(The Angelus, July, 2021.)
It was with the above words, the title of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of 1581 on the liberation of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, that the Kingdom of Italy illuminated state buildings in Rome to celebrate its British ally’s capture of the Holy City from the Ottoman Empire during World War One. And indeed there were many Catholics that December of 1917 who were also ready to see the hand of God in this particular victory of the Entente over the Central Powers. To them, such a triumph meant that with Palestine in Western Christian hands, control of the Holy Places, which had been given by the Turkish authorities to the Orthodox in1757, could now be returned to representatives of the Roman Church. As Pasquale Baldi wrote in La Questione dei Luoghi Santi of 1919:
Today, the improbable has become a fact; today, due to a prodigious combination of events that we regard as providential, Italy, France, and England, three nations that took part in the Holy Wars, hold Jerusalem under their dominion. Today, then, the Catholics of the whole world can expect that the hour of justice may finally sound. Today, they can finally hope that for the Sanctuaries of Palestine the splendors of the era of Constantine may be renewed…Today it no longer matters how many Greeks there are in the Ottoman Empire, but how many Catholics there are in the entire world. (Cited by Silvio Ferrari, “Pio XI, la Palestina, e I Luoghi Santi, pp. 909-924, in Achille Ratti, Pape Pie XI, Ecole Francaise de Rome, 1996, p. 909.)
Unfortunately, the Great War was actually to prove to be the catalyst of a twentieth century Jerusalem and Palestinian nightmare that still frightfully shakes the peace of the globe in 2021. This is due to the fact that Britain made not one but three plans for the postwar future of the Arab region of the enemy Ottoman Empire. Worse still, all of these plans rudely conflicted with one another and could not therefore bode anything but long-term trouble for Palestine and the Middle East as a whole; trouble that almost immediately saw understandable Catholic hope for control of the Holy Places take second place to fear of a much more worrisome threat.
Pasquale Baldi built his hopes upon the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May of 1916, as modified by the events of 1917-1918. That agreement had envisaged a joint Anglo-Franco-Russian responsibility over the Arab regions of the Ottoman Empire. The Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 1917, and then the Soviet signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans the following year, removed the chief defender of Orthodoxy from the consortium of future guardians of the Middle East, leaving Britain and France as sole custodians of the region. It was from their cooperative western hands that justice for the Roman Church’s rights was expected.
The Balfour Declaration, outlining a second British plan for a major part of the Middle East, posed the new danger. This was contained in a letter of November 2nd, 1917 from the British Foreign Minister, Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), to Lord Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), meant for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, led by Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952). It committed the United Kingdom to working with the Zionist Movement to create “ a “national Jewish homeland in Palestine”.
Before that Declaration, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), looking forward to western control of the Middle East, discounted any danger to Christian interests from the existence of small Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine. Unlike Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of the Zionist Movement, who did not find St. Pius X (1903-1914) in any way receptive to his plans, Benedict, in May of 1917, gave a friendly welcome to Nahem Sokolow (1859-1936), another major Zionist leader. He told him he thought that Jews and Catholics would be “good friends” in the Holy Land. But afterward Balfour’s letter, as Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (1852-1934), Benedict’s Secretary of State, explained to the Belgian Ambassador to the Holy See, the danger that Turkish rule would be replaced by “the constitution of a Jewish State in Palestine”, was perceived as being a deadly blow to Christian rights in the region.
Both the Sykes-Picot Agreement as well as a Jewish “homeland” or “State” were distressing to the overwhelmingly Arab population of Palestine, whose postwar future had been envisaged very differently by the Hashemite Family, the third “partner” of the British in their varied plans for the post-Ottoman Middle East. That third plan was actually the earliest in time chronologically, sealed as it was by an agreement concluded in 1915 with Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi (1854-1931), the Hashemite leader and Sheriff of Mecca, and his two sons, Abdullah (1882-1951) and Faisal (1885-1933). It was this pact that unleashed the revolt that was supposed to ensure the creation of an Arab Kingdom in the region under Hashemite rule. But how could Palestine figure into that Kingdom if it were simultaneously going to be under joint Franco-British guidance and also provide a national home for Jews as well?
