Introduction: Who is Israel?

Who is Israel? You would think that an apostolate by the name of "Catholics for Israel" would have answered this question long ago. When Catholics for Israel was founded in the summer of 2007, two of the first articles we published were Why Catholics for Israel? and What do we Mean by Catholics for Israel? The first article briefly explained the biblical, theological and historical reasons for our work, while the second took the declaration Nostra Aetate as a starting point to show how our apostolate is grounded in the vision of the Church regarding the Jewish people laid out at the Second Vatican Council. In this second article, we summarized what Nostra Aetate clearly said about the Jews, and then proceeded to list some open questions that it had left unanswered, such as Israel's role in God's plan of salvation since the coming of the Messiah, the Church's missionary calling to the Jewish people, the special vocation of Catholic Jews and their relationship with the Torah, and the significance of the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel today.

In order to address these points (especially the first and fourth), it is necessary to first attempt to answer the more foundational question: who is Israel? For only if we answer the primary question about Israel's identity are we able to begin answering the secondary questions pertaining to Israel's mission and calling. Another good reason for us to carry out this study is the importance of Israel in salvation history: with the name appearing nearly 2,800 times in the Bible, the question "who is Israel" - the people at the very center of biblical revelation - should really preoccupy every Catholic and every Christian who takes his or her faith seriously.

In the past months (2011), our most recent publications and some responses to them have underlined the need to take a closer look at this question. In July, I published Elephants in the Room: The Hidden Roots of the Crisis of the Church in the Holy Land, where I noted that strong currents of neo-Marcionism, Replacement Theology, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Palestinian Liberation Theology (among other things) are having a devastating effect on the mission and witness of the Church in the Holy Land. Then, in August, I published Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel, in which I highlighted many of the Biblical prophecies that point to the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, while lamenting the fact that most Catholics seem to be driven by secular humanistic and socio-political concerns rather than the covenantal-biblical view of the Scriptures in their approach to the Middle East conflict.

I was privileged to receive in response to these two articles a rather extensive commentary and reflection by Fr. Carlo Colonna, sj, who lives in Bari, Italy. Like us, Fr. Carlo is fascinated by the mystery of Israel and the relationship between Israel and the Church. He has written a book about Messianic Judaism and already contributed to our work with his article The Difficult Path of Unity between Jews and Christians and his Prayer for the Salvation of Israel

Fr. Carlo's response to "Elephants in the Room" is entitled On the Diverse Realities that go under the name "Israel". I found his reflection to be fascinating and challenging. On the one hand, by taking a close look at the different meanings commonly attributed to the name "Israel," he proposed some very useful distinctions and clarifications that I would like to use as a point of departure for the present reflection. On the other hand, just as he has challenged me, I also would like to challenge him on a certain number of the points he has raised. The idea is not to enter into any kind of polemical debate but rather, as he mentioned at the end of his article, to be "united in our purpose to understand God's work at present and to cooperate with it." Let us indeed ask the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us as we try to better understand the mystery of Israel, which is at the same a searching into the mystery of the Church (NA 4).

The Position of Fr. Carlo Colonna

I will start with a brief outline and summary of Fr. Carlo's reflection. He begins by noting three novelties affecting the Church today

  1. First, the fact that the Holy Spirit is calling the Gentile Christians to rediscover the Hebrew roots of their faith
  2. Second, the rise of the modern state of Israel
  3. Third, the recent birth and growth of the Messianic Jewish movement.

He then identifies what he believes to be two erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel

  1. The first is the "human ideology" which "views Israel only from a political point of view" and entirely rejects "any consideration of Israel from a religious point of view." 
  2. The second is what Fr. Carlo calls the "divine ideology," which, according to him, claims that:
Israel, although it has rejected Jesus the Messiah, is the repository of the divine promises which are still valid today. Hence the blessing of God always shines upon Israel and has recently become manifest through the return of Israel as a nation into the Land God gave to its fathers. In the light of this theology which holds that the divine blessing on Israel has never been withdrawn, the rejection of Messiah, still persisting after 2000 years, is deemed but a small venial sin, which does no great harm to Israel, because it is under the divine blessing of election. The message of this divine ideology regarding Israel is that if at present the pagan peoples want to be blessed by God, they must in turn bless Israel and fully support its presence in the Holy Land - and this no matter whether Israel accepts the Messiah or not. (emphasis added)

In Fr. Carlo's opinion, this position leads to a very problematic "idolatry of Israel" which is typically held by "fundamentalist, strongly anti-Catholic, Messianic-Evangelism."  

Fr. Carlo then proceeds to "brief biblical excursus on the true meaning of blessing 'for' and 'from' Israel." Equating the term "blessing" with the expression "salvation, life and peace," he explains that this blessing, first promised to Abraham, then manifest in the Divine Presence dwelling in the Jerusalem Temple, was ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Israel's rejection of the Messiah temporarily deprived them of God's blessing until the final, eschatological times, and in the meantime, this very rejection "turned out to be a 'blessing' to the nations." This leads Fr. Carlo to conclude that 

we must be firmly convinced that there is no two-fold salvation or a two-fold blessing, one for Israel and one for the nations. Absolutely not. The blessing of salvation-life-peace through the Messiah is one and the same for Israel and for the nations (emphasis added).

And so to pray "for" the blessing of Israel simply means to pray that "Israel be blessed by the acceptance of the Messiah." As for Israel's "occupation of the Holy Land," Fr. Carlo considers this to be

a blessing from God, but concerning only the civil and earthly aspects of the life of Israel, detached from any properly supernatural blessing of God on Israel, which comes to it only by accepting Jesus the Messiah and Son of God."

This, he explains, is because whereas in former biblical times Israel's presence in the Holy Land was blessed by the Divine Presence dwelling in the midst of them, today, by contrast, the modern Zionist movement is essentially a secular political movement devoid of the Divine Presence. This means that God's blessing on Israel is now "fundamentally secular." 

While I share without reservation Fr. Carlo's rejection of a "two-fold salvation," I question whether "salvation" should be directly equated with "blessing," and whether one can truly divide Israel into a "religious" and "secular" reality. More on this later.

