Reflections on Thirty Years of Diplomatic Relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel

Abraham Skorka

Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

 

Next year will mark the 60th anniversary of the approval by the Second Vatican Council of the
declaration Nostra Aetate and its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, which marks the dialogical
rapprochement between Jews and Catholics after 2000 years of clashes and disputes. This
milestone was followed three decades later by a second one: the signing of the “Fundamental
Agreement” between Israel and the Holy See on December 30, 1993. This led to the
establishment of full diplomatic relations between both states. Although there were meetings
between dignitaries from the Vatican and Israel before the agreement, they were merely
cordial encounters with messages of goodwill. Only after June 15, 1994, with the approval of
the establishment of full diplomatic relations between both nations, did a substantial step
materialize that linked them. Mutual recognition allowed the creation of a basis on which
papal visits to the Holy Land were transformed into transcendent moments of encounter. The
leaders of both states conversed on a level playing field; they were no longer just cordial
meetings, but dialogues that demanded commitments from the both sides to address the problems they faced.

A noteworthy consequence of the “Fundamental Agreement” was the creation of regular
dialogues between the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the
Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Their semi-annual discussions helped prepare the way for an historic
2017 Orthodox Jewish statement, Between Jerusalem and Rome, prepared by the Conference
of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. These
Orthodox rabbinical organizations unprecedentedly declared, “Despite [our] irreconcilable
theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and
brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.”
Although in terms of the relations between the two states, there are many issues that have yet
to be fully resolved, the fact that both diplomatic and interreligious bridges of dialogue have
been built shows that something has changed forever in their relations, which points to a
hopeful future.

Shimon Peres, the eighth president of Israel, developed an affectionate relationship with Pope
Francis. He saw in him a fellow traveler on the road to peace. He made enormous efforts to be
able to receive the pontiff in Israel during the period of his presidency. When his term ended,
Peres did not forget the dream of peace. He hoped to organize with Francis a great meeting of
the world’s youth with representation from all the major religions. Sadly, death took him from
this earthly reality, but that hopeful vision lives on.

As a great leader of the Jewish people in Israel, part of Peres’ legacy is his hope that the State
of Israel and the Vatican would work together for the betterment of the human condition. As
the 1993 Fundamental Agreement states, “The Holy See and the State of Israel declare their
respective commitment to the promotion of the peaceful resolution of conflicts among States
and nations, excluding violence and terror from international life.” This is surely the next great challenge if the relations between these two unique states are to be meaningful and constructive.

In this regard, trilateral relationships among Jews, Christians, and Muslims have growing
importance. These “Abrahamic religions” all have roots in the Hebrew Bible. Beyond their
dissimilar theological perceptions, they all understand that peace, mercy, justice, and respect
must be the prevailing values ​​in human interactions. One of the great achievements of Pope
Francis' papacy is the strengthening of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue. A highlight of this effort
was an interreligious gathering in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, which produced the Document
on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It concluded with the hope that it
would “be a sign of the closeness between East and West, between North and South, and
between all who believe that God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with
one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.”

In these days of war, both in the Middle East and in Ukraine and many other places in the
world, everything that could have been created in less violent times must serve as inspirations
to act effectively to contain the suffering of all those who are in grief and in indescribable pain.
The challenge of the present is to promote conversations and agreements among Abrahamic
religions to help create a climate in which we can begin to overcome the violence and hatred
that today separates peoples. In the 12th century, Maimonides stated (Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4)
that the work of the faithful of the God of Abraham is to work together to pave the path that leads to a reality of justice and mercy.

On the 30th anniversary of the historic treaty between the Vatican and Israel, I hope that the
rapprochement achieved can be strengthened in the future and that the language of full
understanding, imagined by Zephaniah (3:9), will be quickly achieved in order to begin building
the world desired by many and proposed by God to human beings.