To Recognize Or Not to Recognize Israel: That is the Question 

When it comes to the issue of Vatican non-recognition for the State of Israel, apologists for the actions—or lack thereof—of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War period often focus on the following things:

Gabriel Wilensky

  • The Vatican’s non-recognition for the right of the Jewish people to establish a homeland in their ancient land of Israel may have been influenced by concern with the safety of Christians in Arab lands
  • Political and diplomatic issues
  • Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli’s (later Pius XII) excitement at the prospect of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine
  • Pope Pius’ refusal to recognize the State of Israel because he would have preferred a state of religious Jews
  • Pope Pius’ 1945 prediction to an audience of 80 Jewish survivors that “soon you will have a Jewish homeland.”
  • Pope Pius pressured other Catholic countries to recognize the State of Israel

“In 1904 Theodor Herzl, who was spearheading the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, met with Pope Pius X with the intent of securing Vatican support for that effort. But Pope Pius X did not recognize the right of the Jews to exist as Jews: ‘The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people . . . The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own; but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity.’”

Let’s look at these explanations or justifications in more detail: the Vatican’s refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to establish a homeland in their ancient land of Israel may have been influenced by concern with the safety of Christians in Arab lands, but given the small number of Christians in Arab lands one must wonder if this was sufficient for the Vatican to delay recognition until 1993. This theory doesn’t hold water.

Perhaps the Vatican was concerned with realpolitik issues. Maybe there were political or diplomatic issues, and maybe the Vatican, who always thinks of consequences to its actions in the long term, thought it imprudent to recognize the Jewish state right after its founding in 1948. But did the Vatican continue to feel it imprudent to refuse recognition for decades after most other countries ceased to have any qualms to do so? This theory does not hold water either.

It is possible that the Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli, had been excited at the prospect of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine during his tenure in the 1930s. If so, that would have been a jarring contradiction with the track record of previous Vatican officials who had opposed just that in the most callous ways, and during a period in which it was vital to do so. In any case, regardless of what Cardinal Pacelli may have thought about the prospect of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people, the Vatican refused to recognize Israel when the state was founded in 1948 and Pope Pius was in command of the secretariat of state and in a position to do this.

I find the assertion that Pope Pius refused to recognize the secular State of Israel because he would have a preferred a state of religious Jews sadly pathetic. Even if this was true, who did Pope Pius think he was to pretend to dictate to Jews the nature of their own state? If this had been the true reason for the refusal to recognize the state, this would be more proof of Christian contempt for Jews and, if anything, betrays the pope’s true feelings for Jews and Judaism.

Papal apologists sometimes claim that Pope Pius XII made a prediction to an audience of 80 Jewish survivors in 1945 that “soon you will have a Jewish homeland.” Can they be serious? What do they think that proves? What else do they think the Pope would have said in 1945, when the League of Nations mandated Britain in 1917 to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine? Do they find that statement particularly prophetic when it was uttered 28 years later, in 1945? They say that the pope didn’t oppose the partition plan of 1947. Again, so what? Is this proof the pope supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland, or was he just accepting reality? Moreover, I find it particularly callous of Pius XII to have prodded Spain to recognize Israel in 1950, when he himself refused to do so at that time and the Vatican would continue to do so for another 43 years!

No, none of these things hold water or ring true. I will tell you the actual reason. It began long before Pope Pius XII. In 1904 Theodor Herzl, who was spearheading the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, met with Pope Pius X with the intent of securing Vatican support for that effort. But Pope Pius X did not recognize the right of the Jews to exist as Jews: “The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people . . . The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own; but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity.” And so he denied support. So did the Cardinal Secretary of State, who earlier had also denied support by saying, among other things, “But in order for us to come out for the Jewish people in the way you desire, they would first have to be converted.” Almost 40 years later, during the Nazi period, Undersecretary of State Tardini (under Pius XII) also opposed Jewish emigration to Palestine, the only place where Jews could have been saved from the Nazi onslaught: “The Holy See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home . . . [because] Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews.” Pius’ Secretary of State Maglione also opposed the possibility of establishing a Jewish homeland there, because according to him Catholics had a right to the holy places, and their “religious feelings would be injured and they would justly feel for their rights if Palestine belonged exclusively to the Jews.” When we read these statements we must remember the historical context of when they were uttered. At that time, Jews were harassed, deprived of citizenship and their livelihood, physically attacked, economically disenfranchised, thrown into ghettos, and worse.

Just in case anyone wants to exculpate these individuals because perhaps they didn’t really know what was going on (they knew very well, but anyway…), after the horrors of the Holocaust became widely known and the State of Israel had been declared in 1948, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which was the closest publication to the pope in the Vatican, felt necessary to declare, “Modern Israel is not the true heir of Biblical Israel, but a secular state . . . Therefore the Holy Land and its sacred sites belong to Christianity, the True Israel.” So, I think it’s important to call a spade a spade and recognize the real reasons why the Church and the Vatican acted the way they did vis-à-vis the Jews before, during and after the war.

Ultimately, the Vatican would shamefully continue in its refusal to recognize the State of Israel until 1993, 45 years after its founding and 14 years after its greatest foe, Egypt, had recognized its right to exist in 1979. The Vatican was one of the last states in the world to do so.

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To Recognize Or Not to Recognize Israel: That is the Question

When it comes to the issue of Vatican non-recognition for the State of Israel, apologists for the actions—or lack thereof—of Pope Pius…

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