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September 27, 2015 12:36 pm

As Pope Francis Visits US, Israel’s Catholic Community Is at a Political Crossroads

avatar by Shalle' McDonald / JNS.org

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Israeli Catholics are in a political bind, which came to the fore during the Christian school strike. Photo: Facebook.

Israeli Catholics are in a political bind, which came to the fore during the Christian school strike. Photo: Facebook.

JNS.org – While much attention has been paid to the high-profile United States visit of Pope Francis, Israel’s Catholic community finds itself represented by leaders who are increasingly seeking to redefine the meaning of “pro-Israel,” begging the question of whether or not Israeli Catholic laypeople will ultimately side with the pro-Palestinian tone of the Vatican’s local representatives (vicars) in the Jewish state.

Notably, the Israeli vicars are taking direction from a Pope Francis-led Vatican that officially recognized Palestinian statehood earlier this year.

The Holy Land Coordination group — made up of bishops from Europe and North America — stated in 2012, “We have heard and we make this conviction our own: to be pro-Israel has to mean being pro-Palestinian. This means being pro-justice for all, whose certain fruit is lasting peace.” The bishops meet every year to pray, and they support the local Catholic church in Israel.

The latest point of tension indicating a strong pro-Palestinian voice within Israel’s Catholic leadership comes from a major protest in Christian schools. A total of 33,000 Christian students in Israel missed more than three weeks of school from Sept.1, due to an organized strike by staffers protesting a huge cut in funding — until the strike ended on Sunday, with classes resuming on Monday.

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Strikers alleged discrimination, injustice and a lack of acceptance by Israel, particularly with regard to vying for equal rights for Arab citizens, both Christian and Muslim. Among the 47 schools on strike, 40 of them Catholic, with about 60 percent of the students being Christian and 40 percent Muslim. Since the schools are open to all Israelis and most are Arabic-speaking schools, Muslim pupils of Christian school are usually taught their own religious curriculum.

The Christian schools have a “recognized” but “unofficial” status in Israel, meaning they are not state-run schools yet still qualify for 75 percent funding from Israel’s state education budget. Two years ago, Christian schools received 65 percent of their budgets from government subsidies, but that figure is now only 29 percent, creating a funding shortfall.

Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett has stated that Israel has no discriminatory policies and that the state’s goal is to ensure that public school funds are not exhausted by needing to give too much funding to private schools.

Father David Neuhaus — patriarchal vicar of Saint James Vicariate, Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholic community — said the Christian schools, especially the Catholic ones, achieve the highest matriculation rate among any demographic sector in Israel and produces graduates who make up a “very important segment of the Arab population” that contributes significantly to Israeli society, such as working in the high-tech industry.

“When we consider that and compare [it to] budgeting for ultra-Orthodox [schools]” — which also have a recognized-but-unofficial status in Israel — “we see here blatant discrimination,” Neuhaus told JNS.org, claiming the haredi Jewish schools receive 100 percent of their funding needs from the Israeli government.

Along the lines of Neuhaus’s comments, the Christian school strike has been used in some circles as a platform to promote a pro-Palestinian narrative. Recently, the heads of Israel’s local Catholic churches, which are governed by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, published an article on their website that argued the school strike is “fundamentally about a flagrant violation of human rights and international conventions relating to cultural, social, and indigenous [Palestinian] minority rights.”

“We, the Palestinians…did not immigrate to the state of Israel, on the contrary, it came to us, so it must respect our cultural rights and especially our language, and everything we carry from our indigenous culture,” wrote the article’s author, Ibtisam Hanna Muallem, chairperson of the Arab Association for Human Rights.

While Neuhaus — a Jew who converted to Catholicism (though Jewish tradition states that there is actually no conversion out of the faith) — has ceased his previous political activities that protested Israeli “occupation” since he became vicar, his prior sentiment on the issue holds firm. But although using a term like “occupation” is usually a clear determinant of one’s allegiance regarding Israeli-Palestinian territorial disputes, some Israeli Catholics toe a fine line on what it means to be “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian.” The Saint James Vicariate website states, “We are in union with Pope Francis and also at home in Israeli Jewish, Hebrew-speaking society.”

Such a statement would come into play when it comes to scenarios such as the Vatican’s approval this past May of a treaty whose language recognized the “State of Palestine.” Israeli Catholics subscribing to the above statement can agree with Pope Francis’s treaty and thereby essentially promote a narrative that calls out Israel for “occupying” Palestinian territory, but at the same time fully identify as citizens of the Jewish state of Israel.

