On Wednesday, Pope Francis met with Jewish leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a crucial Vatican II declaration that revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations by absolving Jews of collective responsibility for Christ’s death and denouncing anti-Semitism. At the gathering, Francis decided to continue in the spirit of that document by condemning what he described as a modern form of anti-Semitism: the denial of the Jewish state’s right to exist.
“To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism,” the Pope told a World Jewish Congress delegation. “There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.”
Francis’s statement is noteworthy because the pontiff is far from an unconditional backer of Israel. He has criticized both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and been willing to make powerful symbolic gestures in support of the Palestinian cause. Indeed, as veteran Vatican reporter John Allen has noted, this Church stance predates the current pope. But with his words on Wednesday, Francis drew a bright red line between critiquing Israeli policies and critiquing Israel’s existence. The former, he said, is legitimate and sometimes necessary; the latter is bigotry.
With this declaration, Francis joined an illustrious group of global leaders who have asserted the same in recent months. In May, President Obama told The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg that denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland represented a failure to learn the lessons of history, and ultimately an expression of anti-Semitism. Prior to that, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls had similarly stated that anti-Zionism—as opposed to criticism of Israel’s policies—constituted anti-Semitism.
Notably, the vast majority of the leadership of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel opposes the Jewish state’s right to exist. As BDS leader Omar Barghouti famously put it, Israel “was Palestine, and there is no reason why it should not be renamed Palestine.” Ahmed Moor, another BDS leading light and editor of After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine, has been even more blunt: “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.” Likewise, California State University professor As’ad Abu Khalil has similarly stated, “Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the State of Israel.” The Pope was doubtless aware of this activism, which is particularly prevalent in Europe, and acted to address it unambiguously.
At a time, then, when college campuses are debating whether BDS constitutes constructive discourse on Israel, and local Hillel Houses are considering which sorts of critics of the Jewish state to lend a platform to, Francis’s and Obama’s guidance could not be more timely.