Last week, a controversy erupted after a meeting between Pope Francis and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The encounter came during a celebration of the canonization of two new Palestinian Arab saints and shortly after a treaty in which the Vatican recognized the PA as a state was announced. But whether or not it was due to a misunderstanding on the part of the few journalists present, the Pope was widely quoted as calling Abbas “an angel of peace.” That bit of hyperbole seemed to symbolize Israel’s growing isolation in Europe even if it granted a Holocaust denier and someone who has repeatedly refused to make peace, far more credit than he deserves. But after a week in which the Vatican vacillated about what the pope had really said while not seeking to anger the Palestinians and their backers, Pope Francis has issued not only a clarification indicating that he was misquoted about Abbas but delivering a stinging rebuke to Israel’s foes.
In comments made to veteran Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman Thursday, Francis was quoted as saying that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel — and their right to exist — is guilty of anti-Semitism.”
Francis was also said to have backtracked on statements he was reportedly heard making earlier this month designating the visiting Abbas “a bit an angel of peace.”
The pope recalled telling Abbas in Italian that he hopes the Palestinian chief might one day become an angel of peace in the future, according to Cymerman — although ostensibly he has not yet reached that level.
This resolves any doubts about whether the New York Times, Agence France Presse and the Associated Press misquoted the pontiff. He says they did, and that ought to be enough to have them issued corrections rather than further articles rationalizing their mistake.
But the pope’s comments about anti-Semitism are far more important than his evaluation of the corrupt and undemocratic head of the Palestinian kleptocracy in the West Bank.
Israel haters have long claimed that their anti-Zionism should not be confused with anti-Semitism. They claim they have no problems with Jews in general, just with those who assert sovereignty in their ancient homeland.
But this formulation is and always has been a false and utterly misleading distinction.
Those who would deny to Jews the same rights of self-determination and self-defense that they would never think to deny any other people on the planet are practicing a form of discrimination. Anti-Zionists assert that Jews are uniquely unworthy of a homeland or any of the other normal attributes of identity. While it is true that Judaism is a combination of faith and national identity, the fact remains that denying the Jews a right to a state that is specifically Jewish singles them out for treatment not given the practitioners of other faiths or peoples. Since the term by which we refer to acts of bias against Jews is anti-Semitism, the claim that anti-Zionism is not a form of prejudice is simply a great lie.
This is a vital point because anti-Zionists aren’t so much protesting specific Israeli actions or making a point about where they think its borders should be located. Rather, they seek to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, which is to say they want it to be destroyed.
That’s the reason why groups that espouse BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — programs aimed at Israel are practicing hate, not merely putting forward criticisms of the country’s policies. One needn’t support everything any Israeli government does or agree with its prime minister on the issues. But those who say that Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish state and that it has no right to be one should be treated as bigots.
This is a message that Palestinians should heed. Abbas has consistently refused to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn. Indeed, even if he wanted to do so, which is doubtful, his people cling to a political culture in which violence against Jews is treated as laudable rather than shameful. The two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that the pope and many others champion will only be possible once the Palestinians stop trying to replace the Jewish state and start learning to live with it in peace. Abbas and his predecessor Yasir Arafat repeatedly rejected offers of statehood in which they would be given control of almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem but refused each time because they could not come to terms with Israel’s existence. Rather than beating up on Israel as the world community continues to do, those who want peace need to take the pope’s message to the Palestinians.
The Vatican did nothing to help end the conflict by recognizing the PA as a state without first requiring it to make peace with Israel as it was required to do by its Oslo Accords commitments. In doing so the Church seemed to be joining the crowd putting unfair pressure on Israel thus betraying the ecumenical legacy of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II who did so much to reverse centuries of Catholic prejudice against Jews. But Pope Francis has now made up for those mistakes with a statement that ought to resonate throughout the world and in history. Let all those who wish to undermine the Jewish state while still pretending to be unprejudiced and all those who excuse or apologize for their hatred pay heed to what he has said and end the charade by which these anti-Semites are treated as decent members of the community. As the pope has now taught us, anti-Zionist will always really mean anti-Semite.