Let us now try to understand the Vatican’s bizarre policy on terrorism. Recently Pope Benedict XVI condemned terrorist attacks against civilians in Great Britain, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey. In a pregnant omission – very pregnant in light of the Vatican’s long history of silence in the face of attacks against Jews – the Pope omitted any mention of the country that has suffered the largest number of terrorist attacks against civilians since 9/11, namely, Israel. When the Israeli government understandably protested the omission, the Vatican’s position became even more troubling. It singled out Israel for criticism, saying that that beleaguered nation’s responses to attacks against its civilians was “not always compatible with the rules of international law.” It then went on to say that the Vatican could not protest every Palestinian attack against Jewish civilians if Israel did not always follow international law.
Let’s try to understand what this means. Unless a country is absolutely flawless in its response to terrorism, the Vatican will not condemn terrorism against its civilian citizens. This seems to justify the killing of civilians as a protest against violation of international law. If that “moral” position is not bizarre enough, let us turn to the actual facts. Egypt’s response to terrorism is far, far more violative of international law than Israel’s. Egypt routinely tortures – I mean really tortures to death – suspected terrorists, to say nothing of mere dissidents. Turkey’s record is not all that much better. The U.S. and Great Britain have killed many more civilians in responding to terrorism in Iraq than Israel has done. So even if the Vatican’s statement of principle were morally acceptable – which it surely is not – that principle would in no way justify leaving Israel off a list that includes many worse violators of international law.
Moreover, the Vatican’s snippy condemnation of Israel for its reprisals is particularly untimely. Israel, unique among nations victimized by terrorism, has refrained from any significant reprisals over the past several months, despite the facts that terrorist attacks against its civilians continue. It has made a point of withholding its right to respond in the interests of facilitating peace.
Why, then, did the Vatican deliberately refuse to condemn terrorist attacks against Jewish civilians in Israel? I fear it is for the same reason that the Vatican took too long and did too little in protesting against the mass extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany. I suspect that it also has something to do with the Vatican’s love fest with the godfather of international terrorism, Yasser Arafat. Pope Benedict XVI’s good and decent predecessor met with Arafat so often – more often than with almost any other world leader and certainly more often than with any terrorist – that he came to be known as “Arafat’s Pope.”
The truth is that the Vatican has always had a Jewish problem. Today that problem focuses more on the Jewish state than on the Jewish religion. But the Vatican’s perverse refusal to condemn attacks against Jewish civilians in Israel raises even broader questions of discrimination.
So enough of the Vatican’s arrogant refusal to be scolded on moral grounds. Listen to its recent statement about Israel’s mild criticism: “The Holy See cannot take lessons or instructions from other authority on the tone and content of its own statements.” Well, it better learn to start taking such lessons when it makes immoral and bigoted statements. The days are long gone when the Vatican, or any other religious group, is exempt from outside criticism, especially when it makes political pronouncements which can have the effect of encouraging terrorism. Good Catholics should begin apologizing right now for this most recent manifestation of a double standard against Jewish victims by the Vatican.
A recent fatwa issued by American Muslim leaders might serve as an example to the Vatican. It condemned all suicide bombings as in violation of Islamic law. Certainly Catholic morality demands no less.
Far be it for me to try to teach the Pope something about Catholic theology, but I seem to recall that for centuries Catholic teaching has distinguished between the willful targeting of innocent civilians, on the one the hand, and the inadvertent killing of civilians while pursuing appropriate military targets. The former is always morally prohibited, whereas the latter is permitted under the principle of double effect, unless the number of civilians killed is out of proportion to the military benefits obtained. Under this very Catholic principle, the Pope should always condemn all suicide bombings, and should only condemn disproportionate reprisals. If those principles were applied fairly to all nations, then the Vatican would have to include all terrorist attacks that target Israeli civilians. The Vatican should do that now, without equivocation.
Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. His latest book is The Case For Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved.