Originally published by the Times of Israel (February 16, 2024)

"Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin,' thought Alice; 'but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!"

Chesire CatBefore travelling to Wonderland, Alice often saw cats who did not grin, which implies she met a few who did. We frequently encounter individuals who are not the most socially amiable. That they have little talent or taste for human interaction does not mean that they are bad people – while it does not exclude the possibility. Still, when we meet cats who grin, that is, people who are naturally nice and warm, we tend to think that they are good people. This impression is almost irresistible: "It looked good-natured, she thought; still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect". A grin of the sort gives itself out as an implicit promise of support in time of need. Somebody whom we identify as empathic will be most likely to help. What is very curious is realizing that certain people's cordial grin amounts to nothing more than a grin – that there is nothing behind it, below it, or after it. Alice asks the Cheshire Cat her way. She wants to get somewhere, preferably not to the dwelling place of the Hatter or the March Hare, who, says the cat, are both mad. Yet just as Alice finds herself in the direst need of her cheerful interlocutor's help, the Cat gradually but surely vanishes, leaving her with a grin. A grin without a cat. An implicit promise of assistance that was never to become real.

On November 12th, 2023, a group of Jewish scholars penned a letter to the Pope. In it, they expressed the grief of the whole Jewish nation after the massacre of October 7th, not without acknowledging the suffering of Palestinian civilians as a result of Israel's retaliatory war against Hamas. In light of this dramatic situation, the authors of the letter deferentially asked the Pope and his Church "to act as a beacon of moral and conceptual clarity amid an ocean of disinformation, distortion and deceit; to distinguish between legitimate political criticism on Israel's policy in the past and the present and between hateful negation of Israel and of Jews; to reaffirm Israel's right to exist; to unequivocally condemn Hamas' terrorist massacre aimed at killing as many civilians as possible, and to distinguish this massacre from the civilian casualties of Israel's war of self-defense, as tragic and heartbreaking as they are". The letter was signed by hundreds of Jewish personalities, mostly rabbis.

Pope FrancisThe answer from the Pope came out a few days ago in the form of a letter addressed to Dr. Karma Ben Yochanan, the initiator of this correspondence (as reported in the Times of Israel). Therein, the Catholic Church's supreme authority expresses his sorrow at seeing the tragedy unfolding in the "Holy Land". He emphatically reiterates his Church's condemnation of anti-Semitism in all its forms even as it is rising again in so many parts of the world. The letter definitely goes beyond formal declarations of goodwill. One cannot help noticing the warmth that characterizes Pope Francis' "personal touch": "I want you to know that you are close to my heart and to the heart of the Church. In the light of the numerous communications that have been sent to me by various friends and Jewish organizations from all over the world and in the light of your own letter, which I greatly appreciate, I feel the desire to assure you of my closeness and affection." Even Israelis who are most hostile to the Pope and his Church will find it difficult to remain totally insensitive to sentences that echo the "state of soul" of the whole nation: "I embrace each of you, and especially those who are consumed by anguish, pain, fear and even anger. Words are so difficult to formulate in the face of a tragedy like the one that has occurred in recent months. Together with you, we mourn the dead, the wounded, the traumatized… In a special way we pray for the return of the hostages, rejoicing because of those who have already returned home, and praying that all the others will soon join them".

One can easily imagine the effect of the Pope's answer had it been issued immediately after the letter coordinated by Dr. Karma Ben Yochanan. True, objectively speaking, the letter of the Pope conspicuously ignores most of the requests made by the authors and signatories of the letter: reaffirm the right of Israel to exist, unequivocally condemn Hamas, and acknowledge the moral justification of the war currently fought against the latter. Still, the Pope's hardly questionable attitude of empathy toward the predicament of Jews in Israel and throughout the world would have created the expectation of some form of support along the lines recommended in the letter.

Instead, it took little less than three months for the Pope's answer to be released, and what we witnessed during this period did not exactly echo the concerns and requests expressed in the letter he received. As for distinguishing the terrorists from their victims or the massacres from a war aimed at preventing these massacres from ever happening again, the Pope warned Isaac Herzog, Israel's president, against "responding to terror with terror" (November 2023). In December 2023, he issued the following comments on the IDF's current military operation: "Some say, 'This is terrorism. This is war.' Yes, it is war. It is terrorism". As for condemning Hamas, the Pope rushed, rather, to condemn Israel, relaying – without minimal scrutiny – the fake news according to which IDF snipers were intentionally shooting defenseless Catholic nuns and disabled faithful. When it comes to reaffirming the right of Israel to exist, the Pope never went beyond the terms he used in his letter. There is a "Holy Land" (five occurrences in the letter) on which "Israelis and Palestinians are living".

