Forty-five years, that is how long it took the Vatican to establish formal relations with the State of Israel from the time of it’s modern independence in 1948. Twenty-eight years had already passed since the Second Vatican Council’s approval of the Nostra Aetate in 1965, the document clarifying after more than 1,900 years, that Israel as a nation, a collective, did not and does not, bear responsibility for the execution of one of its own — Jesus of Nazareth. At the time of the Roman Empire’s oppressive and brutal occupation of the Land of Israel, the people of Israel had no authority or power to crucify anyone, let alone someone accused of high treason against Rome [the accusation, that of being a claimant to the Kingship Of Israel, was also inscribed over the cross itself: INRI]. As for the native so-called “leadership” in the Land of Israel at the time of Jesus’ death and leading up to the First Judean-Roman War [better known as the Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E.] it was composed of Roman collaborators and proxies put in power by Rome precisely due to their readiness to serve at the pleasure of the Empire and the Emperor.
The Romans consistently pursued the highly effective and efficient strategy of divide and conquer among indigenous populations throughout their empire. Herod the Great is perhaps the most famous and infamous of these Roman puppet-vassals. Furthermore the number of High Priests who served in the Temple of Jerusalem and the high frequency of their replacement starkly illustrates how tightly Rome controlled those it conquered and specifically the take no chances policy it pursued in the Land of Israel [interestingly enough the longest serving High Priest in the period leading up to the war of 66 was one Caiaphas, the High Priest at the time Jesus was believed to have been crucified].
Returning to the modern period and the Vatican, why the delay in establishing formal official relations with the State of Israel? Vatican and Catholic relations with, and interests in, the Arab and Muslim world one might argue. But the Vatican challenged communism and the Soviet Union for decades, so would push back and pressure from certain regimes in the Arab world really have been so deterring and insurmountable? In fact the interests of the Vatican in Israel, particularly after the 1967 Six Day War and the new realities on the ground in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and elsewhere, could not have been any less important or relevant than those it maintained in other parts of the Middle East. The heartland of the Holy Land in Judea and Samaria as well as locations and Church assets throughout the Galilee have always been a priority, to say the least, for the Papacy. Indeed in 1964 Pope Paul VI visited Israel- that was prior even to the approval of the Nostra Aetate- but he barely acknowledged the independence or sovereignty of the State of Israel except for a brief meeting with then Israeli President Zalman Shazar at the sight of ancient Megiddo. So again why does it take so long for the Papacy to officially recognize the State of Israel? Perhaps Megiddo provides the key to the answer.
Har Megiddo, the mount of Megiddo, today a mound on part of the south-eastern edge of the Carmel mountain range, linguistically corrupted from the Hebrew became Armageddon, a turn of phrase for the end of the world. Eschatological thought and belief in the Christian west had developed- especially as pagan Rome eventually adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire- a very clear view on the role and fate of the Nation of Israel in the ‘end times’. The apocalypse in and of itself that was Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, the Second Temple, and the land of Israel in general, along with the abolishment of any self determination for Am Yisrael [the Nation of Israel] in the land- just as one of many messianic sects from within the nation, known as “the way” was gaining momentum proselytizing to foreigners, as per the doctrine of Paul the Apostle- provided a catalyst for what would become the Christian faith’s view on the destiny and fate of Israel. The mass exile of Am Yisrael from the Land of Israel, both after the first war against Rome and then again after the third [the Bar-Kokhva War] in 136 C.E.-which also saw the Romans change the actual name of the imperial province in an attempt to sever what was then an already ancient connection between nation and land- served to strengthen this coalescing Roman-Christian view.
This view, in short, was that the G-d of the Hebrew Bible, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had abandoned his people Israel and made null and void the Covenant sealed with their forefathers. The Church of Rome later to become the Vatican, was the new Israel, and the Nation of Israel’s wandering, vulnerability, suffering, and shame throughout the following millennia would be the affirmation of that belief. This would become fundamental dogma for Christendom itself. Israel, the ethno-national collective and their faith, would remain outside of history, and have no part, except as a negative footnote, in the last days and the redemption as transmitted by their own Prophets, and expanded upon for Christendom in the books of the Christian Bible.
