For almost two thousand years Christianity taught the faithful that Christianity had superseded and replaced Judaism. It taught that God had abrogated his covenant with the Jewish people and had made a new one with the “New Israel”, the followers of Jesus. This replacement theology was based on the premise that the Jewish people, due to their obstinacy and blindness, failed to recognize Jesus as the son of God and as his messiah, and therefore lost their place in the world. According to this Christian view, Jews were no longer the “Chosen People”.
This unfortunate state of affairs evolved over time from contempt to hatred. For centuries Christians persecuted Jews everywhere they lived. They locked them into ghettos, they prohibited Jews from working in most professions, they forced them to hear conversion sermons, they forced them to wear distinctive clothing, they persecuted and tortured them, and often they murdered them. The Second World War provided the infrastructure, the excuse and the opportunity for Christians everywhere in Europe to give free rein to their latent or open antisemitism and turn against their Jewish neighbors. The result, as we know, is six million dead.
After the Second World War the surviving Jews of Europe, unable to go back to their former homes, went to Mandatory Palestine where they later founded the State of Israel. The surrounding Arab countries, unwilling to tolerate a Jewish state in their midst, initiated a war of extermination, promising a grand bloodbath and to push the surviving Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. For almost a hundred years now, the land of Israel has been in turmoil between Jews and Arabs.
In 1965 the Catholic Church issued an extraordinary declaration essentially exonerating all Jews of Jesus’ time, and of all time, for his death. The declaration also made clear that Judaism had not been superseded, that Judaism was still valid and its relationship to God was as legitimate and strong as that of the Church. In other words, the fathers of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council, bolstered by further statements by all popes since, have reinforced the notion that the Jews were and continue to be God’s “Chosen People”. Since then, both the Catholic and Protestant churches as well as Jews have made great strides to improve relations between Christians and Jews. Today Jews and Christians are closer than they have ever been.
This background makes the recent declarations of the Synod of Middle Eastern bishops convened in Rome and subsequent statements particularly jarring. Ostensibly intended to address injustices toward the Christian population living in Middle Eastern countries and the dwindling numbers of Christians there, the bishops seem to have focused instead on regressing to previously held but now officially repudiated theological positions and to castigate Israel. Given the undeniable fact that it is radical Moslems who persecute Christians and Christianity in the Middle East, this particular line of attack raises serious questions. As Monsignor Cyril Salim Bustros, Greek Melkite archbishop of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Boston, Massachusetts, and president of the ‘Commission for the Message,’ said at a Vatican press conference after the Synod:
‘The Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands.’
‘We Christians cannot speak of the “promised land” as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people. Even if the head of the Israeli state is Jewish, the future is based on democracy. The Palestinian refugees will eventually come back and this problem will have to be solved,’ the Lebanese-born Bustros said.
In a final joint communique, the bishops also told Israel it shouldn’t use the Bible to justify “injustices” against the Palestinians. These are very troubling statements, on many levels. First, because an important member of the Catholic Church uttered them, and they have not been clearly and loudly repudiated by the Church. At best, the Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi has attempted to calm the waters, but he did so in such a tepid way that the corrosive effect of these words continues to eat through the advances in Catholic-Jewish relations of the last 45 years. Second, because Archbishop Bustros, in contravention of the official Church position and statements made by Pope Benedict, is now claiming in supersessionistic terms that the coming of Jesus negates the covenant God made with the Jewish people, which among other things, includes the “Promised Land”. This is an astonishing thing to say given that Pope Benedict has clearly stated that God’s covenant with the Jews “has never been revoked.” For Archbishop Bustros there is no longer a “Chosen People” and the land of Israel is “occupied”. Irrespective of one’s theological or political beliefs, objectively this was a colossally irresponsible thing to say.
With the exception of some fringe right wing extremists, no one claims the Jews returned to the Land of Israel following a dictum in the Bible. The Balfour Declaration, the immigration of Jews to Mandatory Palestine, the UN Partition Plan and the formation of the State of Israel follow a historical claim to the land as the ancestral home of the Jewish people, a land some of them never left. Even though some local Arabs (only some of whom were natives of the region and who did not call themselves “Palestinians” back then) were displaced in the 1948 war that ensued when five Arab countries invaded the newly formed state, the vast majority of those who left did so willingly. Regardless of whether one agrees with Israeli policies toward Palestinians or not, the one thing is certain is that despite what these Middle Eastern bishops believe, those policies are not dictated or animated by the Bible. When Archbishop Bustros talks about the ‘occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands’ it’s not really clear whether he refers to all of Israel as occupied Palestinian land, or whether he refers to the West Bank or Gaza (which in any case are autonomously governed by Palestinians). Based on the context of what he is saying, he seems to be embracing the Palestinian narrative and appears to refer to “Palestine” as the place where Israel stands, which implies Israel should not exist as a Jewish state. Archbishop Bustros also seems to confuse the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and democracy as its chosen political system. There is no conflict there. In Israel Arabs constitute a sizeable minority that has the same rights as Jews, including voting rights. This is also true of many other countries that call themselves Christian and have Jews, Moslems, Hindus and others who vote as well.
It seems Archbishop Bustros believes that Jews have no right to have their own country. According to him, the coming of Christ has nullified the designation of the “Chosen People”, which also means Jews have forfeited their right to the land God had promised them. This is the old theological Christian slander that stated that Jews were doomed to eternal exile as a consequence of their rejection of a divine Jesus. In this view Jews are a fallen people who are not entitled to a state of their own, the only people in the world to be singled out this way. Also, by suggesting that millions of Palestinian refugees will come back to Israel proper and thus change the nature of the Jewish state, the bishop is in essence denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
These profoundly anti-Jewish statements are a violent step backwards that threatens to undo the great progress in Jewish-Christian relations of the last few decades. We can only hope Pope Benedict will step in to authoritatively set the record straight.