The election of Pope Francis I opens a new chapter for the Catholic Church, and for the complex Catholic-Jewish relationship. Since the Second Vatican Council’s historic Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965 that dramatically changed Church teaching on Jews and Judaism, important progress has been made in this relationship. The establishment of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1993 was one such milestone. Giving hope is the new Pope’s history with Argentina’s Jewish community. He stood with that country’s Jews in their darkest hour in the aftermath of the 1994 AMIA bombing. Also, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder expects the new pontiff to “strengthen the Vatican’s relationship with Israel.”
Yet, many challenges remain in this relationship pertaining to the involvement in anti-Israel activities of a number of major Catholic charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These activities are a major problem for Catholic-Jewish relations, but the new Pope can play a positive role in rectifying these issues.
One Catholic charity engaged in anti-Israel activism is Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church of Ireland. Today, Trócaire receives millions of euros from Irish Aid, the Irish government’s foreign assistance agency.
Trócaire has conducted a campaign calling on “the EU to remove all of Israel’s trade privileges” and a petition drive to block Israel from membership in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
In 2007 Trócaire joined with Palestinian NGO BADIL in a “Call to Action” to support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), and enlisted “journalists to organize a targeted campaign… to expose the Jewish and Zionist community’s double standards.” BADIL also supports the Palestinian claim to a “right to return.” In 2010 BADIL awarded a prize to a blatantly anti-Semitic cartoon, featuring a grotesque caricature of a Jewish man in a black caftan standing over dead Arab children and holding a pitchfork dripping with blood.
Another Trócaire partner is the fringe Israeli NGO Zochrot whose purpose is to “raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba…. (and) In recognizing and materializing the right of return.” Zochrot activist, Noa Shaindlinger, recently gained notoriety for a Facebook post about the deaths of two Israeli Air Force pilots in a training accident: “We may have some good news later this morning (hint: IOF [sic] accident with casualties).”
Such “partners” are certainly not in keeping with Trócaire’s proclaimed humanitarian efforts.
Another Catholic NGO engaged in anti-Israel demonization is Pax Christi International, headquartered in Brussels. Its International President is Michael Sabbah, the Nazareth-born Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who advocates for the “right of return” and has characterized terrorism as acts of “resistance.”
Pax Christi International was an active participant at the NGO Forum of the 2001 Durban Conference. The NGO Forum’s Final Declaration described Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” and called for “the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.”
Another problematic Catholic NGO is the Flemish Broederlijk Delen (BD), based in Brussels. It blames Israel solely for the continuation of the conflict, refers to the security barrier as the “apartheid wall,”and funds a number of overtly anti-Zionist Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. Brigitte Herremans is Middle East Policy Officer for both Pax Christi Flanders and Broederlijk Delen.
In 2011 BD granted €40,000 to Zochrot, €20,000 to BADIL and €20,000 to Defence of Children International – Palestine Section. This last group is a signatory of the 2005 “Palestinian Civil Society Call for BDS” campaign against Israel – the implementation of the Durban NGO Forum declaration. DCI/PS also promotes the “right to return,” and published a poster referring to Israeli security measurements as “a central pillar of the Apartheid-like system.”
The historical reconciliation between the Vatican and the Jewish people is a half-century in the making. It is an ongoing process, largely positive, that must be nurtured carefully in respectful dialogue. Israel is home to almost half the world’s Jews, and the Diaspora looks to Israel as its spiritual, cultural and historical center. In this sense, the efforts by these, and other, Catholic NGOs and charities to delegitimize Israel have the net effect of demonizing the Jewish people as a whole.
Pope Francis I has an opportunity to advance Catholic-Jewish relations even further by taking the appropriate steps to rein in these anti-Israel Catholic NGOs.