Then something odd and unexpected occurred. For the first time in human history, after two millennia, a people exiled from its native land, stripped of independence, endlessly persecuted and continuously under threat of death and destruction, reconstituted it’s self determination, reunited far flung exilic communities, and returned to its land joining the remnant of their brethren that had remained there throughout the ages. Further still they defeated enemies more powerful than they and whom had far greater resources to call upon. Israel had been resurrected. This is the crux of what was an eschatological-theological conundrum with which the Vatican and other Christian denominations would have to deal, and would be the central reason why Israel would not be recognized by the Papacy for decades. For a certain segment of Protestant Christianity however, the dramatic, literally Biblical level events, would actually strengthen their own faith and lead to one of the strongest most strategic relationships in modern inter-faith relations and geo-politics.
In the Evangelical Christian movement and even prior to it amongst what can be termed the Judeo-Christian roots stream of Protestant Christianity [those learned and focused on the Hebrew Bible which they held up as the living root from which Christianity sprouted and that is as relevant to them as it was canon for Jesus and his first followers]; instead of the exclusion of Israel from a final divine redemption and the culmination of history Israel nation and land take a central and decisive role in them. There can be no redemption, no judgement day, no final divine revelation without the Nation of Israel returning to and liberating its land and their eternal sacred capital Jerusalem. A sovereign strong Israel which ingathers it’s remaining sons and daughters from the diaspora, and that is a beacon to the nations of the world is critical to Evangelical Christian Eschatology and belief.
Beyond the eschatological, the main driver and focal point for Christian faith based supporters of Israel, that from which all the other elements of their support stems, are the seminal passages from Chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis where the G-d of Israel initiates his covenant with Abraham and establishes the Land of Israel as the homeland of his covenantal descendants, and where it is stated: “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through you” [Genesis Ch. 12 vs. 3]. One need look no further than to a speech by former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo [an Evangelical Christian] on a recent trip to Israel while visiting the Binyamin region just north of Jerusalem on the topic of Israel’s sovereignty and historic rights to clearly understand the Evangelical perspective.
This perspective has percolated into other Christian denominations and has significantly altered how large parts of the Christian world in general relate to Israel. The Vatican is no exception, especially it’s congregations in English speaking countries, which are where the Judeo-Christian roots movement\phenomenon has made a particularly deep impact. While in some countries where Roman Catholicism is the dominant religious affiliation, a strong and vibrant partnership with Israel is still far off- in the case of Ireland for example the views and policies relating to Israel on the part of the government and a large portion of the population are extremely hostile and often times rabidly Anti-Semitic- for reasons that also go beyond religious tradition, the Roman Catholic Church itself has a better and more constructive set of relations with Israel than ever before. From the numerous statements by recent Pope’s on the matter of inter-faith relations to the active measures highlighting the origins of Christianity in the faith of Israel, the Papacy relates to Israel in a fashion markedly different to how it once did .
The situation vis a vis the wide and diverse Christian world is not perfect and the reconciliation not complete, but this comprehensive reform led by Evangelicals in relating to Israel nation and state-akin to a small scale second Protestant Reformation- is crucial to the future of Israel’s foreign relations and partnerships. From South Korea, to Japan, across the Pacific to South America, and more and more in Africa, the Christian groups subscribing to the Evangelical stance on Israel have created new relationships and strengthened existing ones for Israel as a country and as a people. The relocation of the embassies of Guatemala and Honduras in Israel to Jerusalem were in great part thanks to the Evangelical movements growing strength in those countries and Latin America as a whole. These countries followed the lead of the United States of America which finally moved its embassy to Jerusalem in part also due to Evangelical influence on the administration of former President Donald Trump. Even the future of a currently problematic, factually lacking, and often negative viewpoint of Israel amongst a good chunk of African Americans in the US can be decidedly changed, along with that of other minorities especially Latinos, through a growing affiliation of those of the Christian faith in those communities with the Evangelical movement. Apart from those of our own diaspora communities with a strong identity and a Zionist foundation, Christian Zionists and Evangelical’s in particular are the most steadfast, loyal, and pro-active non-state allies that Israel has.
What is fascinating to witness in real time is the extension, in earnest, of this socio-religious “reformation” to the Islamic world spurred on by national geo-strategic interests in the Middle East as well as a growing appreciation for the State of Israel’s prestige and unprecedented success. While Islam, like Christianity, developed an innate hostility toward and conflict with Am Yisrael, due to the latter’s “stiff necked” preservation of the aspirations, theology, and ideology of their forefathers, the Arab-Islamic approach was more nuanced than that of Christendom. The shared ethno-racial [Semitic] background of the Arabian progenitors of Islamic civilization with the Nation of Israel, along with the Islamic concept of the “People of the Book” are major factors in this different approach; an approach whose conciliatory elements are now being amplified and are therefore strengthening the change\”reform” occurring.
