Theodore Herzl travelled to Rome in late January 1904, after the sixth Zionist Congress (August 1903) and six months before his death, looking for some kind of support.
On January 22, Herzl first met the Secretary of State, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. According to Herzl’s private diary notes, the Cardinal agreed on the history of Israel being the same as the one of the Catholic Church, but asked beforehand for a conversion of Jews to Catholicism.
Three days later, Herzl met Pope Pius X, who replied to his request of support for a Jewish return to Israel in the same terms, saying that “we are unable to favor this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it … The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.”
In 1922, the same periodical published a piece by its Viennese correspondent, “anti-Semitism is nothing but the absolutely necessary and natural reaction to the Jews’ arrogance…Catholic anti-Semitism – while never going beyond the moral law – adopts all necessary means to emancipate the Christian people from the abuse they suffer from their sworn enemy”.
This initial attitude changed over the next 50 years, until 1997, when at the Vatican symposium of that year, Pope John Paul II rejected the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, expressing that “… the wrong and unjust interpretations of the New Testament relating to the Jewish people and their supposed guilt [in Christ’s death] circulated for too long, engendering sentiments of hostility toward this people.”
Herzl recorded his account of the meeting in his diary. The “Lippay” to whom he refers is Count Berthold Dominik Lippay, an Austrian papal portraitist, whom Herzl had met in Venice and who had arranged the audience with the pope.
Theodor Herzl was the first Zionist leader to understand the political importance of the Catholic Church in the Middle East. He also realized the necessity for Zionists to come to terms with the Church and gain its support or at least try to neutralize its influence. The Vatican wished to safeguard Catholic rights in the holy places, and therefore Herzl was ready to propose an extraterritorial status for the holy places when he was received by the nuncio in Vienna, Msgr. Antonio Agliardi, on May 19, 1896, a short time after the publication of his book The Jewish State. Herzl repeated the idea of extraterritoriality to Secretary of State Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val on January 22, 1904, but Merry del Val answered that the holy places could not be regarded as entities separate from the Holy Land.
On January 25, Herzl was received by the pope, Pius X, who told him: “We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem but we could never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. If you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you.”
Yesterday I was with the Pope. The route was already familiar since I had traversed it with Lippay several times.
Past the Swiss lackeys, who looked like clerics, and clerics who looked like lackeys, the Papal officers and chamberlains.
I arrived 10 minutes ahead of time and didn’t even have to wait.
I was conducted through numerous small reception rooms to the Pope.
He received me standing and held out his hand, which I did not kiss.
Lippay had told me I had to do it, but I didn’t.
I believe that I incurred his displeasure by this, for everyone who visits him kneels down and at least kisses his hand.
This hand kiss had caused me a lot of worry. I was quite glad when it was finally out of the way.
He seated himself in an armchair, a throne for minor occasions. Then he invited me to sit down right next to him and smiled in friendly anticipation.
“Ringrazio Vostra Santità per il favore di m’aver accordato quest’udienza” [I thank Your Holiness for the favor of according me this audience].”
“È un piacere [It is a pleasure],” he said with kindly deprecation.
I apologized for my miserable Italian, but he said:
“No, parla molto bene, signor Commendatore [No, Commander, you speak very well].”
For I had put on for the first time—on Lippay’s advice—my Mejidiye ribbon. Consequently the Pope always addressed me as Commendatore.
He is a good, coarse-grained village priest, to whom Christianity has remained a living thing even in the Vatican.
I briefly placed my request before him. He, however, possibly annoyed by my refusal to kiss his hand, answered sternly and resolutely:
“Noi non possiamo favorire questo movimento. Non potremo impedire gli Ebrei di andare a Gerusalemme—ma favorire non possiamo mai. La terra di Gerusalemme se non era sempre santa, è santificata per la vita di Jesu Christo (he did not pronounce it Gesu, but Yesu, in the Venetian fashion). Io come capo della chiesa non posso dirle altra cosa. Gli Ebrei non hanno riconosciuto nostro Signore, perciò non possiamo riconoscere il popolo ebreo [We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, if it was not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people].”
Hence the conflict between Rome, represented by him, and Jerusalem, represented by me, was once again opened up.