Fr. Carlo then comes to the heart of his study as he proposes five possible ways to understand Israel. These are:

  1. Old Testament Israel, "the people whose history is told in the books of the Old Testament up to Jesus."
  2. Israel as post-Christic Judaism, "the Jewish nation after it rejected in its totality the Messiah, Jesus Christ" which continues to be "the nation of God", but marked with the serious sin - whether voluntary or involuntary - of the rejection of the Messiah,
  3. Israel as "the State and the Nation of Israel, formed in the Holy Land from 1947 onwards" which "can no longer be considered  'the nation of God,' but simply a nation just like the others, secular and democratic, like all the western nations today." Because Israel is now a secular state, it "no longer has a religious foundation" and its Jewish roots merely play a cultural role in shaping the nations' identity. Fr. Carlo considers three alternate ways of understanding this reality of the modern State of Israel:
    1. The first considers the rise of Israel as a secular state a "serious sin and a serious derogation from the theocratic State model of the Old Testament" (which was then divinely sanctioned by the Divine Presence dwelling in the Temple), because modern Israel not only rejects the Messiah but even its origin from God and its fundamental statute of life in the Torah.
    2. The second way of considering the modern secular state of Israel is to see it not as a sin but as God's plan for His people, who has "reconstituted the existence of Israel as a Nation and as a State... but at the same time has separated the earthly, political, economic, and temporal existence of Israel from its existence as God's people, that is, from its strictly religious dimension." Here also, we see a split and separation between "temporal" and "religious" Israel. Fr. Carlo compares this dual realm to the temporal and spiritual dominions of the Catholic Church that prevailed for most of the Middle Ages. Just as the Church lost its temporal power in the 19th century and was left only with its religious dimension, so the State of Israel today is a legitimate political reality but devoid of any religious significance. On the other hand, the religious dimension of Israel, called "Judaism," retains a divine purpose, which is to be fulfilled in its future transformation into Messianic Judaism. This second view is the one that Fr. Carlo personally accepts.
    3. The third view of the modern state of Israel, held by both Orthodox and Messianic Jews, is convinced of a "strictly religious nature dominating the existence of Israel" based on the Old Testament prophecies, and yet it is at the same time paradoxically unconcerned by the secular nature of the State and absence of the Temple and Divine Presence in its midst.  This lack of concern for the Temple, in Fr. Carlo's opinion, might be a providential sign of God, who on the one hand wills that Israel be reconstituted as a nation but on the other no longer wishes to dwell in the "political Israel" and "anti-Messianic Judaism" but rather in the Messianic Jewish community which becomes in Christ the new Temple of God.
  4. In this light, Messianic Judaism becomes the fourth way of understanding Israel, a Judaism which is not anti-messianic (the second way), but pro-messianic in its recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.
  5. The fifth way of understanding Israel is to see it in its spiritual and symbolic sense as the Church. Although this interpretation can be misunderstood as an expression of replacement theology, the Church can also be correctly understood as "the development of ancient Israel in the midst of the nations in virtue of the grafting in of the Gentiles onto the most sacred root of Israel: its Messiah."

Following this exposition of the five ways of understanding Israel, Fr. Carlo opens up the question of the mutual relationships between these five realities, proposing that these be the subject of a further study.

He then turns directly to me: Fr. Carlo feels that, as a Gentile Catholic (and thus belonging to the "fifth way" of understanding Israel), I have a strong affinity to the first (OT Israel) and forth (Messianic Judaism) views, but that I err in a certain "religious overvaluation of the political Israel" (the third view). Returning to the two "erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel" that he presented at the beginning of his article, Fr. Carlo explains the disagreements between Catholics for Israel and the Church in the Holy Land (as expressed in my critique "Elephants in the Room") by the fact that the local church embraces the erroneous "human ideology" which views Israel from a purely secular point of view, whereas I (and Catholics for Israel) lean towards the opposite but also erroneous "divine ideology" which somehow overvalues God's ongoing blessing upon the people of Israel and the religious significance of the modern State of Israel. 

Fr. Carlo sees himself as holding an intermediate position:

I agree that Israel becoming a secular state is part of God's Plan, and hence it is right to support Israel in its just claims to live in the Holy Land, though not approving all its ways of dealing with the Palestinians; on the other side the true Plan about Israel does not focus on a political Israel, but provides for the conversion of anti-Messianic Judaism to pro-Messianic Judaism, a phenomenon already occurring with the present Messianic Judaism. This Plan aims to give to the nations of the world the final eschatological sign of the next coming in glory of the Lord Jesus with the permanent coming of the Kingdom of God.

This view, he continues, "makes it possible to place on two different levels the commitment in favor of Israel as a State in the Holy Land and the commitment to the more holy cause of speeding up the conversion of all Israel to Jesus the Messiah."  In his opinion, I have not sufficiently made a distinction in "Elephants in the Room" between the two commitments and the two entities of "the lay and democratic political Israel and the religious Israel." 

Fr. Carlo claims that Israel always appears in the Bible "in its religious dimension only, as the bearer of God's revelation to the world" and that it is the "non-religious political Israel" that is a source of scandal for most of the Catholic and Christian world. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the role Israel has in God's Plan in the last days of history: this role has nothing to do with the establishment of a temporal, theocratic political kingdom of Israel, but rather with the coming of the eschatological Kingdom of the Father through the acceptance the Messiah by all Israel.

Fr. Carlo concludes by affirming his conviction that:

it is the will of God that in these times Israel has a double identity: a political one as a Nation and as a State with no relation to the Law of Moses; the other one a Judaic identity, called by God to increasingly transform itself from anti-Messianic Judaism into Messianic Judaism.

He feels a spiritual communion with the divine origin of Judaism and with the current movement of messianic Judaism, and also a strong support for Israel as a nation - but no spiritual communion with "the political Israel of today and anti-Messianic Judaism are representatives of Israel according to the flesh":

As a Catholic I have no spiritual communion with Israel according to the flesh; whereas Old Testament Israel and current Messianic Judaism are my kith and kin: my father (O.T. Israel) and my brothers (Messianic Judaism).