When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab and his armies of the faithful defeated the Byzantines and wrested the Land of Israel from their control in the 7th century CE, the Caliph entered Jerusalem and according to early Islamic historical traditions and texts, was focused not on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [though Jesus is an accepted prophet in Islam] or Imperial Byzantine architecture, but on being taken to see the spot where the Kings of Israel David and his son Solomon prostrated themselves before G-d and where Solomon built a Temple to Israel’s G-d. So much so that when he finally arrived at the Temple Mount, and saw the garbage dump it was turned into by the Byzantines as a purposeful affront so as to further affirm Israel’s abandonment by G-d and it’s eternal demise, the Caliph himself began to clear the rubble and refuse. This is perhaps the perfect anecdote for how Israel’s glorious past and natural place in the land and region were recognized by the early Arab leaders of Islamic civilization [though rights of self determination and national independence were stripped and negated by the purpose and character of the Caliphate as well as it’s eschatological implications, as well as Islam’s tenet that it completed the limited role and nature of the other two monotheistic faiths].
Umar went even further also calling for the remnant of the Nation of Israel to return to Jerusalem and feel secure in the land, in contrast to Byzantine prohibitions. The second class but recognized minority status of Christian peoples and the Nation of Israel in the Dar al Islam did not however prevent the development of negative eschatological beliefs on the role and status of Israel on “judgment day”. The Koran itself makes several references to Israel both nation and land as well as it’s historic figures, therefore recognizing them, yet much like in Christian scripture highlights Israel’s sin and failures and therefore it’s suffering and defeat even including the divine willed destruction of the Temples. As occurred in Christendom, the phenomenon of disenfranchisement of the Nation of Israel, as the same entity mentioned in the Koran and later Islamic scripture, or it’s displacement would also become ubiquitous in the Muslim world. In time various Hadiths, extra-Koranic texts, and Islamic exegesis, would be utilized to position Am Yisrael, with varying degrees of emphasis depending on the atmosphere and radicalism of the period or leadership, as an enemy at the end times. This enemy status would become unprecedented in size and scope with the rejection of the self-determination and independence of Israel in the 20th century, the exploitation and leveraging of the Arab-Israeli conflict by extension, and the ascent of Islamic radical fundamentalism in the late 1970’s.
Now though, with the threat of resurgent Persian and Turkish regional ambitions, fueled by Islamic fundamentalism both of the Shi’ite and Sunni brand, coupled with apocalyptic Jihadism from non-state actors such as ISIS, the Arab and some parts of the wider Muslim world are recalibrating how they relate to Israel. The Abraham Accords [again the personage of Abraham an anchor of reconciliation] and the intimate covert relations which proceeded them, have facilitated an Arab-Muslim ‘reformation moment’; a historic turning point where a bold and genuine shift in thinking and practice tear down layers upon layers of animus and hostility. The brilliance in the straight forward simplicity of the label Abraham Accords, encompasses the very raison d’étre and deep foundation for this rapprochement of the two major Semitic peoples of the Middle East. Crucially it is a historic shift that is on a people to people level as much as it is government to government. From non-governmental public figures in the UAE and Bahrain to social media influencers, including in Saudi Arabia which has not yet even established formal and public relations with Israel, important and everyday voices are speaking to Israel’s natural and rightful place in the region and even about it’s history and sovereignty in Jerusalem, and doing so in accordance with their own Islamic beliefs and traditions.
Let their be no mistake, there are still large swaths of the Muslim world and numerous and powerful forces within it [incomparably more than in the remaining Christian affiliated and observant parts of the west], that deny Israel’s rights and seek it’s annihilation often times in an eschatological context. If however together with our partners whether they be Shi’ite in Baku, Sunni in Abu Dhabi, or Sufi in Fez, we can thwart the designs of the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and it’s offshoots on the one hand, and the genocidal Ayatollahs on the other, the sea change in how the Muslim world relates to Israel nation and state will expand and strengthen for the benefit of all. Perhaps then we will be able to realize the words of Mikha [Micah] Prophet of Israel in relation to Israel’s restoration and the ‘Last Days’: “For all the nations will go forth each in the name of its god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our G-d forever and ever.” [Micah Ch. 4 vs. 5].