ISRAEL: Cross on the Star of David: The Christian World in Israel's Foreign Policy, 1948-1967

By Levey, Zach | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

ISRAEL: Cross on the Star of David: The Christian World in Israel's Foreign Policy, 1948-1967


Levey, Zach, The Middle East Journal


Cross on the Star of David: The Christian World in Israel's Foreign Policy, 1948-1967, by Uri Bialer. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005. 264 pages $39.95.

Uri Bialer's study of Israel's relations with the Christian world draws upon recently released archival material in order to analyze a highly salient component of its foreign policy. The "Christian world" was a force basically inimical to Israel, its disposition ranging from the general ambivalence of the Protestant denominations to the hostility and nonrecognition of the Catholic Church. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion put it this way: "The Vatican has a 2,000-year-old reckoning with the Jews ... a dogma has existed for 1,800 years, and we gave it the coup de grace by establishing the State of Israel'" (p. 25). Moreover, the Church had largely stood aside during the Holocaust, and the recent memory of that moral failure deeply affected Israel's view of the Vatican (p. 32). Yet, Christianity was the principal religion of the countries from which Israel most sought aid and arms, and for that reason, the Israelis faced a thorny problem (p. xi).

Bialer divides his work into two main sections, both of which cover the period from 1948 to the (1967) Six-Day War. The first section focuses on Israel's diplomacy vis-à-vis the Vatican. The second part deals with Israel's policies toward missionary activity, its Christian communities, and the assets of the various denominations in the country. The Vatican remained formally neutral during the first (1948) Arab-Israeli war, but it had expected a Jewish defeat and internationalization of Jerusalem in accordance with the November 1947 United Nations plan (p. 7). Israel deluded itself that the Catholic Church was reconciled to the post-1948 War status quo in the Holy Land, but that complacence was short-lived. In 1949 the Vatican failed in its attempt to prevent Israel's acceptance to the United Nations but influenced the General Assembly to ratify the call for the internationalization of the city, the western part of which Israel held and considered its capital (p. 22). Israel and Jordan remained in control of Jerusalem, but the Church in Rome had placed itself "at the head of the revisionist section of the international anti-Israel front" (p. 23). Thus, the Jerusalem question, which the Vatican linked to a resolution of the Palestinian issue, became the crux of Israel's relations with the entire Christian world (pp. 28-29).

In 1949 Israel moved the seat of its government, and in 1952 the Foreign Ministry, to Jerusalem, further antagonizing the Vatican. The Church's stance was a source of concern for Israel, but even within the Foreign Ministry there were sharp differences regarding the appropriate response. One high-ranking diplomat, Leo Kohn, opposed efforts to win the Vatican's recognition, because its representation in Israel would greatly strengthen the state's Christian Arabs. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett warned that Israel could not ignore its conflict with the Vatican. The Catholic Church, he noted, was a global force, and there existed the danger that all of Christianity would ally with Islam against Judaism. A more immediate and practical consideration was the fact that the Catholic minority in the United States was five times as large as the Jewish community there (p. 28).

A mutual reluctance to conduct a direct diplomatic dialogue marked the first years of Israel's relationship with the Vatican, during which the Israeli government sought indirect ways to mitigate tension with the Church (p. 33). Yet in 1954 a number of developments, including the instructions of the United States and Britain to their diplomats to accept accreditation in Jerusalem, greatly alleviated the sense of threat that Vatican support of internationalization of the city had created (pp. 50-51). From the mid-1950s Israel attempted to normalize ties with the Catholic Church and in late 1958 viewed with hope the ascent to the papacy of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (John XXIII), who during the second World War had at least assisted in the rescue of Jews. …

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