Fine. Anyone is allowed to entertain hopes as long as reality does not tear them apart. The question, however, reads: what is the point of issuing this answer now, almost three months after receiving the letter coordinated by Dr. Karma Ben Yochanan? What is the point of dangling the prospect of declarations and stances that have already been invalidated or rendered impossible by the series of declarations and stances of the past three months? I can understand the soothing intent of the letter. Yet what is the soothing power of words when we now know full well that they will never translate into actions? We welcome the amiable grin, but it looks very much like the grin of the Cheshire Cat: suspended in the air, without past, future, or any other reason to be than lingering there for a little longer – a grin without a cat.

I am genuinely uncertain whether the Pope and the leadership of the Catholic Church appreciate the depth of the chasm that these recent declarations and stances have created with the whole Jewish world. Once again, justified or not, Jews have perceived October 7th as a threat to their very existence. And once again, most of them think that the Catholic Church has failed them. How can Jewish leaders, theologians and politicians alike, continue to trust the Church's expressions of friendship and her "soul-searching" apologies for past treatment of Jews? Until Oct.7th, some Jews could believe what the Pope and the Catholic leadership had truly changed after the experience of WW2 and the declarations of the Second Vatican Council. Yet, who among them will continue to do so even as the Church is widely seen as having provided evidence to the contrary? In any case, the most heartfelt speeches and warmest assurances of affection emanating from the Vatican are unlikely, at this stage, to bridge such an abyssal divide.

How to destroy things with words. Since the Pope does and undoes things with words, having hardly any other means to influence the global situation, are there any left that could give a new chance to the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish world?

I believe there is one sesame. One – not two. The authors of the letter to the Pope want him to "reaffirm the right of Israel to exist". The truth is that the Catholic Church, up to this point, merely acknowledged the right of Israel to exist on a political level. The Holy See eventually established official diplomatic ties with the state of Israel in 1993, a staggering 44 years after its inclusion as a UN member state. Notwithstanding, that the Holy See recognizes the Jewish people's entitlement to an independent state – while affording parallel rights to the Palestinian population – does not mean that it attributes religious significance to the state of Israel. Church documents deemed friendly to Jews stop short of making such assertions.[1] The frequently invoked reason for this is the apprehension of endorsing a theocratic state, a Glaubenstaat.[2] That the Vatican state is manifestly claiming the exclusivity over this kind of political structure is an ironic fact but a minor issue. The crux of the matter lies elsewhere. Indeed, what "theocracy" is the Lutheran Evangelical Church talking about when one of its German synods declares that "the realization that the continued existence of the Jewish people, their return to the land of promise and also the establishment of the state of Israel are signs of God's faithfulness to His people"?[3]

The Pope solemnly declaring as much would convincingly show to Israeli as well as non-Israeli Jews that the warm words conveyed by his recent letter are more than a grin hanging somewhere up in the air. When accompanied by a similar declaration, these words could eventually be interpreted according to their original and most authentic intent; namely, as stating that the ongoing existence of Jews holds immeasurable and inherent value in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Is it so difficult to understand that, for most Jews all over the world, the birth and preserved existence of the state of Israel is the very token of their survival, a survival to which the Catholic Church herself attributes a providential purpose?

A cat with a grin. Followed by a declaration similar to that of Rhineland's Lutheran synod, the words of the Pope would undoubtedly get us somewhere.

[1] "The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law." Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism (1985), Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, VI.1.

[2] See Benedict XVI, "Grace and Communion without Remorse: Comments on the Treatise De Judaeis," trans. Nicholas J. Healy, Communio: International Catholic Review 45 (Spring 2018): 163–84, 178.

[3] "On the renewal of the relationship between Christians and Jews", Declaration by the Regional Synod of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, January 12, 1978.

Fr. Antoine Levy, OP, is an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki (Department of Theology), and currently a research fellow at the Rosenzweig Center of the Hebrew University. He is also a founding member of the Helsinki Consultation, a forum of Christian theologians and intellectuals of Jewish descent.

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