Paul Merkley (Christianity Today)
The literature which serves the historian of the relations between the churches and the State of Israel is sparse and for the most part lightweight. Most of the books that actually get read on this theme, those that are put out by publishers of religious literature and which are available in “Christian bookstores,” are polemical, dedicated to either denigrating or exalting Israel’s performance as the civil host of all the Christians who live and work in Israel.
Two things need to happen before serious scholarly histories of this story begin to appear. The first is that academic historians must come to recognize the centrality of this theme (the relations between the churches of the Holy Land and the Jewish State) in the overall story of the relations of State of Israel with the whole world. The second is that archives held by the principal participants in this story must be opened for disinterested investigation. The unwillingness of the Vatican to allow outsiders into its archives is well-known, but other Christian bodies*including the Orthodox churches, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, and still more who have played a part in the religious life of the Holy Land*have been every bit as reluctant to let strangers into their basement archives, and have accordingly paid the price of being mistrusted by scholars and misrepresented in the scholarly histories.
Uri Bialer’s new book, Cross on the Star of David: The Christian World in Israel’s Foreign Policy, 1948-1967, shows how serious historical research is done. This is the kind of research that historians wait for before they write their weighty books. It is (in other words) the kind of research that the popular historians flee from, when it exists. Bialer has been first in line at the archives of all the governmental bodies in the State of Israel*the Israel State Archives, the Central Zionist Archives, the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Religion*as they have opened, in the last few years, files of the 1940s and 1950s. He has augmented these findings with research in the British Foreign Office and elsewhere. Apart from the occasional bit of supporting quotation from published books, everything that is told us in this book is documented by reference to these archives.
Among the themes which figured in early dealings between Israeli authorities and the churches were titles to property, missionary activities, the right to run schools and other facilities, and the right of representatives of the churches who are not citizens to travel in and out of
Israel or to reside and to work in Israel. Of interest to historians of foreign policy are the connections that Israeli authorities made between settlement of these local issues and the behavior of parent church bodies in Europe as well as attitudes of nation-states which had among their citizens large numbers of members of certain churches which in the past had behaved as their protectors.
The recorded exchanges between the many parties to these negotiations make for colorful reading. Even more colorful are internal memoranda and diary entries which Bialer has located and quoted. We are shown a great deal that is not pretty. Here is Foreign Minister Sharett on his negotiations with Vatican principals (from the pope down) over the latter’s refusal to recognize the State and its determination to wreck Israel’s chances for survival by imposing “international status” upon Jerusalem:
“[This is for them] a matter of retribution, the squaring of an account concerning something that happened here in Jerusalem, if I am not mistaken, 1,916 years ago when Jesus was crucified* . [They are saying] that the Jews need to know once and for all what they did to us and now there is an opportunity to let them feel it.”
Here is Cardinal Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State:
“I have always been convinced that there was no real need to establish that state*. Its existence is a constant source of danger of war in the Middle East. Now that Israel exists, there is, of course, no possibility of destroying it, but every day we pay the price of this mistake.”
As for diplomacy:
“There is no possibility of contact or negotiations with the killers of God.”
This is the kind of history that grownups like, because it requires us to make our own judgments about motives and meaning.
Apart from offering a few sensible observations on later developments (such as the Holy See’s foot-dragging about recognition of the State of Israel, down to the year 1993), Bialer concludes his account with the year 1967. The context changed drastically after the Six-Day War, when
the nominal headquarters of most of the major churches and large numbers of their properties as well as their adherents were transferred from Jordanian to Israeli jurisdiction. We must hope that Bialer will show the same zeal in pouncing upon all the documentation as it becomes
available for these later chapters.