A Response to Fr. Carlo

While I agree with much of much of Fr. Carlo has written, I would like to question, discuss, reconsider and perhaps deepen certain of his points. Moreover, it seems to me that Fr. Carlo has perhaps misunderstood Catholics for Israel's position on the modern State of Israel - and this, perhaps simply because we have not explained it adequately until now. This is now the opportunity to try to shed more light on this important issue.

Methodologically, I will proceed as follows:

First, I will look at the question what do we mean by "Israel" - using as point of reference Fr. Carlo's two "erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel" and his five ways of understanding the term "Israel."

Second, I will discuss the idea of the blessing that comes "from" Israel and that which is intended "for" Israel. 

Third, I will attempt to clarify in greater depth the meaning of our own identity and mission as Catholics for Israel, in light of Fr. Carlo's five ways of understanding Israel

What Do We Mean by "Israel"?

I found Fr. Carlo's distinctions between the ways of understanding and interpreting Israel to be very helpful, and I would like to use these as a point of departure. These distinctions help us to identify more precisely what we are talking about when discussing the complex topic of God's chosen people. At the same time, I could not help but feel a certain uneasy sensation of fragmentation in the many categories that he proposed: five ways of understanding Israel, three ways of perceiving the modern State, two erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel, and a marked separation between Judaism as a religious entity and Israel as a political entity.

As Fr. Carlo himself acknowledges, beyond the indispensable distinctions necessary to facilitate our discussion, there is in the end only one Israel and indeed one people of God, intended to include - at least at the moment of the eschatological pleroma - both Israel and the Church. If the current divided state of the world makes these distinctions necessary, let us try nevertheless to discuss them while keeping in mind the unity of the whole, knowing that all these categories will one day be dissolved when God's people comes to the fullness of perfection.

"Two erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel"

Let's begin with Fr. Carlo's two "erroneous ideological interpretations of Israel." Is his description of these two ideologies really balanced?

On the one hand, I think Fr. Carlo describes very well the "human ideology" which sees Israel from a purely secular perspective and entirely leaves aside its religious/spiritual dimension. Influenced by the secular and humanistic mentality of the world, there is no doubt that this disastrous ideology is massively widespread, especially among Catholics and mainline Protestants.

However, I wonder whether his description of the "divine ideology" is really accurate, or whether it is not perhaps a bit exaggerated - and almost a caricature of Christian Zionism... True, there are some fundamentalist groups that tend to overly idealize Israel, but I must say that in my many years of contact with evangelical supporters of Israel, I do not recall having met - not even once! - a Christian Zionist who viewed Israel's rejection of the Messiah as "a small venial sin, which does no great harm to Israel."  Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me, rather, that the overwhelming majority of Christian friends of Israel (or at least those who have not lost their faith by embracing dual-covenant theology) understand well the gravity of Israel's rejection of Messiah.

It also seems to me that the key difference between the proponents of what Fr. Carlo calls the "human ideology" and "divine ideology" is one of looking at Israel either one-dimensionally or two-dimensionally. Proponents of the "human ideology" see things one-dimensionally. They generally have "forgotten" the biblical-covenantal view of Scripture and God's election of Israel and they see everything in human or socio-political terms. The result is that very often their professed solidarity for the Palestinians is expressed in harsh criticism, opposition or even hatred against Israel.

On the other hand, proponents of the "divine ideology" (if they do not fall into the excesses described Fr. Carlo) are able to look at the two dimensions of Israel - the human and the divine (frankly, it rather hard to miss the human dimension!). Without denying or excusing Israel's sins, and while still longing for the Jewish people to encounter their Messiah, they are still able to see God's purpose for His people in all their humanity. Aware of the Jewish people's many imperfections, they still love them, keeping in mind the words of the Saint Paul: "concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers" (Rom 11:28). It's the basic Christian approach of "hate the sin, love the sinner," applied in a particular way to Israel.

In this light, Fr. Carlo's description of the two erroneous ideologies seems to me somewhat unbalanced: while the "human ideology" is very true and very widespread, the "divine ideology" seems to me portrayed in an exaggerated way, and I don't believe that this exaggerated view is common at all among Christian Zionists.

However, what proponents of the "divine ideology" do believe, as Fr. Carlo has correctly noted, is that God's blessing continues to shine on Israel, even in their present state of rejection of the Messiah. While Fr. Carlo considers this attitude to be an error, I would like to challenge him to rethink this position, which I think derives from his equation of God's "blessing" = God's "salvation." I will return to this point below.

The "five ways of understanding Israel"

I now would like to turn to Fr. Carlo's "five ways of understanding Israel." As I said, I tend to see these distinctions as a practical way to better unite them in the end, because after all there is only "one Israel" in the eyes of God. One common thread between these five "forms" of Israel - all deeply interconnected - is that all of them are (or were) seriously flawed in one way or another. Yet these flaws have never been a ground for God to revoke the election, gifts and callings made to His people, or an obstacle preventing Him from unfolding His purpose in their life and history.

(1) "Israel" as Old Testament Israel

OT Israel is of course equally recognized by Jews and Christians as the recipient of God's revelation, oracles and promises, and "the instrument chosen by God to bring the blessing of God and the light of salvation to all nations." It constitutes the biblical, historical and theological foundation of all the others ways of understanding Israel (and the Church) today. 

Nevertheless, Israel fulfilled this remarkable role by failing quite miserably all along the way: from the moral failures of the patriarchs to the sin of the golden calf and rebellion of the Israelites in the desert, the episodes of disobedience during Joshua's conquest, the moral anarchy of the time of the Judges, King Saul's insubordination, David's adultery and murder, Solomon's promiscuity, greed and idolatry, the long lines of mediocre and corrupt kings of Israel and Judah, the near-assimilation to the pagan culture in Babylon, engaging in forbidden inter-marriage in the early Second Temple period, and compromising with the Pagan Greek and Roman cultures up to the time of Jesus. Really, there have been very few stellar moments in the history of OT Israel. This history was frequently marked by divine punishment, yet this punishment always had a fatherly corrective function for the sake of returning Israel, the wayward first-born son, to God.

