On the Israeli President's Upcoming Visit to Pope

Interview With Jean-Marie Allafort of Radio Esperance

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JERUSALEM, NOV. 15, 2005 (Zenit.org).- This Thursday, Benedict XVI is scheduled to receive Israeli President Moshe Katsav in audience in the Vatican.

For perspective on the implications of this meeting, ZENIT interviewed Jean-Marie Allafort, correspondent in Jerusalem for the French broadcasting station Radio Esperance.

Q: How is President Katsav’s visit to the Vatican regarded in Jerusalem?

Allafort: There is no doubt that the forthcoming visit of the Israeli president to the Vatican is not a visit such as a simple meeting between two heads of state, but rather as a further step on the path of reconciliation between Jews and the Catholic Church.

Although President Katsav represents the state of Israel, he is also perceived as a top representative of the Jewish people. For Israel, this visit will be special, because of the past, including the recent past, of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, as well as between the Vatican and the state of Israel.

Diplomatic relations between the two states are recent. Of course, there are highs and lows, but in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel the diplomats in charge of relations with the Vatican are very pleased with the permanent dialogue that has been established.

The press has often exaggerated the crisis between Israel and the Vatican. There are arguments of disagreement, as to the question of the security wall around Jerusalem and in the Occupied Territories, or as to the difficulties experienced by some religious from Arab countries or Africa to obtain visas. But on the whole, Israel pays increasingly more attention to the requests of Christian authorities.

A visit such as Katsav’s contributes necessarily to an improvement of relations.

Q: This visit takes place on the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration «Nostra Aetate.» Has the teaching of Vatican II been assumed by Catholics?

Allafort: Two levels must be distinguished in the teaching of «Nostra Aetate»: the condemnation of anti-Semitism, and the supposed collective responsibility of the Jewish people in the death of Jesus. [That responsibility] has been shared by the whole world.

The Catholic Church is the largest «worldwide organization» of struggle against anti-Semitism. The number of statements, teachings and homilies of Popes, bishops and priests leaves no room for misunderstandings.

However, the theological teaching that derives from the conciliar declaration is far from being taken into consideration by the faithful. For many, Judaism is one more religion, like Islam or Buddhism.

However, the relationship with Judaism has a different nature. The theological implications of the «Nostra Aetate» declaration are not known; there is even a lessening of interest in the Jewish tradition in Catholic circles.

Q: How are Pope Benedict XVI’s gestures perceived in Jerusalem, such as the visit to the Cologne synagogue, or the audience to the two Grand Rabbis of Israel?

Allafort: When Benedict XVI was elected Pope, relations with Israel were very positive as a whole, for three reasons.

Benedict XVI is German and experienced, as his predecessor did, the Second World War. Therefore, he is sensitive to the genocide of the Jewish people and to anti-Semitism. The visit to the Cologne synagogue demonstrated it. In Israel, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not unknown and his statements on the argument were remembered.

It was also know that he encouraged John Paul II in his gestures of reconciliation with the Jewish people and that, in this context, his pontificate is inscribed in a perfect continuity.

He was presented by the press as a conservative — something that in the eyes of the rabbis was seen as positive. His dimension as a theologian calmed the rabbinical authorities. To say it in a familiar way: With such a Pope, there was no room for bad surprises.

In fact, the surprise was the multiplication of gestures in favor of the Jews since the beginning of his pontificate. The two Grand Rabbis of Israel did not hide their enthusiasm after their meeting with the Pope in Castel Gandolfo.

Q: How do you see the future of relations between Judaism and the Catholic Church?

Allafort: I think the future of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people passes today also through Israel. It is a fundamental evolution.

Until now, the Judeo-Catholic dialogue was promoted by the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, especially the American. Today, it is moving toward Jerusalem.

For Rome, Israel is not only a state, but also a legitimate representative of the Jewish people. Since John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land, in March 2000, one sees an evolution in this sense. A commission has been created between the Vatican and the Rabbis of Israel, which meets every six months, either in Rome or in Jerusalem.

To accommodate itself with reality, the dialogue between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church must take the state of Israel into account. The Jewish people is not only that of the Diaspora.

The future between Jews and Catholics passes through a better mutual knowledge: Judaism must be studied in Catholic universities and in seminaries, and there must be further study of the theological question of relations between the Church and the Jewish people.

In a word, the time has come for Jews and Christians to work concretely on certain projects — humanitarian, social, ethical.

So long as the Judeo-Christian dialogue continues confined to the intellectual world, its impact will be limited. The laity must participate more actively in this dialogue and young people must be sensitized on the question.

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