2023 will be a year marked by several anniversaries. Among the most significant ones is the celebration of the 30 years from the signing of the agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See. “It was a milestone, and it has already born fruit enjoyable by both parties. But what has been done is not enough yet. We need, for example, to bring up new topics”. This evaluation was made by Raphael Schutz, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, who is just now celebrating exactly one year since presenting his credentials and taking office. We met with him in his office to make an analysis of these first twelve months of work and commitment, a very different experience from those that had distinguished his previous diplomatic career, with posts in Colombia, Spain and Norway.
“It has been a very intense and stimulating year,” the ambassador said. “Overall, I’m happy with what we’ve done and built. However, I have been more and more convinced of the urgent need for the Dialogue to include issues that most of the time are overlooked. I am referring in particular to issues regarding the environment and the defence of the rights of every human being, from access to water and food, to the right to a decent life. These are universal challenges in which we can both have leading roles. If you think of the pope’s encyclicals, they are very definitive and clear on the matter, and by retracing Israel’s history, it’s clear it has much to give to humanity as well. A shining example of this is its transformation from a country where water was scarce to an exporter of water resources”.
These topics of discussion must necessarily be added to “the usual issues”. The impression is that the path which is being traced, albeit with some stumbling, is proceeding in the right direction. “As far as the relations between Israel and the Holy See are concerned, there are dates and circumstances that must never be forgotten. The first is without a doubt the Nostra Aetate declaration, an extremely significant event that inaugurated a new season of greater understanding between Christians and Jews. Then, the visit made by John Paul II to the Synagogue of Rome (1986). Also, the signing of the agreement that will soon cross the thirty-year milestone (1993). And, finally, Wojtyla’s trip to Israel in 2000”. The first time Schutz visited Bergoglio, he brought him various gifts, including a pack of dates: “They are not merely a traditional Israeli product. They are made with recycled water in the desert, and so they are also symbolic of the care and attention to the environment that we must all carry in our hearts, and which should always guide our actions”. The relationship with the pope and his circle is cordial. “Even though we don’t talk every day,” Schutz admitted. “We have had a couple of meetings so far. I have mainly been meeting with the Heads of the Dicasteries and the diplomatic staff, as well as with representatives of associations, institutions and NGOs. I’m trying to get in touch with as many realities as possible”.
It’s been 57 years since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. “An extraordinary moment, a new beginning. That declaration made history. Although, of course, it does not erase the nineteen centuries of torments. It seems like today there are still walls we are struggling to tear down. And not only inside the clergy”. The ambassador shared some personal experiences: “During my mandate in Spain, I saw some anti-Semitic symbols at a parade scheduled in Seville. It was during the ‘Semana Santa’, an important and emotional event for the entire population”. The ambassador complained with the coordinators, but he was told that they would not remove the images “because it is ‘a tradition’, because ‘it has always been this way’…” A similar thing happened in Belgium, and in that case the parade was even sponsored by UNESCO. “This is how it went: after the Israeli protests, UNESCO withdrew its sponsorship, but the parade took place anyway…”. And again, in Poland, where other episodes “in the same line reveal that this problem still remains, despite the good intentions of many”. Even in Italy: the disturbing tradition of the cult of San Simonino (Simon of Trent), based on the infamous blood accusation that caused much violence and mourning, was popular until not so long ago. The historical event was recently recalled in the presence of the ambassador himself, who was guest of honour in Trento for the inauguration of the 25th edition of the Religion Today Film Festival. He received a warm welcome under the Tent of Abraham set up in Piazza Battisti.
Words can kill. By talking about it he evoked his family history: “My mother was born in Frankfurt, on November 9th, 1929. That same day, nine years later, the infamous Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) would take place. Fortunately, that day my family was no longer in Germany but in Krakow, in a refugee camp. From there, they would soon emigrate to the then Mandatory Palestine, just in time. “
Schutz continued: “There are tangible clues that my mother and Anne Frank went to the same kindergarten. In a famous photo, in fact, little Anne is wearing the same necklace that I saw my mother holding in her hands”. Both because of this and of the precariousness of the lives of those who preceded him, Schutz says he feels like “an Israeli who does not take the existence of Israel for granted”. Indeed, he claims that there are still people “who continue to deny this right, and the mere fact that such a thing is still a subject for debate is a problem in itself”. During the interview, on different occasions Schutz used football metaphors and expressions. He doesn’t hide the fact that it is a great passion of his. “When I was still a cadet, I was asked where I wanted to be sent. My answer was: wherever there are good football teams”. A life-long supporter of Hapoel Tel Aviv (“I still renew my subscription as a form of support”), he followed the team from the stands even when, in the past, it crossed path with the Italian Serie A. For example, in an edition of the UEFA Cup in the early 2000s “when Hapoel Tel Aviv eliminated Parma and was close to eliminating Milan, which was then a top team”. Not surprisingly, in presenting his credentials to Bergoglio, he brought him another gift: a pair of white and blue football shoes (the colours of both Israel and Argentina) “with words of peace and hope written on them in different languages”. When leaving the Holy See, “I pointed out [to the pope] that the Israeli national team is composed of Jewish, Muslim and Christian players, who all play together for Israel, and that they are an example of cooperation despite any disagreement or difference”.
Translated by Annadora Zuanel, revised by Martina Bandini, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.