In this respect, I don't see at all how Israel "always appears in its religious dimension only" in the OT. How can Israel's "religious dimension" be separated from all of the other dimensions that constitute it as a people and as a nation, including its customs and traditions, its civil leadership and administration, its wars, political intrigues, sins, failings and even moments of apostasy? Think, for example, of the Second Temple Period in the centuries that preceded the institution of the New Covenant. Israel was no longer a divine theocracy with the Divine Presence in their midst as in the times of David and Solomon, and by the time of Jesus under the Roman rule its political and religious system was largely corrupt. Yet the sad moral and spiritual state of Israel did not affect in any way the fact that it remains the human vehicle for God's revelation and promises (cf. Mt 23:1-3)- out of whom came the Messiah and Word made flesh.

(2) "Israel" as post-Christic (non-Messianic) Judaism

With the rejection of the Messiah by the majority of the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple and the renewed dispersion into the galut, Israel entered another -  tragic - phase of its history. Still, as Fr. Carlo says, Judaism after Christ still preserved "the continuity of Israel as a nation;" and Jews remained the same people who "are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God."  (Rom 9:4-5)

By contrast, advocates of traditional Replacement Theology essentially hold that OT Israel (1) as God's people and recipient of divine revelation ceased to exist and was replaced by (or degenerated into) an impostor - unbelieving Israel - now scattered throughout the nations because of their unbelief. It seems to me that Christians must beware of such a "Great Disconnect" between OT Israel and post-Christic Judaism. For is this not a largely artificial rupture and division of the same one entity and people? Despite yet another massive failure - in fact Israel's greatest - the Jews remained the same covenant-people, attached to the same faith, traditions and customs, and still prone to sin and error. Just as the destruction of the First Temple and Babylonian Exile had not affected Israel's fundamental divine election and calling, so the similar tragic events of the destruction of the Second Temple and dispersion across the nations did not undermine the same election and calling,

For this reason, and despite Israel's rejection of Christ and the birth of the Church, I would hesitate to draw a sharp separating line of division between OT Israel and post-Christic Judaism, at least regarding their identity, election, gifts and calling which Scripture calls "irrevocable" (Rom 11:29).

(3) "Israel" as the Modern State of Israel

More complex is the issue of the modern State of Israel. I would like to reconsider Fr. Carlo's claims that this nation "can no longer be considered 'the nation of God'" and that God has "separated the earthly, political, economic, and temporal existence of Israel from its existence as God's people, that is, from its strictly religious dimension." 

Caesar and God: On the Temporal and Spiritual Realms

Let's begin with the second claim: Did God really separate Israel's temporal and religious dimensions? As we have seen, there was no such division in OT Israel (1). Moreover, the concept is just as foreign to post-Christic Judaism (2): for even though the Jews in their long dispersion were deprived of a sovereign nation and state, traditional Judaism never had a concept of complete separation between temporal/civil and religious life. Quite on the contrary, the very essence of halakha, the Jewish way of life, closely unites the two realms: every aspect of the life of the Jewish individual and even the local administration of the Jewish community is guided and regulated by the precepts of the Torah. 

Only in modern times, with the emancipation and secularization of Judaism, did this begin to change. And indeed, at first sight it seems that Fr. Carlo is right: contrary to the establishment of OT Israel, which had the Divine Presence in its midst, the modern State of Israel was largely founded on a secular basis and secular principles. Because of this secular foundation, Fr. Carlo wishes to apply to the modern State of Israel Jesus' saying: "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mt 22:21). He states that

if Israel as a nation is of God... Israel as state belongs more to Caesar than to God, and therefore the administration of its problems is more political than religious. The prophetic texts of the Bible regarding the possession of the Holy Land by Israel apply more to Israel as a nation than to Israel as a modern secular state which now rules the nation. God's plan concerns Israel as people of God and is to be judged in light of the era of the Messiah who came, was not yet accepted by Israel, and will come again. The current regime in Israel, however, is problematic and should be judged more in terms of political guidelines and justice than in terms of biblical prophecies (emphasis added).

I have no major objection with this passage: I agree that the current secular State and government in Israel belongs more to Caesar than to God, to the political realm more than the religious. However, it seems to me that one must make a clear distinction between the issue of state and government, on the one hand, and the issue of the nation's relationship to the land, on the other.

The Church has always understood Jesus' saying on Caesar and God as making a separation between the political/temporal and spiritual realms. This is correct, because from her very beginning, the Church was always intended to be a spiritual kingdom that is "not of this world," autonomous from all forms of territorial possession and political power: Hence the union of the temporal and spiritual powers of the Church which began with Constantine and ended in the 19th century (even though it lasted for the greater part of Church history) could be considered a sort of anomaly and deviation from the model suggested by Jesus. One could even say that the loss of the Church's temporal authority was a beneficial return to a more authentic Church which has allowed her greater freedom to exercise her spiritual authority. 

The spiritual and non-political nature of the Church has another implication: it implies that, strictly speaking, the geographical location of the successor of Peter and of the Holy See is of little importance. Whether the pope is based in Rome, in Avignon, in Jerusalem, in Constantinople, or in Timbuktu does not affect his spiritual authority as successor of Peter.

Two Different Issues for Israel: Political Rule and Presence in the Land

However, this is not the case for the relationship between the Jewish people and Land of Israel. For the Sacred Scriptures repeatedly and consistently affirm that Eretz Israel is an integral and inseparable part of God's covenant with his people (see Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel). If there can be a Catholic Church without Vatican City, there cannot be a Judaism without Jerusalem and the Land of Israel - as is attested in every Jewish prayer. Thus the deep attachment of the Jews to their land belongs to the realm of Divine Revelation and promise, and not to the realm of civil/political/temporal administration. This also means that we cannot draw a rigid line of separation between Judaism and Eretz Israel - for the faith and the land are theologically inseparable (this fact shows the fallacy in the position of those who claim not to be "anti-Semitic" but are merely "anti-Zionist", for to deny the attachment of the Jews to the Land is the same as denying outright the very legitimacy of Judaism).

