Is Catholic Churches’ Criticism of Israel’s Nation-State Law Blow to Jewish-Christian Relations?

November 9, 2018

5 min read

Last week, the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries issued a statement calling on Israel to rescind its Nation-State Law. The law, though controversial, has no real practical implications but the push-back from the Catholic Church may do serious damage to Jewish-Christian relations which have been steadily improving since the Second Vatican Council more than 50 years ago.

The law, passed by the Knesset in July is also known as the Basic Law. Though it bears no practical implications, the law has been controversial since it was first proposed in 2011, drawing fire from various parties within the Israeli Knesset as well as from outside of Israel.

According to the law, Israel would be defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the right to self-determination in Israel would be unique to the Jewish people. The state of Israel should establish ethnic communities where every resident may preserve their culture and heritage. Hebrew would be considered the official language of the state while Arabic would be granted a special status. The Hebrew calendar would become the official calendar of the state of Israel, and Hebrew law would serve as an inspiration to Israeli legislators.

MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the joint committee that legislated the bill answered its critics in a statement released after its passage, emphasizing its importance to the Jewish people.

“This moment will be remembered in the history of the Jewish nation. We are laying down one of the cornerstones of our existence… After 2,000 years of exile, we have a home.” Addressing members of the Arab factions, MK Ohana said, “Every minority prefers to be the majority, but you are asking to become the 22nd Arab state. We are one country that is surrounded by 21 nation states of the Arab people, which have the same language, the same nationality, the same religion and the same culture – and we have just one small country. Those who believe this law is racist are like those who think Zionism is racism”

Among those who object to the Nation-State Law were several of the leaders of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem. The Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land released a statement last week stating their concern that the law would relegate non-Jewish citizens of Israel to a second-class status.

“According to this law, the State of Israel has legislated that the people whose ‘welfare and safety’ it is most concerned to promote and protect are limited to the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel,” the statement read. “We must draw the attention of the authorities to a simple fact: our faithful, the Christians, our fellow citizens, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i, all of us who are Arabs, are no less citizens of this country than our Jewish brothers and sisters.”

The statement went on to claim that there was an inherent contradiction in Israel being a Jewish state and Israel being a democracy. The Church leaders claimed that Arabs in Israel have suffered from discrimination resulting from this contradiction. The statement claimed that the Nation-State Law made this situation even worse.

“Although the law changes very little in practice, it does provide a constitutional and legal basis for discrimination among Israel’s citizens, clearly laying out the principles according to which Jewish citizens are to be privileged over and above other citizens.”

David Nekrutman , executive director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), believed the Church’s statement was a clear setback for Jewish-Christian relations.

“Catholic Arab leadership and those official church leaders affiliated with their committees and organizational statements have separated Israel as the fullest expression of the Jewish people. They treat the Jewish people as a religion and not as how we define it – Land, Peoplehood and Faith,” Nekrutman told Breaking Israel News.

“In regard to the balancing of democracy and faith, why is it that democratic countries that have officially adopted Catholicism, like El Salvador, these Catholic leaders say nothing,” Nekrutman continued. “Does Catholicism have the exclusivity of actualizing democratic values and a Jewish State cannot? Furthermore, the statement is hyperbolic and not rooted in any real situations. The mere fact the statement was able to be published without any government retribution is a testament to Israel’s democracy of free speech.”

“When the high-level church officials, His Beatitude Theophilos III – the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, Father Francesco Patton – Custos of the Holy Land, and His Beatitude Nourhan Mannougian – the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre earlier this year,  they falsely accused Israel of a ‘systematic campaign of abuse against Churches and Christians.’”

“They compared the attempted taxation of the Jerusalem municipality on businesses profitable to the Church, that do not fall within the non-profit status of houses of worship, as “laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe” These church leaders compared Israel to Nazis. The Catholic Church stood by and said nothing. Protest is one thing. Using the Holocaust as political rhetoric and portraying a false narrative is a violation of God’s ethics.”

“It seems that the Catholic Leadership in Israel and the PA have not fully accepted Nostra Aetate and the positive development of Jewish-Catholic relations for the last 53 years.”

The Nostra Aetate represented a step forward in Jewish-Christian reconciliation after two millennia of difficult relations. Released by the Vatican in 1965, the document declared that Catholicism distanced itself from replacement theology and withdrew blame from Jews for the death of Jesus, creating a space for Jewish-Catholic relations where there had previously been only enmity.

“These statements by the Church legitimize Anti-Zionism,” Nekrutman said. “From a Jewish perspective, Anti-Zionism is just another form of antisemitism. While Jewish-Catholic relations in the United States, Canada and certain parts in Europe have progressed in the halls of academia and events that bring together the leadership of both faith communities, it has not filtered down to the masses and certainly has not reached the Catholic Arab leadership in Israel. Until the Catholic Church has worked out its theology of land of Israel in its engagement with the Jewish people, the statements and actions of Catholic leadership in Israel will continue to promote the anti-Zionism narrative.”

In her response in Providence Mag to a similar statement by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem decrying the Nation-State Law, Dr. Faydra Shapiro, the director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, criticized the Catholic Church’s response. She challenged the Patriarchate’s claim that the law established a second-rate status for non-Jews.

“This is simply untrue,” Dr. Shapiro wrote. “The nation-state law says nothing of the sort.”

She noted the Patriarchate statement used the term “Palestinians” to refer to Israeli Arabs, implying they are indigenous to the land and Jews are usurpers and occupiers.

“This particular lexical choice feels disingenuous and fosters separatism,” Dr. Shapiro wrote. “In Israel, we should all be Israelis, with our distinctive religious-ethnic-national identities as well.”

Rabbi David Rosen, Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, had a different understanding of the Catholic Churches’ statement.

“I don’t see that a criticism of an Israeli policy or law means that there is any diminution of the Churches’ respect for the State of Israel’s integrity, autonomy, or security,” Rabbi Rosen told Breaking Israel News.

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