Rome’s fears for the Holy Land, awakened through the Balfour Declaration, were further intensified due to the accord sealed by British Prime Minister Lloyd George (1863-1945) with French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) of 1918 and validated by the Supreme Allied Council in San Remo in April, 1920, awarding sole control of Palestine to Great Britain. This decision would inevitably strengthen the supporters of the Anglo-Zionist agreement. And given that Greece at that time looked as though it could gain possession of Constantinople, and that one major segment of the Anglican Church was becoming more and more friendly with the Orthodox theologically, the Vatican worried that an Anglo-Orthodox union might use British power in Palestine to crush Roman claims to guidance of the Holy Places. Catholics would lose footing in the region in two distinct ways.
Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938), the “Father” of the Republic of Turkey, soon dashed Greek designs on Constantinople, eliminating one of Rome’s fears. Nevertheless, the Vatican intervened as strongly as possible to try to block the League of Nations’ confirmation of Britain’s so-called “Mandate” to sole rule in Palestine in 1922. The Mandate articles under consideration gave to Britain the task of creating political, economic, and administrative conditions for the constitution of a national Jewish home in Palestine (Article 2), establishing a Jewish entity to collaborate with the Mandate authority in all questions relevant to the development of Jewish interests and the execution of works of public utility (Articles 4, 11), and favoring Jewish immigration, settlement, and acquisition of Palestinian citizenship (Articles 6, 7).
Cardinal Gasparri, in his observations to the Council of the League of Nations of May 15th, 1922, explained that the Holy See had no objection to equal rights for Jews, but the articles in question went beyond equality, giving the migrants a special position to the detriment of what were referred to as the “non Jewish communities existing in Palestine”---namely, 83% of the current population. The Secretary of State noted that Article 22 of the Treaty of Versailles spoke of Mandates as having a “sacred, civilizing mission”. And yet such a goal would seem to be trampled if the present, indigenous, and overwhelmingly majority population were subordinated to a new, minority national group. “Civilization” would be equated with exploitation.
Vatican objections were powerful enough to cause the League to delay approval of the Mandate. Chaim Weizmann, by then the head of the World Zionist Organization, found that he could now not even arrange a meeting with Pope Benedict—who apparently was upset by the way in which his earlier encounter with Sokolow had been used to exaggerate his approval of Jewish migration to the Holy Land---to negotiate a change of policy. Yet despite this setback, Sir Herbert Samuel (1870-1963), the British High Commissioner for Palestine, did meet with Benedict’s successor, Pius XI (1922-1939), on July 6th, 1922, and somehow succeeded in calming Rome’s fears sufficiently to allow for the League’s final approval of the Mandate without further Vatican intervention.
There were two schools of thought in Rome regarding the situation in interwar Palestine, whose basic premises can be followed in the pages of the two most authoritative Roman “mouthpieces”: the Osservatore Romano and La Civiltà Cattolica, A minority judged Zionism positively, considering the return of the Jews to the Holy Land to be providential; a passage towards their general conversion, and a sign of the imminence of the Second Coming. Supporters of this view called the conversion of Theodore Herzl’s son a “logical” consequence of the return to Zion. Opponents contested just how logical this conversion actually was, given the vehemence with which it was vehemently denounced within the Yishuv, the Zionist Community in Palestine.
The majority view, favored by La Civiltà Cattolica, was extremely hostile to the entire Zionist Movement. It continued to see the Jewish Diaspora as a punishment of the People of Israel for Christ’s Crucifixion. Moreover, the Jewish migration into Palestine was attacked for its blatant secularism, and its consequent promotion of a modernization of the region destructive of the sacred and moral character of the Holy Land. In an article of 1937 entitled “The Jewish Question and Zionism”, La Civiltà Cattolica condemned the Movement as nothing other than a third example of secularist Jewish effort to dominate the world, the occupation of the globe’s most sacred space accompanying its monopolization of the capitalist financial world and its role in promoting revolutionary Bolshevism. “There is no disguising the fact--- the British representative to the Vatican admitted in 1923---that the jubilations which greeted the British occupation of Palestine has given place to a noticeable uncertainty and suspicion; a feeling, too, that there was greater liberty for the Church and religion under the regime of the Turks”.