When discussing the relationship between the political/temporal and theological/spiritual dimensions of the modern State of Israel, therefore, we need to add an important distinction:

On the one hand, we have the current political form of the State of Israel ruling in the Holy Land as a secular and democratic state, prone to error, sin, and certainly in some cases guilty of committing injustices, whether against the Palestinians or anyone else.

Yet on the other hand, we have the deep biblical connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, directly flowing from the divine covenant and promises, and never revoked in the New Testament. 

The difficulty lies in the fact that the two dimensions, the State and the Land, the secular and the prophetic, the human and the divine, though distinct, are deeply interconnected. They cannot be neatly and surgically separated. To borrow an expression from Rina Geftman, we might say that the State of Israel is "merely the politically indispensable framework of a reality that surpasses it by far."  Thus it is political and not religious, yet still indispensable, for how else could the Jewish people survive as a nation in Israel without a State?

The key point should be emphasized and repeated: even though it is not an end in itself, the attachment of the Jewish people to land of Israel belongs to the divine/biblical/prophetic realm and not to the human/political one; it is an intrinsic part of divine revelation, regardless of the fact as to whether or not the current state bears a religious or secular form.

In this light, it seems to me problematic to compare Israel and the Church in terms of temporal and spiritual realms, because these realms are not quite the same for both entities. If for the Church, the temporal realm includes political power and possession of territory, for Israel it includes only political power, because the issue of the land belongs to the realm of divine revelation and prophecy.

In this sense, could we not say that modern Israel is indeed still the "nation of God" - that is, not the secular political State and all its human shortcomings, but the reality of the Jewish people dwelling in the Land that God formerly promised to them?

The Jewish Presence in Israel in Light of Biblical Prophecy

But there is a classical counter-argument against this claim, which Fr. Colonna has mentioned: was the gift of the Land not dependent upon Israel's faithfulness to the covenant? If this is the case, then since the Jews have been doubly unfaithful to God in rejecting the Messiah and in establishing the State of Israel on a purely secular foundation, then surely we cannot attribute any divine significance to this State.

Now it is true that Israel's possession of the land was originally dependent upon their faithfulness to the covenant and to the Torah (cf. Deut 30:20). But the argument against the divine claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel on the basis of the secular nature of the State or the sinfulness of the Jewish nation ignores the many biblical prophecies that speak of God sovereignly and gratuitously returning the Jewish people to their land while still in a state of unrighteousness. The Scriptures portray God bringing Israel's long exile to an end not due to any religious or moral merit on their part, but rather flowing entirely from His grace and mercy. Only after the Jewish people will have been gathered into their land, still "unclean" from their iniquities, still with a "heart of stone" (Ezek 36:25-26, 31) and still devoid of spiritual life (Ezek 37:8) will God pour out His Spirit over them, cleanse them from their iniquities and give them a new heart (cf. Ezek 36:24-29; 37:12-14; Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel). 

In this light, it is irrelevant - or even more, it is entirely in accordance with biblical prophecy - that the beginnings of the modern Zionist movement and establishment of the current State of Israel were/are largely secular in nature. God was not left on the sidelines, uninvolved in the modern return to Zion. On the contrary, could He not have providentially and silently acted, in accordance to His Word, in returning His people home by means of a largely secular movement - even though mixed with all the messiness and sin of Israel's humanity (just as it was in the OT)? And if the return of the Jews to the land of Israel indeed constitutes the beginning of their redemption as announced by the prophets, is this not entirely consistent with the message of salvation by grace announced in the New Testament, truly a "gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph 2:9)?

Moreover, even though it is true that few of the Jewish pioneers of the early Zionist movement were religious, we should not forget that in many cases they were encouraged and supported by many devout Christians who had been praying for decades that God would restore His people to their land (See: David Brog, Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State, pp. 91-130). Here we see the very Catholic concept of the communion of saints at work: perhaps God acted upon unbelieving Israel on the basis of the merits of those devout Christians who had been praying for them? One might also add that today, the modern state of Israel is not as secularized as Fr. Carlo describes it; for the heart of the Zionist movement is largely composed of religious Jews who have a great devotion for the Torah.

In summary: apart from a few nuances, it seems to me that Fr. Carlo's and my own position are quite similar. When considering modern Israel, yes, there is a distinction between Caesar and God - between the temporal/political and spiritual/prophetic realms. However, if the secular state belongs to the former, the return of the Jews to the Land certainly belongs to the latter, being largely in conformity with the prophecies that speak of Israel's return to the land in a state of sin and unrighteousness. At the same time, this return to the land is not an end in itself, but a necessary step that will precede their final redemption.

(4) "Israel" as Messianic Judaism

Fr. Carlo proposes that Messianic Judaism be the fourth and perhaps ideal way of understanding Israel, since God's true Plan about Israel "does not focus on a political Israel, but provides for the conversion of anti-Messianic Judaism to pro-Messianic Judaism." Obviously, I agree with Fr. Carlo in viewing the Messianic Jewish movement very positively: it is easy to conceive how they might be the first fruits of Israel's final redemption, a redemption that will bring a universal blessing to the whole Church and to the world.

This said, I have two major reservations concerning Messianic Judaism and the way by which they define their identity. Because of these reservations, I would personally hesitate to portray messianic Judaism as the "ideal form" or "completion" of Judaism. The first of these reservations has to do with the way Messianic Jews relate to Judaism; the second has to do with the way Messianic Jews relate to the Church. Both problems have to do with the fact that most messianic Jews have been evangelized by evangelical Protestants and, consequently, have largely adopted the Protestant attitude of subjective, private judgment in interpreting the Scriptures and in deciding for themselves what is "the truth" - independently of any community of faith, Sacred Tradition, or form of recognized authority. 

