ROME – In 2011, the last time an Israeli Foreign Minister came calling in the Vatican, there was hope the encounter might lend momentum toward an agreement to stabilize the tax and fiscal status of Church-owned properties in the Holy Land, as an addendum to the 1993 Fundamental Agreement launching diplomatic relations between the two states.

It’s a measure of how much things have deteriorated in the 12 years since that the big talking point this time, when Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met British Archbishop Paul Gallagher in the Vatican Thursday, was whether Christians can even walk down the streets of Jerusalem without being spat at.

The fact it actually made news that Cohen condemned the mounting physical abuse and harassment directed at Christians in Jerusalem – it was the first time Cohen had done so, though Israeli President Isaac Herzog had condemned the attacks earlier this week – arguably represents a new nadir in Israel-Vatican ties.

“We are committed to protecting their [Christians’] safety and honor, and we will continue to display zero tolerance for acts of violence on the basis of hatred,” Cohen told Gallagher, according to media reports citing Israeli diplomatic sources.

Neither the Vatican nor the Israeli Foreign Ministry suggested there had been any further conversation about an economic agreement, which remains unrealized thirty years after it was supposed to be concluded. In May, Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz told an Italian news outlet that negotiations had fallen victim first to the Covid-19 pandemic and then to instability in the Israeli government, through he expressed hope that things could get back on track soon.

In the meantime, the worsening climate for Christians in Jerusalem has become the more urgent matter, driven by the rise of ultra-orthodox factions in Israeli society who have now become part of the government in conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest volatile coalition.

In an interview yesterday, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Italian Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, recently named a cardinal by Pope Francis, said that acts of physical harassment have become “almost a normal phenomenon” since the rise of the new government – Pizzaballa acknowledged that he himself has been spat at, though “not often” – and that the most worrying part is that they’re often carried out by children.

“Maybe there’s a young generation, for instance in the settlements, which grew up in an extremist or polarized context and doesn’t know diversity,” he said. “It’s not a matter of traditional Judaism, but marginal groups.”

Most observers believe the real challenge in Israeli-Vatican relations today isn’t outright anti-Christian animus, which is restricted to a small circle of ultra-orthodox opinion. It’s rather that the country’s small Christian minority simply isn’t a priority for the government.

As an example, Pizzaballa cited the problem of reuniting Christian families when one spouse is from East Jerusalem and the other is from Bethlehem, communities only about six miles apart but divided by Israel’s separation barrier (known by Palestinians as the “apartheid wall”).

Pizzaballa says the government never officially rejects applications for family reunification, but “the procedures never end,” suggesting an attitude of basic neglect.

It’s not that Israel and the Vatican are at loggerheads across the board. Indeed, in some ways Netanyahu’s balancing act on Russia’s war in Ukraine isn’t terribly dissimilar from the approach Pope Francis has tried to take, and the two parties have other common interests as well – yesterday, for instance, Cohen and Gallagher talked about new possibilities in “climactic diplomacy,” based on a shared concern about climate change and environmental degradation.

However, there are a couple basic factors that have reshaped the Israel-Vatican relationship in recent years, to some extent downgrading its perceived importance to both sides.

For the Israelis, it’s the rise of the ultra-orthodox segment of the population. According to the country’s most recent statistical report, the ultra-orthodox share of the country is rising at an annual clip of four percent, the largest for any group, and by the end of the decade will represent 16 percent of the total national population of around ten million.

Fundamentalist parties now hold 32 seats out of a total of 120 in the Israeli Knesset, which recently adopted a controversial new budget with major allocations for religious schools as well as subsidies for adult seminary students, essentially allowing many ultra-orthodox males to stay out of the work force and devote themselves full-time to study.

In general, ultra-orthodox Jews have not participated in growing Christian-Jewish dialogues over the past half-century, and don’t feel the same investment in the relationship.

On the Catholic side, an ongoing shift in the demographic center of gravity from the global north to south has also, to some extent, dethroned Judaism as the Church’s paradigmatic interfaith relationship.

Many of the Catholic pioneers in the relationship with Judaism were Europeans and North Americans who had experienced the Second World War and the Holocaust, and brought a profound personal sense of mission to the task. For a growing share of Church leaders today from outside the West, who have little personal experience of Judaism, relations with other faiths – Islam in much of Africa and Asia, for instance, or Hinduism in India – seem higher priorities.

Of course, Judaism and Israel are hardly the same thing, but Churchmen who don’t see Catholic-Jewish dialogue as a keen priority are also less likely to be focused on the diplomatic relationship with the State of Israel.

None of this is to suggest the relationship can’t be revived, and the visit by Cohen after a 12-year hiatus is a positive sign. Demographic change on both sides, however, suggests that natural momentum won’t by itself produce new breakthroughs – if they come, they’ll have to be intentional.