Attack on the legitimacy of the Jewish state demands pope's response

By Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier

On March 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II stepped up to the Western Wall, the symbol of the Jewish people's past spiritual legacy and hopes for its future and placed this kvittel (note) within its cracks:

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.

That remarkable act of contrition and solidarity with the nation of Israel had it's roots in Pope John XXIII's Nostra Aetate and together with John Paul II's historic visits to Rome's synagogue and establishment of full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state set the course of Catholic- Jewish relations on a new path of reconciliation and fellowship.

This past weekend marked the end of a special Middle East Synod of Bishops. 172 Catholic bishops from the Middle East, virtually all from Islamic countries, are taking part in the synod. Several dozen academics, curial officials and 14 representatives of other Christian churches joined them for dialogue and discussion. Pope Benedict XVI in his opening remarks said those gathered were confronted by "an arduous task since the Christians of the Middle East often find themselves having to endure difficult conditions of life at the personal, familial and communal levels."

Among the synod's objectives was to strengthen Christian identity and promote ecumenism among Christians in Muslim countries.

But despite the focus on the diminishing presence of Christians in the Middle East, some used the gathering to launch an unprecedented political attack--cloaked in medieval theological garb-- on the legitimacy of the Jewish people. At a press conference last Saturday at the close of the synod, Cyrille Salim Bustros, Melkite Catholic Archbishop asserted that,

"We Christians cannot speak about the promised land for the Jewish people. There is no longer a chosen people. All men and women of all countries have become the chosen people. The concept of the promised land cannot be used as a base for the justification of the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of Palestinians." He added that, "[t]he justification of Israel's occupation of the land of Palestine cannot be based on sacred scriptures."

This tirade came on the heels of the introduction earlier at the conference of the so-called Kairos Palestine Document by Monsignor Michel Sabbah, who served as Archbishop and Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1987 to 2008. This document openly denies the right of Israel to be a Jewish state.

A Vatican spokesman was quick to point out that it supports a two-state solution. But that is a wholly inadequate, almost irrelevant response to Archbishop Bustros attack. A statement like this insults every Jew and flies in the face of the statements and actions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both who have visited Israel and expressed solidarity with her people. Further it incites extremist Muslims, ultra-rightwing Catholics, and non-Catholic Christians like the Eastern Orthodox cleric who last year presided over the disrespectful removal of a public menorah last Chanukah in Moldova.

We hope that Pope Benedict XVI will deal swiftly and directly with this outrageous, unwarranted and dangerous assault on the Jewish people and on the legacies of Pope John XXIII and Nostra Aetate and John Paul II.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.