Messianic Jews and Judaism

Concerning their relationship with Judaism, every single messianic Jew has a different opinion as to how to relate to the Torah, to Jewish tradition and halakhah, how to define their own Jewish identity, what commandments they should or shouldn't keep, what form of worship they prefer, etc... Because of this "pick and choose attitude," Orthodox Jews often accuse Messianic Jews of having completely forsaken Judaism and its rich traditions and heritage, keeping only a thin veneer of Jewish folklore covering what is essentially the substance of evangelical Christianity.

Now as a Gentile Catholic, it is not my role to tell Messianic Jews what parts of Judaism they should or should not keep. My difficulty lies in the fact that if we Catholics see as the "fulfilled Israel" Messianic Jews who have gone down the path of private subjectivism and the watering down of their Jewish identity, then is this not the same as saying that the "best Jew" if in fact the Jew who has abandoned Judaism and Israel's timeless heritage? 

So my position in this regard is ambivalent: on the one hand, I rejoice at the fact that my Jewish friends have found Yeshua the Messiah and entered into a personal relationship with Him. On the other hand, in my years of discovering, studying and experiencing traditional Judaism, and this despite its huge blind spot in having missed the Messiah, I have come to immensely appreciate the richness and depth of the Jewish faith, traditions, and way of life. I would therefore find it regrettable that the community of Jewish believers in Jesus would either lose this rich heritage or fall into the anarchy of "to every man his own opinion." Can such a community really be an "ideal Israel"?

Messianic Jews and the Church

The problem of the relationship between Messianic Judaism and the Church (by "Church" I mean here the Catholic Church) is quite similar, being seriously compromised by the Protestant doctrine of subjective, private judgment. In a sense, the difficulty here is even worse, because the difficult historical baggage of Jewish-Christian relations has left a deep resentment in the Jewish soul against the Church that does not necessarily go away with faith in Jesus. And so, the prevalent attitude among most Messianic Jews is to disassociate themselves as much as possible from the Catholic Church. In other words, "I want Yeshua, but I don't want the Church."

If this attitude is understandable in light of history, theologically it is a disaster, because Messianic Jews are left with a fragmented and incomplete faith, constantly dealing with doctrinal anarchy and no authoritative point of reference as to how to define their faith, lacking the guidance of the successor of Peter, lacking the continuity and stability of apostolic succession, lacking the blessings of the priesthood instituted by Christ, lacking the grace and power of the seven sacraments and especially of the Lord's Real Presence in the Eucharist, lacking the blessings and warmth of a close communion with their own Jewish mother Miriam (Mary), lacking a full understanding of the communion of saints, and much more...

Thus, despite my general support and sympathy for the Messianic movement and the undeniable fervor and dedication of many of its members, the movement is still at a very immature phase of its existence. Considering the grave shortcomings that I have described above, seen from both the Jewish and Catholic perspective, one wonders whether Messianic Judaism does not often appear to be a combination of "Judaism Lite" and "Christianity Lite" - lacking the best and richest elements of both Judaism and Catholicism... For this reason, I find it very difficult to consider Messianic Judaism in its present form as the "ideal" or "fulfilled" Israel, and I would propose instead as coming much closer to this ideal the Hebrew-Catholic or Jewish-Catholic movement.

(5) "Israel" as the Church

As Fr. Carlo has noted, we don't need to be afraid of saying that the Church is also, in a certain sense, the "new Israel" - providing that this name is understood not as a substitution for Israel in the flesh, but as an expression of the Church's ingrafting into the root of Israel and into the Jewish Messiah. Here, I have noticed that Catholics who are involved in ecumenical dialogue with the Messianic Jews occasionally have a tendency to dilute the unicity and unity of the church. Without denying the great work of God in the Messianic Jewish movement and in other Christian confessions, and aware that the movement of the Holy Spirit certainly transcends the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, we must not forget that, as the Second Vatican Council has reminded us, the Church of Christ "subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him," through which "the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (LG 8, UR3, CCC 816). Since "the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense," it follows that "the Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection - divided, yet in some way one - of Churches and ecclesial communities" (Dominus Iesus 17). 

Hence in all our work of appreciation, esteem and love for Israel - whether this be Old Testament Israel, traditional Judaism, the modern State of Israel, or Messianic Judaism - we remain convinced that the fullness of communion with Christ and of the means of salvation is found in the Catholic Church and in the Catholic faith, and that it is to everyone's advantage to join the Church to enjoy the fullness of God's blessings - without thereby losing any of the good things that are particular to Israel's rich heritage.

Excursus: God's Blessing "from" and "for" Israel

Let's discuss now the question of the blessing coming "from" Israel and intended "for" Israel. The classical proof text quoted by Christian Zionists to support the idea of "blessing Israel" in order to be blessed in return is God's promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3). St. Paul interprets the fullness of this Abrahamic blessing as having been fulfilled in Christ (cf. Gal 3:14).

Following a strict interpretation of St. Paul, Fr. Carlo states that he does not believe that any particular blessing can come from Israel apart from Christ, and he therefore disagrees with the Christian Zionist proposition that "the blessing of God always shines upon Israel" in their present state of rejection of the Messiah. Fr. Colonna also argues forcefully that there is "no two-fold salvation or a two-fold blessing, one for Israel and one for the nations. Absolutely not."  There is no particular blessing for Israel if it does not come in and through Christ; and so to pray "for" the blessing of Israel simply means to pray that "Israel be blessed by the acceptance of the Messiah."

I would like to question this position, on the basis that "blessing" is not necessarily a synonym of "salvation" in Scripture. I agree with Fr. Carlo that the ultimate blessing of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life can only come through Christ. But while eternal salvation is certainly God's greatest blessing, life is also full of other blessings that, if they do not necessarily constitute eternal salvation, nonetheless point towards it by manifesting the goodness and mercy of God. And so while I agree with Fr. Carlo that there is "no two-fold salvation" for Israel and the nations, I do believe that God provides a multitude of blessings to mankind for the ultimate purpose of revealing his salvation to the world - with some of these blessings directly related to Israel.

Let's look at just a few examples: first, there is the natural blessing that flows from the inherent goodness of creation: God blessed man and the Shabbat when He completed the work of creation (Gen 1:28; 2:3), and since then He has been sending forth his blessing upon all mankind, "making His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sending rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mat 5:45).