At the outset, to be sure, I tried to be conciliatory. I recited my little piece about extraterritorialization, res sacrae extra commercium [holy places removed from business]. It didn’t make much of an impression. Gerusalemme, he said, must not get into the hands of the Jews.
“And its present status, Holy Father?”
“I know, it is not pleasant to see the Turks in possession of our Holy Places. We simply have to put up with that. But to support the Jews in the acquisition of the Holy Places, that we cannot do.”
I said that our point of departure had been solely the distress of the Jews and that we desired to avoid the religious issues.
“Yes, but we, and I as the head of the Church, cannot do this. There are two possibilities. Either the Jews will cling to their faith and continue to await the Messiah who, for us, has already appeared. In that case they will be denying the divinity of Jesus and we cannot help them. Or else they will go there without any religion, and then we can be even less favorable to them.
“The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own; but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity. The Jews, who ought to have been the first to acknowledge Jesus Christ, have not done so to this day.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “That’s what happens in every family. No one believes in his own relatives.” But I said instead: “Terror and persecution may not have been the right means for enlightening the Jews.”
But he rejoined, and this time he was magnificent in his simplicity:
“Our Lord came without power. Era povero [He was poor]. He came in pace [in peace]. He persecuted no one. He was persecuted.
He was abbandonato [forsaken] even by his apostles. Only later did he grow in stature. It took three centuries for the Church to evolve. The Jews therefore had time to acknowledge his divinity without any pressure. But they haven’t done so to this day.”
“But, Holy Father, the Jews are in terrible straits. I don’t know if Your Holiness is acquainted with the full extent of this sad situation. We need a land for these persecuted people.”
“Does it have to be Gerusalemme?”
“We are not asking for Jerusalem, but for Palestine—only the secular land.”
“We cannot be in favor of it.”
“Does Your Holiness know the situation of the Jews?”
“Yes, from my Mantua days. Jews live there. And I have always been on good terms with Jews. Only the other evening two Jews were here to see me. After all, there are other bonds than those of religion: courtesy and philanthropy. These we do not deny to the Jews. Indeed, we also pray for them: that their minds be enlightened. This very day the Church is celebrating the feast of an unbeliever who, on the road to Damascus, became miraculously converted to the true faith. And so, if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we shall have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you.”
Count Lippay had had himself announced. The Pope permitted him to enter. The Count kneeled, kissed his hand, then joined in the conversation by telling of our “miraculous” meeting in Bauer’s Beer Hall in Venice. The miracle was that he had originally planned to spend the night in Padua. As it happened, I had expressed the wish to be allowed to kiss the Holy Father’s foot.
At this the Pope made une tête [a long face], for I hadn’t even kissed his hand. Lippay went on to say that I had expressed myself appreciatively on Jesus Christ’s noble qualities. The Pope listened, now and then took a pinch of snuff, and sneezed into a big red cotton handkerchief. Actually, these peasant touches are what I like best about him and what compels my respect.
In this way Lippay wanted to account for his introducing me, perhaps to excuse it. But the Pope said: “On the contrary, I am glad you brought me the Signor Commendatore.”
As to the real business, he repeated what he had told me: Non possumus [We can’t]!
Until he dismissed us Lippay spent some time kneeling before him and couldn’t seem to get his fill of kissing his hand. Then I realized that the Pope liked this sort of thing. But on parting, too, all I did was to give him a warm hand-squeeze and a low bow.
Duration of the audience: about 25 minutes.
In the Raphael stanze [rooms], where I spent the next hour, I saw a picture of an Emperor kneeling to let a seated Pope put the crown on his head.
That’s the way Rome wants it.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the vision of Theodor Herzl. For those who opposed it, both then and now, give us wisdom and understanding, mercy and forgiveness. For those who propose it , for whatever political motives, theological understanding, or unknown reasons, may they too have wisdom and discernment. How we long for peace, justice, mercy and reconciliation in this conflict-ridden area of Israel/Palestine! How we grieve at the loss of life, military engagement, and lack of peace! Lord, restore your people, your land, all nations and all creation to yourself, O God of love and justice, through your Son our Messiah Yeshua. In his name we pray. Amen.
Sources: Raphael Patai, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, translated by Harry Zohn (New York/London: Herzl Press, Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), 1601-1605.