As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis is also the head of a political entity called the Vatican. It was that entity which on May 13 announced an agreement with the “State of Palestine” about churches under Palestinian control. The use of “Palestine” was a shift away from the Vatican’s prior reference of the “Palestine Liberation Organization” as a diplomatic interlocutor.
Since the announcement, American Jews have struggled with the implications of the Vatican’s move. The confusion was compounded by the fact that the Vatican has been referring to Palestine for at least a year in official, but non-diplomatic documents. And it was aggravated by the pope’s much publicized praise of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as an “angel of peace.”
Reactions among Jewish groups were somewhat predictable. The Zionist Organization of America attacked the move as a reflection of “the historical Catholic enmity towards Jews.” Given the many warm expressions of friendship toward Jews and the Jewish people by Pope Francis and his recent predecessors, the ZOA reaction appears to be stuck in a prior century. But that doesn’t mean the Vatican’s move was a wise one.
Most American Jewish organizational responses were more somber and reflective. For example, the Union for Reform Judaism offered a typical analysis: “We believe a solution will be best achieved as a result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and not through unilateral actions,” it said, in a clear reference to the Vatican’s nod to Palestine.
That said, the URJ noted, as did others, that with peace talks moribund since last year, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s on-again off-again commitment to a two-state solution as he leads a solidly rightwing government, unilateral acts of recognition of the State of Palestine are likely to continue.
The move by the Vatican was particularly troubling for another reason. Pope Francis isn’t just any international leader. His moral and symbolic power make him influential far beyond the Catholic Church and the tiny Vatican City. It would have been better had he used his influence, diplomatic skills and evident warm feelings for both Israel and the Palestinians to nudge them both toward a peaceful path forward. Perhaps he still can. But, unilateral moves that embrace one side and alienate the other make the hoped-for process of reconciliation much more difficult.