Then, there is the natural blessing of peace and prosperity promised to Israel as a reward for their faithful observance of the Torah, such as described in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. 28:1-6).

There is also the natural blessing that flows from a life of virtue, as described by the psalmist:

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Psa 24:3-4)

Even the ancient Greeks discovered, apart from divine revelation, that the virtuous life is the best way to attain natural, earthly happiness. Hence even a man who doesn't believe in God, yet does his best to be considerate, generous, kind, selfless, honest, and good to others will certainly be "blessed," loved and appreciated; perhaps his natural virtue will even prepare him for the work of God's grace in his heart. 

Now consider the blessedness that comes from election. Take the Parable of the Prodigal Son - or the example of any prodigal son who has gone astray and disappointed or betrayed the trust of his father. Despite his sin, will the lost son not still be loved in a special way by the father - much more than, say, his neighbor's son who might be living an exemplary life? How much more Israel, God's wayward "firstborn son," who despite their sin and disobedience, retain their special place in God's plan for mankind.

Now consider the blessedness that comes from blessing others: Imagine that in the midst of his life of sin and alienation from his father, our prodigal son encounters a person who criticizes him, blames him, exploits him, and with cold indifference robs him of his last bit of dignity. Then a second person comes along, cleans him up, gives him a bit of money, and encourages him to go back to the house of his father. Slowly, our parable of the Prodigal Son is turning into the parable of the Good Samaritan. After the prodigal son comes back home and the father joyfully embraces him and celebrates his return, who might the father also want to bless - the first man who harshly blamed his son for his dissipate life, or the second man who lovingly helped him come back home? Will the Father not want to bless and express his gratefulness to the stranger who helped his wayward son come back home? 

In light of these principles, let's rethink now the Abrahamic blessing and the blessing promised to those who bless Abraham's descendents. Could it not be that, in addition to His universal blessing upon all of creation, and without partiality regarding salvation, God still has a special place in his heart for His "firstborn son" (Ex 4:22), those who are still "beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom 11:28)? Recall the Lord's words spoken through Jeremiah: 

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you. Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! ... Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a pleasant child? For though I spoke against him, I earnestly remember him still; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD. (Jer 31:3-4, 20)

Is this not the way Balaam the son of Beor understood Abraham's blessing when he repeated it, almost word for word, as he prophesied over the children of Israel in Moab and blessed them, contrary to the orders he had received to curse them (Num 24:9)? Even if the full blessing of salvation is still withheld from God's firstborn son until their recognition of the Messiah, could it not be that the Lord still has a partial blessing upon them, because of their election, because of the merits of the patriarchs and forefathers, perhaps because of their attempts, to the best of their ability, to faithfully observe the Torah and live a righteous life? Most of all, could God not bless the long road of suffering of the Jewish people throughout the ages that has been so closely identified with the cross of Christ?

As for the blessing upon those who bless Israel: given the natural blessing that rests upon those who love and live a life of virtue in the first place, and keeping in mind that any act of charity directed towards anyone brings a certain amount of blessing in return, is it so outlandish to think that those Gentiles who have a special love for the Jewish people, for Israel the firstborn and prodigal son, might find a special favor in the eyes of God? Might He not be pleased with those who have been kind to the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and have taken seriously the exhortation of Isaiah to "comfort, comfort my people" (Isa 40:1)?

How are We "for" Israel?

In light of our lengthy discussion on the five ways of understanding Israel and on the idea of "blessing" God's people, I can finally try to better explain how Catholics for Israel intends to be a blessing "for" Israel. It should come as no surprise by now that if you ask me "which way of understanding of Israel do you especially support," I would respond: "all of them," since I see them not as separate entities, but rather as five facets of the same one reality. Nevertheless, Fr. Carlo's categories will once again be useful in helping me to clarify how we might best support and be a blessing to each one of these manifestations of Israel:

1) "Blessing" Old Testament Israel

Old Testament Israel is the primary biblical, historical and theological foundation for understanding Israel, Jesus, and everything that pertains to the Christian faith. Yet how can we be "for" a reality that belongs to such a distant past?  We hope to achieve this by:

  • making extensive use of the Old Testament in our catechesis and teaching of the Catholic faith, because as an "indispensable part of sacred Scripture," its divinely inspired books "retain a permanent value, for the Old Covenant has never been revoked" (CCC 121);
  • combating neo-Marcionism, which seeks to detach the Christian faith from the Old Testament and the story and heritage of Israel (cf. CCC 123);
  • affirming the jewishness of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and the early Church;
  • showing that the Old Covenant is not some antiquated relic of the past but is still alive and well today, by affirming the biblical, historical, and theological continuity between OT Israel and the story of the Jewish people since Christ.

2) Blessing Post-Christic Judaism

How shall we be "for" post-Christic Judaism and a "blessing" to the Jewish people of today? By:

  • combating all forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, and calling Christians to repent from past and present deeds, words, and attitudes of anti-Semitism;
  • combating replacement theology, which claims that the Church has replaced the Jews as God's chosen people;
  • educating Christians about the richness of the Jewish faith, traditions, liturgy and prayer, and showing how these shed light on Christ and the Christian faith; 
  • teaching Christians to see the hand and action of God in the history of the Jewish people and their close identification with Christ in their long via dolorosa throughout history;
  • loving and "comforting" the Jewish people by affirming the faithfulness of God and the permanence of His promises to them in the past, present and future;
  • calling Jews to repent when they have been unfaithful to their own calling to be a "light to the nations," and inviting them to greater holiness and faithfulness to God;
  • working and praying for the blessing and salvation of the Jewish people towards their reconciliation with the Messiah and the Church.

3) Blessing the Modern State of Israel

As we have discussed, in speaking about modern Israel, we must distinguish between: 

(a) the presence of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel (which belongs to the realm of divine revelation) and existence of the State of Israel as its "politically indispensable framework";

(b) the particular form of this State as a secular democracy, and its administration including its political, civil, and military dimensions (which belongs to the human/temporal realm). 