The Vatican itself, meanwhile, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene in the school strike issue and raise the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the leaders’ recent meeting in Moscow.

Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, said he believes that if Israeli Christian schools give up their current status and become officially recognized state schools, students risk losing their Christian-specific identity through national assimilation such as voluntarily joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Yet Israeli Christians are already enlisting in the IDF in record numbers, casting doubt on Marcuzzo’s assertion of military enrollment being perceived as a threat to Christian identity. On the contrary, Christians seem increasingly eager to integrate into broader Israeli society.

“They arrive with very high motivation for military service,” IDF Col. (res.) Pini Gonen, who runs the Gadna youth battalion seminar for Christian youths under the auspices of the Israeli Defense Ministry, told the Walla news website following one such seminar in August. “Just last week Jennifer, an Arab Christian soldier, was selected for exceptional performance in a course operating [the] Iron Dome [missile defense system]. She also finished basic training with exceptional ratings.”

Additionally, while Israel’s Catholic leadership seems to be clearly expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, there are Israeli Catholics citizens who actively distance themselves from that messaging. Organizations such as Catholic Friends of Israel and Catholics for Israel sympathize with the pro-Israel narrative on the conflict with the Palestinians.

Don Kenner, director of Catholic Friends of Israel, has told the IsraPundit blog, “[Lay] Catholics are patriotic, suspicious of an over-reaching government, and hard-line when it comes to things like terrorism. They sympathize with Israel in the same way that most Americans in general sympathize with Israel….Apart from that general observation…[In] major Catholic publications, anti-Israel material generally comes from priests, nuns, or liberal activists/writers, while a healthy pro-Israel response comes from lay Catholics.”

But will Israel’s lay Catholics eventually be swayed to the pro-Palestinian side by the Catholic leadership? That is perhaps the pressing long-term question, now that the short-term dilemma of the school strike has been solved.

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  • Francis

    “We, the Palestinians…did not immigrate to the state of Israel, …”

    It is true that some Palestinians are autochthonous, which means their ancestors were originally Jewish and then converted to Christianity and then some to Islam, but the majority trace their roots to other places in relatively recent times. For example, Haj Amin al-Husseini was able to appeal to Bosnian Muslims to fight for Hitler because a significant number of Bosnians were transferred into the area by the Ottomans when Turkey lost Bosnia to Austria in the 1870s. Other groups are known to have come from Egypt and Central Asia at various points in the last few centuries.

  • how can a catholic be fooled buy muslims when in all the muslims countrys catholic are treated bad. they wont want to live under muslim law. who is giving them that bad information.catholics dont be fooled.

  • Barry

    Just wondering …how many Jewish schools are funded by the government in Italy or Spain? Or Iraq or Jordan? I’m pretty sure we know the answer for Saudi…

  • Robert Davis

    pro arab (“palestinians”) should receive nothing since they are hostile to the land they live in.Pro Israel catholics should receive the totality of this envelope. As to those arabs where were they in the 19th Century? NOT IN PALESTINE so they are NOT indegenous nor their ancestors. They have come from neighboring states, so we do not want to hear their crap any longer. They must be expelled along with muslims from Western Palestine.

  • I am not a Catholic, and not an Israeli and I do not live in Israel. However, I’ve always respected the RCC, but this present pope is not doing the church any good at all. I think more Christians should be willing to agree with Bishop Kiss-Rigo and simply say, ‘The Pope is wrong’. He is not planting or growing peace anywhere.

  • Markus Elkana Brajtman

    The Catholic church has always been violently anti Semitic. We must never forget the Spanish Inquisition
    The church has never had to worry about terrorism
    The Catholic church during the Nazi Halocust, and the Jew hating pope never protested the slaughter of Jews.

    Wasn’t Hitler Catholic?.

  • Mickey Oberman

    If they are unhappy in Israel they are free to go to any country that will have them.
    I suggest they knock on the doors of Islamic countries whose cause they espouse. I am sure they will be welcomed with open arms.
    Let’s face it they are promoting the usual Catholic anti Semitism that has murdered millions of Jews over the centuries.
    Show them hospitality and like the Muslims they will stab you in the back.
    The pope’s words of peace and love for all are meaningless.