British Mandate rule in Palestine in the interwar period was plagued by an indecision leading to drastic changes of policy that ended by alienating every party concerned. Pro-Zionism characterized its approach in the 1920s, so much so that in 1924 the Jerusalem correspondent of the Osservatore Romano complained that Europeans were underestimating the seriousness of the efforts of the Jews to gain full control of Palestine. The public authorities of the Yishuv, aided as they were by the World Zionist Organization, were said to be so sophisticated that the Arab opposition “would not be able to arrest their advance by one step”. This warning was confirmed by the Italian Consul General in 1927, who advised his government to work together openly with the Jews, since they would, without a doubt, be the future leaders of the Holy Land.
Riots in 1929 brought about a British reconsideration of its policy in Palestine in a way that first looked to limiting Jewish immigration and settlement. Pressure from the World Zionist Organization caused the United Kingdom to abandon this change of policy, sparking the Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Suppression of that rebellion caused the Mandate authorities to cultivate the services of the officially illegal Yishuv military defense organization, the Haganah. But with the revolt subdued, and the chief Moslem Arab leader, the Grand Mufti (Judge) of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseni (1897-1974), in exile in Berlin, British plans then changed drastically anew. They now envisaged an immediate end to Jewish immigration, and the creation within ten years of an independent democratic Palestine that the Arab population, still 70% strong, would unavoidably control.
Hence, just at the beginning of the Second World War, the Jewish settlers, friendly to the British in their conflict with Germany, were to turn against them inside Palestine. This meant not only potential trouble from the Haganah, under the control of the Old Zionists, but also from the Irgun, the paramilitary force of the much more militant Revisionist Zionists, founded Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940). Both these Zionist forces were to cause problems for the Mandate authorities, the Arab population, and one another, beyond the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and right up until the present day.
In 1943, in the midst of the war, Monsignor Domenico Tardini (1888-1961), the assistant for external affairs under Pope Pius XII’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione (1877-1944), reaffirmed Rome’s position unambiguously: “The Holy See”, he said, “has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home”. He also made it clear that the Vatican disapproved of suggestions for partitioning the region, given that there would be Christian minorities in both a Jewish and a Moslem Palestine. Rather than either of these options, the Holy See preferred that the British remain in control as the Mandate authority. That still seemed to be the best guarantee of a “free Jerusalem” where Christians could worship God with some semblance of security. But what if a continued British presence in the area were to prove to be a pipe dream?
That was a distinct possibility. World War One had already convinced the Papacy that Europe was dedicated to its self-destruction and that the future of the Roman Catholic Church had to be secured through its worldwide development. It was this sober assessment that lay behind Rome’s more conscious commitment to ensuring an indigenous episcopacy and clergy throughout the globe, Palestine included. It was this judgment that also caused the Holy See to befriend the national movements that it deemed more and more inevitable, and to find ways to steer them from potential union with purely secularist forces, especially Marxist parties. Rome’s anti-Mandate intervention in the early 1920s had stressed concern for the exploitation of the majority Arab population in Palestine---the exact same complaint that this community’s own representatives in London had simultaneously expressed. In the interwar period, both the Latin Patriarch, Msgr. Luigi Barlassina (1872-1947), and Eastern Catholic prelates like Bishop Gregorios Hajjar (d. 1940), favored an alliance with the Arab Moslems in a joint, religious-focused, anti-Zionist and anti-Marxist union. As the war came to an end, the thought that support for a religion-friendly, Arab-dominated Palestine might be a suitable guarantee of a Gerusalemme Liberata after all was beginning to take root. Little could anyone in the still Catholic pontificate of Pius XII imagine that in the not-too-distant future, the dominant opinion within the Roman Church would view secularist Pluralism as the best support for the freedom of the Christian world, and the Old Covenant as an equal with the New----and this, just as Jewish and Arab Moslem religious revival were reaching their peak. Little could anyone then have foreseen that the Vatican would consider prayer at the Holy Places as as “non-essential” as prayer anywhere else under the tyrannical reign of the Covid God---regardless of who might be in control of them.
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