Catholics for Israel has never claimed that the modern state of Israel in its political aspect holds any kind of divine significance, or is comparable in any way to the OT Kingdom of Israel, or is an end in itself independent from Israel's spiritual calling to reach the fullness of redemption in the Messiah. And so we must keep this distinction in mind when speaking about "blessing" Israel as a State.

On the first level, regarding the Jewish presence in the land, which pertains to divine revelation, being "for" Israel especially touches upon the virtue of faith - believing in God's Word - and it includes:

  • affirming the prophetic dimension of the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel, and raising awareness of this dimension among Christians who are unable to see the connection between the biblical promises and modern return of the Jews to the land;
  • resisting and combating all forms of delegitimization and hatred of the State of Israel, especially when its very existence is put in question;
  • combating anti-Zionism (which is often a thinly disguised anti-Semitism) which denies the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, and the attempt on the part of some Christians to create a sharp dividing line and "Great Disconnect" between the Israel of the Bible and the Israel of today.

On the second level, regarding the form and administration of the State, being "for" Israel includes standing for the virtues of justice, fairness and truth. This touches upon the following points:

  • opposing the falsifications or distortions of the historical narrative of the Middle East conflict that are commonly advanced for the sake of advancing the Palestinian political agenda (for example, denying the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem, or always portraying Israel as the aggressor);
  • opposing individuals, organizations, religious communities or nations who unfairly single out, blame or criticize the State of Israel for all of its actions while remaining silent on Arab/Palestinian/Islamic aggression and incitement against the Jewish State;
  • countering lies propagated against Israel, such as the false claim of it being "apartheid state" when it is in fact a very tolerant and multi-cultural society which includes Arabs at every level;
  • affirming the right of Jews to live in the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria (just as one million Arabs are able live in the State of Israel) - without however condoning any acts of injustice or violence that may have been committed by settlers;
  • resisting malicious campaigns that seek to undermine or weaken the State of Israel by means of boycotts, divestments and sanctions;
  • affirming the legitimate right of Israel to defend itself from attacks carried out against its population or territory, either through acts of terrorism or of war;
  • legitimately criticizing and even condemning unjust or sinful Israeli actions whenever those truly take place;
  • calling Israelis to repent from sin, to turn back to God, to trust in Him in building a more just and moral society and nation, and to invite them to discover Yeshua the Messiah who is the way, the truth and the life.

4) Blessing Messianic Judaism

We at Catholics for Israel also certainly wish to bless the Messianic Jewish movement and Messianic believers who are the "firstfruits" of the redemption of Israel. We hope to do this by:

  • affirming the identity of Messianic Jews and respecting and encouraging their desire to preserve and foster their Jewish identity as Jewish believers in Yeshua;
  • supporting them in the trials and difficulties that they face such as the occasional persecutions from the Orthodox Jewish establishment or the State of Israel;
  • challenging Messianic Jews to grow into a more mature faith and inviting them to abandon the unbiblical and unjewish doctrines of subjectivism and private judgment inherited from Protestantism that plague their communities with doctrinal compromise and confusion, and that prevent them from receiving the fullness of the blessings that Yeshua intends for them;
  • inviting Messianic Jews to seek and find the fullness of truth that Yeshua has given us, especially His gift of self in the Eucharist, in the Catholic Church - without giving up any of the good things of their Jewish, Messianic, and evangelical heritage;
  • supporting the Hebrew-Catholics or Catholic Jews and their communities in their challenging endeavour to preserve their Jewish heritage while embracing the fullness of truth of the Catholic faith.

5) Blessing the Church

Finally, by being "for" Israel we are also "for" the Church. This means, in the first place, to be "for" the Catholic Church, which has preserved the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted to her by Yeshuaץ But it also means to be "for" the universal Body of Believers that exists beyond all denominational boundaries. This work of "blessing" the Church includes:

  • teaching and loving the fullness of the faith that Yeshua has entrusted to the Catholic Church;
  • working in full communion with the Catholic Church, in continuity with her Sacred Tradition, in submission to her Magisterium to whom the Lord entrusted the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God (Dei Verbum 9), and within the framework of her universal mission of evangelization;
  • teaching the Catholic faith in continuity with its Jewish heritage and as "grafted in" the root of Israel, understanding that if the Church remains connected to her roots, blessing Israel (in all ways of understanding it) will bring a blessing to the Church;
  • acknowledging with thankfulness and praise the work of the Holy Spirit in the Messianic Jewish communities and other Christian confessions, learning from them, and growing in spiritual communion with them, working towards the day when we will be able to share together at the common table of the Eucharist;
  • encouraging a humble spirit of repentance among Catholics especially for the sins of the past and present committed against the Jewish people and other Christians.


This concludes my reflection on the nature of Israel, on the blessing that is intended "for" and comes "from" it, and on the ways by which I propose that Catholics should be a blessing "for" Israel. Fr. Carlo's distinctions on the five ways of understanding Israel have been very useful for our purpose of better understanding Israel as one reality in God's plan of salvation; I hope to have shown that, in accordance with the words of the Lord to Abraham, echoed by Balaam (Gen 12:2; Num 24:9), there still is a measure of divine blessing upon Israel flowing from their election and calling (although this blessing should not be confused with the fullness of salvation), and a blessing that is promised to those who bless and love Israel - whether as a people or as a nation. Perhaps this blessing extended from Christians to Israel and returning to the Church, in healing the wounds of the past and drawing the Jewish people closer to salvation, could be seen as the firstfruits of the great blessing spoken of by St. Paul that will flow from Israel's redemption to the universal Church and the whole world (Rom 11:15).

I am much indebted to you, Fr. Carlo, for your measured and astute observations that have prompted this study. I hope that I was able to better explain some of the points of Catholics for Israel's mission that required further clarification, and I have no doubt that this reflection will prompt many new questions in the continuation of our common search into the great mystery of Israel and the Church.

Ariel Ben Ami
Jerusalem, September 21, 2011

FaLang translation system by Faboba