We gather in Jerusalem a little more than three years since Israel and the Vatican agreed to establish full diplomatic relations by exchanging ambassadors. There are, of course, any number of ancient or contemporary reference dates I might invoke to underscore the significance of our gathering. However, it is the formalization of full diplomatic relations that I have chosen, because I believe it is an event of both historical and theological meaning, whether or not its architects intended it as such.
Certainly, both the Holy See and Israel -- and Catholics worldwide and the world community of the Jewish people -- were aware of the agreement's historical meaning. It established full, regular, and normal diplomatic relations between two parties that had been, prior to that time, less than full and, therefore, by definition, other than normal. In its less than full and less than normal status, the relationship of the Vatican to Israel was a constant reminder of the Holy See's discomfort with, if not rebuke to, Israel, from the time when Theodor Herzl visited Pope Pius XI through the near disaster of the Wardi affair, which nearly erased Nostra aetate from the agenda of Vatican II. Following the signing of the historic Oslo agreement some three months earlier, the agreement between the Holy See and Israel was more than just another reward that Israel reaped in the wake of its recognition of the P.L.O. From the perspective of the Jewish people, it carried a sense of reconciliation and acceptance.
I was privileged to be present at the signing of the agreement here in Jerusalem. As I entered that less than majestic quonset hut on the grounds of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, I was stunned to find the reporters and videojournalists stacked like cordwood on the other side of the room. After the almost interminable negotiations, no one -- not I, certainly -- expected such media attention, or the intensity of public reaction. Later, members of the Foreign Ministry staff acknowledged that none of them had anticipated such media attention to the signing. If they had realized the importance that the world press would attach to the agreement, they never would have held the signing ceremony in such a place.
Why did the world press focus such attention on the signing of the agreement between Israel and the Holy See? The answer is really simple, I think, and so fundamental that to pose the question might seem simpleminded. However, obvious or simple-minded as it might be, it needs to be said. Israel, although it strives to be "a nation like any other," is not a nation like any other. Clearly, the Holy See is also not a nation like any other. In fact, if either entity has a parallel in the world, it is the other, although, in truth, there is more that is dissimilar than similar. Furthermore, the person of Pope John Paul II represents the Roman Catholic Church as an enormous moral force in the world. It is precisely within the context of this particular pope's worldwide moral influence that his espousal of his theology of the Jewish people in recognizing us as we see ourselves takes on such great importance. Israel, while it conforms more closely to the traditional Western model of the nation-state, is both the historical and the spiritual home of a people -- the Jewish people. For us, religion and place are inextricably bound through the covenant between God and the descendants of Jacob, called Israel. So, from a theological perspective, Israel, too -- the nation and the Jewish people -- in our temporal guise, asserts our spiritual identity. Israel is not an added or secondary feature but an integral, essential, ineluctable component of our identity. Indeed, when individual Jews or Jewish organizations criticize the government of the State of Israel, we do so not because the government does not live up to the standard of behavior of modem nation-states but because the government does not conform to our understanding of God's commanding presence in eternal covenant with our People Israel. …