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Guest Post (Rabbi Michael Klayman): When I Met The Vatican’s Ambassador To The UN

Rabbi Michael Klayman, a dedicated pulpit rabbi, has served congregations in Florida, New Jersey, and New York. He is now the Rabbi at the Lake Success Jewish Center. He is co-author of Sharing Blessings: Children’s Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays, published by Jewish Lights.

BernarditoAuza_JoseCastro_ACIPrensaRecently, I visited (along with three colleagues) Ambassador Archbishop Bernardito Auza; the Vatican’s permanent Ambassador to the UN. Archbishop Auza, born in the Philippines, was appointed to his position last year, by the Pope. The visit was part of a larger delegation of rabbis who met with Ambassadors of other nations; to express our concerns about Israel’s isolation in the UN. Before the private meetings, we spent an hour with Ambassador David Roet, Israel’s deputy Permanent Representative to the UN. Ambassador Roet came to the UN from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he served in various capacities over the years. Among his comments, Ambassador Roet expressed a sobering reality: Many of the nations highly critical of Israel genuinely believe Israel is deserving of all the criticisms and condemnations. The UN even debated a resolution condemning the IDF for abusing children in Gaza; and nations debated with great conviction.

In meeting with Ambassador Auza, we had five main objectives:

  1. To present a more positive Israel: An Israel which reaches out to Nepal, Haiti, Turkey and other nations in peril. We spoke to the Ambassador about Syrian refugees escaping to Israel to receive medical attention.
  2. Conveying how Israel’s isolation within the UN must be reversed; how the UN needs to stop introducing a disproportionate number of anti-Israel resolutions in the GA.
  3. Asking for the Ambassador’s response to the following question: Is there anything the Vatican has done and can do in partnership with Israel?
  4. To convey an area of commonality: There are Christians suffering in Arab lands and elsewhere. As Jews, we identify and can work cooperatively to eradicate all forms of religious persecution.
  5. Asking for clarification about the Pope’s purported reference to Mahmoud Abbas as being an ‘Angel of Peace.’

Frankly, our conversation was enlightening as much for what the Ambassador did not say as what he did say.

Let me begin with a few of the Ambassador’s less complicated responses:

  • The gift to Abbas was part of the protocol when meeting with a foreign leader. As clarified on the Vatican website, the Pope did not refer to Abbas as an ‘angel of peace’ but offered hope that he WOULD BECOME an angel of peace.
  • From 1992, the Vatican recognized the need for a Palestinian state; a recognition which is shared by most nations of the world. Language used such as the STATE OF PALESTINE reflects present day language when referring to the Palestinians. However, the Vatican recognizes that Palestine as a STATE does not yet exist and therefore there is no such entity right now.
  • As peace talks have stalled, the UN can play a role in pushing talks forward; to provide motivation and support for both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Ambassador Auza was certainly guarded and careful in his responses. Despite his status as an ambassador, we need to remember that he is primarily a priest. Clearly, Ambassador Auza carries impressive credentials as an Archbishop. My sense is that he is certainly more comfortable in the moral and religious sphere than in the political one.

The following represent a few of his comments along with my impressions:

  • As the Ambassador conveyed, the Vatican is not a voting member of the UN (by choice). Consequently, it is conceivable that the Vatican representative stands on the periphery of the UN dialogue. Although my colleagues and I spoke repeatedly about the Vatican using its ‘moral voice’ to effect change in the Middle East (particularly concerning persecution of Christians) the Ambassador was always measured in his responses.
  • When responding to our concern about anti-Israel resolutions, the Ambassador said that many of the resolutions proposed by various nations are just repeated annually. Decisions about how to vote are often determined behind the scenes. The actual voting in the General Assembly is so pro forma that underlings are often dispatched to cast a vote; a vote which has long been decided without any need or desire for public debate. When we gently pressed the Ambassador to elaborate, he suggested that since the GA is a political body, decisions are based on political motivations and therefore little can be done to alter any of the anti-Israel sentiment! There is no interest in introducing resolutions to protest humanitarian violations in the Arab world.
  • When we also gently pressed the Ambassador about addressing religious inequalities, the Ambassador explained that here too, little can be done since the decisions are politically motivated. Middle East nations for instance have no interest in debating religious persecution or inequality — except when condemning Israel. Ambassador Auza mentioned a discussion which arose in the Security Council about why young people are joining terrorist groups. Certainly, they are motivated by many reasons; yet the consensus in the UN was that the fundamental reason to join terrorist groups is to aid the Palestinians in their quest against Israel. Nothing else truly matters. Such a conclusion suggests that no matter how irrational, Israel is generally the central culprit for the world’s ills. Reflecting what Ambassador Roet told us, the nations of the world truly believe Israel is deserving of being the primary international target.
  • One recommendation from the Ambassador did not make an impression on us however, until after our discussion concluded. Repeatedly, the Ambassador referred to a report authored by Robert Serry, a Dutch diplomat who has served as the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and then to the Palestinian Authority. Having served in that role for years, Serry criticized the UN for ineffective leadership in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian question. He also criticized both Israel and the Palestinians for their failures. Following our meeting, a colleague responsible for coordinating our visits contacted a leading American diplomatic and expert on international affairs. This diplomat described Mr. Serry as no friend of Israel. Yet, his report was being touted by Ambassador Auza as gospel; illustrating how such Israeli-related reports introduced in the UN are warmly received.
  • We shared with the Ambassador, Israel’s willingness to leave Gaza, to dismantle settlements, and to release Palestinian prisoners. When we pressed him to share any information he had about steps taken by Abbas and others from the Palestinian side, he was silent.
  • We shared the frustration of tiny Israel being the object of such overwhelming and disproportionate UN resolutions. His basic response: DULY NOTED….
  • In terms of religious persecution suffered by Christians, the Ambassador went so far as to suggest that nations are reluctant to even mention ‘Christian’ when it comes to humanitarian violations. He spoke about 20 countries being cited for religious persecution; 14 nations are from Islamic countries and 6 from predominantly dictatorial regimes. Yet while evidence of persecution exists and nations are aware, little is done. The Vatican does attempt to speak out but there are too many obstacles. For example, who can respond to Syria with ISIS in control? Perhaps the Ambassador was just maintaining a neutral (read diplomatic/politically correct) position. What disappointed me though, was a lack of passion even when responding to the persecution of Christians. I expected the Ambassador to at least share his grave concern for the persecuted; yet he remained almost lugubrious in appearance and in speech. He clearly understood that Israel should not be the central issue but — to much of the Arab world — condemnation of Israel is simply the reality. As an Archbishop, I am sure Ambassador Auza is gravely concerned about such suffering of Christians; I only wish he would have expressed such concern to a small group of Rabbis.

In conclusion, I believe our discussion with Ambassador Auza was important and necessary. He was kind and gentle (as you would expect) and we appreciated his giving one hour to our small delegation. I would like to have seen some greater passion; as well as his reassurance that the Vatican will re-affirm its commitment to being a moral voice and authority regarding the issues I have briefly described.

I can only hope that what we expressed to him will make an impression.

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