The Vatican and Israel

By Evans, Ernest | World Affairs, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The Vatican and Israel

Evans, Ernest, World Affairs

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. …

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