Signed on the eve of Pope John Paul II's trip to Israel next month, the agreement ratified the rights of Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church in Palestinian Authority territory. But its preamble contained a stinging and gratuitous attack on Israeli sovereignty over its capital of Jerusalem. Whatever else the document accomplished, it has reinforced negative Jewish stereotypes about Catholic attitudes toward Judaism and Israel.
I think that's unfortunate, and not just because it is yet another blow struck against the unity of Jerusalem. It's sad, because just when Jews should have been focusing on a historic trip of reconciliation between Jews and Catholics, we are forced again into a confrontational mode.
One of the greatest ironies of our time is that we have been living in an era of profound and historic changes in the way the Catholic Church thinks and acts about Judaism, Jews and Israel -- but most Jews are barely aware of it.
The fact is, for the overwhelming majority of Jews not involved directly in community relations or interfaith-outreach work, the pope's great work has been an untold story. That is an injustice that needs to be corrected.
A Revolution in Jewish-Catholic Relations
In the words of Pope John Paul's biographer, George Weigel, the man who was born an ordinary Pole named Karol Wyojtyla has effected a "revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations." Weigel's lengthy biography of the pope, "Witness to Hope" (HarperCollins), devotes a fair amount of space to that revolution.
Despite the epic nature of the church's turn-around on anti-Semitism, it has often been overshadowed by ongoing disputes , such as the Catholic presence on the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust and the disposition of Jewish material in the Vatican archives. Not to mention the church's unwillingness to give up the vestiges of its old and thoroughly outdated policy of demanding that Jerusalem be internationalized.
But before the Vatican-PLO agreement sets off another round of arguments, it is worth noting just how far John Paul II has collectively taken us. Weigel writes that after his election as pope, John Paul "was acutely aware that a kairos -- a special, providential moment -- was at hand in the ancient entanglement of Jews and Christians."
Having grown up in a town in Poland -- Wadowice -- with a large Jewish population that had relatively good relations with its Polish neighbors, and having Jewish friends, the young Wyojtyla, apparently, was an exception to the widely held Jewish belief (famously expressed by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir) that Poles "imbibed anti-Semitism with their mother's milk."
He has proved that time and again during his papacy, which should also be remembered for its courageous role in the struggle against the Soviet empire. His statements denouncing anti-Semitism and two millennia of anti-Jewish hatred by Christians were remarkable in and of themselves.
Building on the work begun by his much-beloved predecessor, Pope John XXIII, John Paul dedicated himself to what he called the "reopening of an ancient conversation." Moreover, in marked contrast to the history of the church's interaction with Jews, his has been a call to dialogue in which both sides are treated as equals.
Overriding the Polish Clergy
Even in those situations in which Jewish sensibilities have been outraged by Catholics -- such as the presence of the Carmelite Convent and crosses over Jewish graves at Auschwitz -- a fair reading of the events shows that the pope has been a force for conciliation. It must be recognized that without the persistent urging of the pope, who overrode the sentiments of many in the clergy in his native Poland, the convent would probably still be there.
Similarly, without the strong support of the pontiff, the establishment of formal relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel in December 1993 is hard to imagine. Weigel writes that John Paul achieved this in spite of the fact that "the Vatican bureaucracy and the Middle Eastern Catholic hierarchy included men who had neither internalized the [Ecumenical] Council's teaching on Judaism nor reconciled themselves to a sovereign Jewish state."
The pope's visit to Israel next month was supposed to have crowned this process of reconciliation to which he has devoted so much effort. Much good may still come of the visit, but the problem with the Vatican's rapprochement with the Palestinians last week is more than symbolic.
Stuck in the 1940s
The Vatican-PLO agreement's preamble on Jerusalem shows that the Vatican's attitude on Israel's ancient capital is still stuck in the rhetoric of the 1940s. The call for internationalizing the capital is as appalling as it is anachronistic.
And the document's call for protecting the rights of all religions is as disingenuous as it is insulting -- especially since, as Weigel writes, the pope is aware that, "unlike any other state in the Middle East," Israel is a democratic society, and "the holy places under Israeli control were more open to pilgrims of all faiths" than they had ever been before. The fact is, the only way to ensure the rights of Christians and the safety of Christian holy places in Jerusalem is to ensure that Israel's sovereignty over all of its ancient capital is left in place.
In some ways, an agreement between the PLO and the church was merely following the logic of the Oslo peace process. Since Israel has ceded virtual sovereignty over some areas to the Palestinian Authority, it is only natural that the church look to codify its rights and secure its property in those places, just as it has done elsewhere. The church is also probably reading some of the mixed signals the current Israeli government has been sending on whether it will eventually make concessions on Jerusalem.
It is also true that the church thinks of Christian populations under Arab rule as being at risk. Thus, rather than protest the increasingly poor position of the Christian Arab population in Palestinian territory, the Vatican cowardly chimes in with PLO leader Yasser Arafat's talk about stopping the "Judaization" of Jerusalem.
But the bottom line here is that this embrace of the cause of ending Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem can only hurt the peace process and encourage violence as the Palestinians seek to raise the temperature in the city.
That would be a tragic conclusion to the pope's brilliant career.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.