by the twentieth century the Church leadership had repudiated anti-Semitism. For example, in 1938 Pope Pius XI stated to group of pilgrims:

Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible, through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.(8)

Furthermore, during the Holocaust, the future Popes John XXIII and John Paul II were both actively involved in efforts to save Jews, John XXIII in his capacity as papal legate in Istanbul and John Paul II as a member of the Polish underground. The efforts of these two individuals were well known; had there been much anti-Semitism among the leadership of the Church, they would never have been elected Pope. Finally, the Second Vatican Council in 1965 issued the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religious (Nostra Aetate), which stated with reference to the Jewish people:

Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ . . . neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion. It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.(9)

In response to this evidence that the Church has rejected anti-Semitism, one might raise the question: “What about the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust?” A number of writers on the Holocaust have charged that Pope Plus XII was at best indifferent to, and at worst supportive of, the Holocaust. This charge received its most well-known expression in the play The Deputy, by German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth.(10)

In response to this question, a number of Catholic writers and scholars could be quoted, but perhaps it is most appropriate to cite the views of prominent Israelis:

* Chaim Weizmanz, writing during the war: “The Holy See is lending its powerful help wherever it can, to mitigate the fate of my persecuted coreligionists.”(11)

* Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister, upon meeting Pope Pius XII during the war: “I told [the Pope] that my first duty was to thank him, and through him, the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public, for all they had done in various countries to save Jews, to save children, and Jews in general. We are deeply grateful to the Catholic Church.”(12)

* Pinchas E. Lapide, Israeli consul in Italy for a number of years: “The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all the other churches, religious institutions, and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the achievements of the International Red Cross and the Western Democracies. . . . The Holy See, the Nuncios and the entire Catholic Church saved some 400,000 Jews from certain death.”(13)

These statements by prominent Israelis effectively refute Hochhuth’s charge of papal indifference to the Holocaust; clearly, Pius XII did a great deal to help victims of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” But there remains another charge: Why did Pius XII not publicly condemn the Nazis for their genocidal policies? Specifically, given that in recent decades many Catholics have called on the Church leadership to assume a “prophetic” posture of vigorously and publicly denouncing social and political evils, the question arises: “Why did Pope Pius XII not publicly denounce the Nazi regime for policies that can only be called radically evil?”

The answer to this charge is that Pope Pius XII felt that what we now call “quiet diplomacy” would be more effective than public protests. The case of the Dutch Church’s reaction to the Holocaust heavily influenced the Pope’s decision not to publicly protect the Holocaust. Specifically, in 1942 the Nazis began rounding up and deporting the Dutch Jews to the death camps in Poland. The Nazis did not, however, round up Dutch Jews who had been baptized as Christians. The Nazis told the leaders of the Dutch Catholic Church that if they said nothing about these deportations they would leave the baptized Jews alone. The leadership of the Dutch Catholic Church felt, however, that they must publicly denounce the deportations, so the Archbishop of Utrecht issued a pastoral letter condemning the Nazis’ genocide. In response, the Nazis arrested all the Dutch Jews who had been baptized as Catholics and deported them to the death camps. (One of those deported was the great Catholic philosopher Edith Stein; she died in the death camps.) In contrast, the Dutch Protestant churches did not publicly denounce the deportations; the baptized Protestant Jews were not touched.(14)

If, as this article has argued, the reluctance of the Vatican to recognize Israel until recently is not due to anti-Semitism, what were the reasons for this reluctance? There are, all in all, six critical reasons for the Vatican’s reluctance to recognize Israel until 1993:

The desire to maintain control over, and access to, the Holy Places in Israel. The Catholic Church is an institution that is nearly two thousand years old; consequently, the Church tends to think in terms of centuries. When the state of Israel was established in 1948 the Church was, like the rest of the world, very uncertain as to how long it would last, given how many enemies it had. In light of Israel’s uncertain survivability in 1948, the Church was reluctant to recognize Israel for fear that in the near or distant future Israel might be destroyed by the Arabs – and then access by Catholics to the Holy Places might be restricted on even cut off entirely by Arabs embittered over Vatican recognition of Israel.

The desire to protect the interests of the Catholic communities in the Holy Land. While Catholics have not controlled the Holy Land since the destruction of the Latin Kingdom in 1291 A.D., there is and always has been a sizable Catholic community in the Holy Land. Both for reasons of tradition and for doctrinal reasons, it is very important to the Church that this Catholic community survive and flourish. During the 1948-1949 Middle Eastern War, many Palestinian Catholics became refugees. Out of the loyalty to these Palestinian Catholics, the Church felt it could not recognize Israel until some resolution was made concerning the problem of the refugees.(15)

Concern that recognition of Israel might provoke retaliation against Catholic communities in the Arabic and Islamic world. The Catholic communities in the Arab and Islamic world are not large, but like the Palestinian Catholic community, they are important to the Church. These Catholic communities, like the Palestinian Catholics, are the oldest Catholic communities in the world; hence, in the Vatican’s eyes, they provide an unbroken link to the earliest days of Christianity.(16) Therefore, the Vatican has always been concerned that recognizing Israel would harm these Catholic communities, a concern heightened in recent decades by the upsurge of both secular Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.

Concern that recognizing Israel would jeopardize efforts to develop ecumenical relations with the Islamic world. After the pontificate of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church began ecumenical dialogues not only with Jews and Protestants but also with Muslims. As the revolutionary regime in Iran has shown, much of the Islamic world remains deeply hostile to Israel, and therefore the Vatican did not want to complicate its ecumenical relations with the Islamic world by recognizing Israel.