  • Several articles have revealed that the previous Pope was forced out and Pope Francis was hand-picked (by a powerful group) because of his Leftist positions.

    More damage to the world by those who believe themselves to be intellectually elite. Stupidity reigns!!

  • Ephraim

    I thought Pope Francis was supposed to be for Jews?

  • Julian Clovelley

    The problem is that monotheism only works when limited to a small area. That is the key to many of the Middle East and indeed the world’s problems. There needs to be a few painful realisations here

    Monotheism evolved during a period that lies on the very edge of history. It looks likely that its most important and lasting originating process commenced around the time of the Pharaoh Akhenaton. It was a revolution that was quickly overthrown by the Polytheists of the Amun cult, who, after Akhenaton’s death, destroyed his capital city and probably drove Monotheists into exile, those it didn’t kill.

    When one looks at the later internal history of Monotheistic sects – Christianity being an obvious example – it is pretty obvious that the central role of a single Deity results in disputes over the nature aims and demands of that Deity. Christianity from the time of StPaul is riddled with such power struggles, including antisemitism, and as time progressed the specific battles between “Christian” sects became viewed as battles between orthodoxy and heresy. Monotheism as a cause of war continued with the Great Schism between Byzantine and Roman Christianity – this in turn led to war in 1204 when the Catholics sacked the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. 300 years later a new crisis in “Christian” Monotheism led to the wars of the Reformation, the Armadas against England – and a war between Empires, that came to cover the globe entire. This built in divisiveness in Monotheism displays itself in the disputes between Sunni and Shia, and in the sects of Judaism. Monotheism contains a built in divisiveness

    But flash back again – In truth there is only one monotheistic religion emanating out of the world and spread via its trade routes. Distance resulted in differing interpretations of the nature of the one Deity, and regional mythologies were created to justify those interpretations and claim the loyalty(sic) of that Deity. These mythologies in turn accelerated the occasional clan unity that created nationalisms and their concurrent “racisms”

    The sad reality is that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are really only sects of one religion, and that religion is Monotheism. The 3 grand sects justified further their individual claims to comprehend the supernatural with claims of Revelation – primarily Moses, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed, but the inbuilt psychic divisiveness of Monotheism always resulted in disintegration of internal unity and armed conflict between sub sects. Judaism threw in a peculiar concept of Genealogical inheritance ignoring the roles of conversion and assimilation out of Judaism on apparent inheritance. The silly search for a Jewish Gene continues where in fact we would all have it

    The Roman Empire – for all its awful faults – held together until the Empire became a monotheistic state – Disputes between sects of Polytheism in the Republic and pre Christian Empire were solved by including local gods in a Pantheon, that was quietly recognised by the philosophic schools to be ridiculous. Under the divisiveness of Monotheism the Empire split and collapsed and fractionated again and again

    The Pope is wrong – We do not need interfaith ecumenism – We need a recognition that the central core of this three way divided monotheistic religion is flawed and probably is beyond theological repair. Just as Protestantism and Catholicism are unlikely to re-unite so are the three branches of Monotheism – Unless….

    There may be a solution – and that is to return to base – but the path to being able to do that can only be through Secularism. If you want to bring peace to the Middle East the ancient clock needs to be set back to zero. The recognition that we are divided by a COMMON religion needs to dominate our path out of conflict. It may well be the path less travelled, but it may also be the only one that can lead to the desired destination of peace. Reconciliation between the three branches of Monotheism in Israel and concurrent promotion of a multicultural society centred on a secular and not a theistic core – could be the kick-start that is needed

    But how likely is that when the present Government is obsessively Zionist in its leanings? – when the Government inflamed Universities in Israel promote the ridiculous idea of a separate “Jewish History”

    Here in Australia we are primarily secular as a nation these days and we struggle to become more multicultural. An intensely monocultural Catholic Prime Minister has recently been thrown out having attracted the fury and derision of sufficient people to make him unelectable. Our Cardinal is derided and has been withdrawn to work in the Vatican

    The struggle out of the domination of a dysfunctional Monotheism is possible – It is possible to demand Monotheism as a whole – the religious – put their house in order for the good of all

  • schm0e

    But will Israel’s lay Catholics eventually be swayed to the pro-Palestinian side by the Catholic leadership?

    Evil grows right alongside of Good until the harvest.

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