Concern that recognizing Israel would harm the Church’s position not only in the Islamic world but also elsewhere in the Third World. As the twentieth century has progressed, the Church has become, from its highest to its lowest levels, less and less of a European Church and more and more of a Third World Church. Looking first at statistics for all Christians, whereas in 1900 there were 392 million Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox) in the developed world and 67 million Christians in the rest of the world, in 1965 there were 637 Christians in the developed countries and 370 million Christians in the rest of the world. Looking specifically at statistics for Catholics, in 1960 there were 297 million Catholics in the developed world and 251 million Catholics in the rest of the world; it is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be 380 million Catholics in the developed countries and 854 million Catholics in the rest of the world.(17) The steady growth in the size of the Third World’s portion of the Church’s communicants has led to changes at the top levels of the Church. Whereas in 1946 an absolute majority of the College of Cardinals was Italian and there was not a single Cardinal from Asia or Africa, by the 1990s there were several dozen African and Asian Cardinals.(18)

There is a great deal of hostility toward Israel among the nations of the Third World, as was shown by the passage of the 1975 United Nations’ General Assembly resolution calling Zionism a form of racism. Given its increased “tilt” toward the Third World, the Church has feared that recognizing Israel could jeopardize its efforts to maintain unity among its diverse population of believers.

Concern about Israeli’s ties to nations that are having problems with their local Churches and/or with the American Church. Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has been a “pariah” nation in world politics. So it is not surprising that Israel developed close ties with other “pariah” nations such as Somocisto Nicaragua, Pinochet’s Chile, and the apartheid regime in South Africa. These various “pariah” nations have had a number of differences among themselves, but one thing they all have had in common is poor relations with the local Catholic Church.(19)

Also, these “pariah” nations have aroused the hostility of the American Catholic Church – the second largest Church in the world (only Brazil’s Church is larger) and also the wealthiest church in the world.(20) Concerned about its relationship with these various national churches, the Vatican has been displeased by Israel’s involvement with what has been called “the Pariah International.”


Given all the reasons discussed above as to why the Vatican was so reluctant for so long to recognize Israel, the question arises as to why the Vatican finally established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993.(21) The answer is that by late 1993 all of the Vatican’s concerns about Israel had been either substantially mitigated or totally alleviated. By 1993 Israel had survived for nearly half a century; its chances of survival looked much better in 1993 than they had in 1948. The Catholic Church has learned over the centuries that in order to fulfill its religious mission it must be willing to accommodate itself to a broad variety of regimes; so once it was clear that Israel was likely to survive, the Vatican became more willing to have diplomatic relations with it.

A second development favoring recognition was that, by 1993, Israel’s relations with the “pariah” states had ceased to trouble the Vatican: South Africa had abolished apartheid, democratic rule had been restored in Chile, and the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua had been overthrown. Third, the peace process between Israel and the Arab world, which had begun in 1977 with Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, had by 1993 made great progress, most notably with the signing of the PLO-Israel agreement in 1993. With the peace process far along, the Vatican felt that it could recognize Israel without abandoning the Palestinian Catholic community, without endangering the Catholic communities of the Arabic and Islamic worlds, without jeopardizing the ecumenical dialogue with the Islamic world, and without offending Catholics living in the Third World.

Finally, recognizing Israel relieved a source of friction between the Vatican and the United States (with whose national church the Vatican very much wants to have smooth relations).


Serious disputes remain between the Vatican and Israel. The Vatican still wants some voice in the running of the Holy Places, and it continues to support full national self-determination for the Palestinian people. However, the Vatican and Israel have compromised some of their key outstanding differences, and if the peace process continues to move forward, there is every reason to believe that they can accommodate each other on their remaining disputes.


1. Andrej Kruetz, Vatican Policy on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990), 29.

2. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 33.

3. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 34. For a good discussion of the Vatican’s policy toward Zionism in the early twentieth century, see Sergio I. Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism: Conflict in the Holy Land 1895-1990).

4. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 93-94.

5. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 129.

6. Anthony Rhodes, The Vatican in the Age of Dictators (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), 338.

7. Rhodes, Vatican in the Age of Dictators, 337.

8. Rhodes, Vatican in the Age of Dictators, 339.

9. Austin P. Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Past Conciliar Documents (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, Inc.), 741.

10. Rhodes, Vatican in the Age of Dictators, 349-52.

11. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 76.

12. Pinchas E. Lapide, The Last Three Popes and the Jews (London: Souvenir Press, 1967), 277.

13. Rhodes, Vatican in the Age of Dictators, p. 339.

14. Rhodes, Vatican in the Age of Dictators, pp. 344-45.

15. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 102-03.

16. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 18.

17. Kruetz, Vatican Policy, 12.

18. Kreutz, Vatican Policy, 4.

19. For a discussion of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, see John M. Kirk, Politics and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, (Gainsville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 1992). For a discussion of the Church in Chile, see Brian Smith, The Church and Politics in Chile (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981). For a discussion of the U.S. Church, see Ernest Evans, “The U.S. Catholic Church and the South Africa Issue,” Conflict Quarterly (Fall 1989).

20. For a discussion of the negotiations that led to Vatican recognition of Israel, see Thomas Patrick Melady, “Vatican-Israeli Link,” Crisis, 12 (March 1994): 9-10.

Ernest Evans is a professor of political science at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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