ROME – Just as Israel continues to deploy its military “hard power” on the Gaza strip, defying international pressure to back down, so too it shows no signs of halting its “soft power” campaign either. On the contrary, Israel is pursuing a relentless war of words against any party it believes guilty of false moral equivalence between terrorism and self-defense, or of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes.

One such “soft power” front is with the Vatican, as Israeli officials, in tandem with a cohort of Jewish leaders from around the world, are asserting that influential Catholic figures are displaying “moral blindness and/or lack of integrity,” to use the language of one such recent protest.

Three skirmishes in just the last ten days capture the dynamics of this soft power standoff.

First up was a May 8 essay published by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and on the Vatican News site, written by Jesuit Father David Neuhaus, who currently serves as a professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and a member of the Justice and Peace Commission for the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land.

Born in South Africa to a German Jewish family, Neuhaus moved to Israel at 15 and converted to Catholicism at 26. He’s a longtime fixture in Jewish-Catholic relations, and served as parochial vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel from 2009 to 2017.

In his complex, 2,500-word May 8 piece, Neuhaus’s central contention was that anti-Semitism has been a cancer not only for Jews but also, in a sense, for Palestinians, in that it was the legacy of the Holocaust that created momentum towards foundation of a Jewish state in the Middle East and set the stage for what Arabs call the Nakbah, or “catastrophe,” referring to the forced displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 war.

Along the way, Neuhaus argued that Zionism, meaning the drive to create a Jewish state, was influenced by 19th and early 20th century European nationalism and colonialism, and insisted that criticizing Zionism is not necessarily tantamount to anti-Semitism. He also argued that opponents of anti-Semitism and advocates for Palestinian rights should be allies in seeking a society in the Middle East “based upon justice, peace, freedom and equality.”

In the wake of that May 8 essay, Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz approached L’Osservatore Romano with a request to submit a response for publication. The paper initially agreed, but later rescinded the offer – more on that in a moment – so Schutz provided the text of his reply to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, and, later, to Crux.

Schutz’s main objections included the following.

Zionism, he insisted, has nothing to do with colonialism: “Colonialism is when an empire occupies a faraway territory in order to exploit its resources,” he wrote. “Zionism was about a persecuted minority that felt the urgent need to have some place under the sun in which it can be free, independent and protected from persecution.”

The Nakbah, he argued, was not a consequence of the Holocaust, but Arab “shortsightedness and belligerent policies,” including rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan and initiating the 1948 war. More broadly, he claimed that Neuhaus treats the Palestinians only as victims, absolving them of any responsibility for their own situation.

Most basically, Schutz accused Neuhaus of effectively adopting the Palestinian narrative about the Middle East conflict – seeing the Jews as a foreign presence, rather than as an indigenous people with a legitimate claim to the land they occupy: “From the beginning of the conflict until today,” Schutz wrote, “the Palestinians never authentically recognized the fact that the conflict is between two national movements that seek self-definition over the same territory.”

Finally, Schutz faulted Neuhaus for failing to mention the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, saying such an ommission betrays “a special type of moral blindness and/or lack of integrity,” and of indirectly contributing to the rise of anti-Semitism by questioning the right of a Jewish state to exist.

While that conflict was still simmering, the Vatican hosted a May 10 “World Meeting on Human Fraternity”, bringing together roughly 30 past Nobel Peace Prize recipients under the aegis of the Fratelli Tutti foundation inspired by Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical.

One of the speakers was Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist who won the prize in 2011 for her coverage of the Arab Spring. She used the Vatican platform to address the conflict in Gaza, accusing Israel of “massacres of ethnic cleansing and genocide.” Karman also posted summaries of what she said at the Vatican event, both before and after, on her social media accounts.

Shortly afterwards, the Israeli embassy issued a statement expressing “shock and indignation,” calling Karman’s remarks “a propaganda speech full of lies.” Among other points, the statement said it was “Orwellian” to accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing when every day it permits large quantities of humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip.

The clear suggestion was that somebody in the Vatican either should have prevented speakers from exploiting the event to score political points, or at least should have distanced themselves afterwards. In fact, no such clarification was forthcoming.

Though no one’s quite said so out loud, it seems reasonable to suspect that controversy generated by the Karman incident may have played a role in the decision by L’Osservatore Romano not to publish Schutz’s response to the May 8 Neuhaus essay.

Barely had that episode played out before another Neuhaus piece was published by a Vatican-affiliated news outlet, in this case the Jesuit-edited journal Civiltà Cattolica, which is reviewed by the Secretary of State prior to publication.

Once again, it’s a long and complicated analysis, running to over 4,000 words in Italian. In it, Neuhaus attempts to take stock of Jewish-Catholic dialogue amid the war in Gaza, listing various disagreements that have arisen.

Neuhaus says that collectively, a “crisis” today exists in the relationship between Jews and Christians. He identifies the heart of this crisis in the Jewish insistence on a religious and spiritual claim to the land of Israel, grounded in Scripture. Neuhaus says that while Catholics must listen attentively and respectfully to those claims, the Church also cannot forget that there’s another people present on the same territory and with their own legitimate demands for justice.

Neuhaus cited a 1975 Christmas message from St. Paul VI: “Even if we are well aware of the tragedies not so long ago that have compelled the Jewish people to seek a secure and protected garrison in a sovereign and independent state of their own — and because we are properly aware of this — we would like to invite the children of this people to recognize the rights and legitimate aspirations of another people which also has suffered for a long time, the people of Palestine.”

Ironically, while Neuhaus may have intended simply to x-ray the factures that have occurred in Jewish-Catholic relations since Oct. 7, in fact he seems to have created yet another one.

Surveying Israeli and Jewish reaction to the essay, one point that comes up frequently is that Neuhaus referred to the suffering of people in Gaza and of Israelis as a result of the Oct 7 attacks, especially the hostages, but he makes no reference to other sources of Israeli heartache, including Israelis who have been killed or displaced as a result of Hezbollah attacks in the north of the country since October.

At a merely linguistic level, it annoyed some observers that Neuhaus quoted Vatican Editorial Director Andrea Tornielli in describing the Israeli Defense Forces as “the army of Tel Aviv,” an indirect way of reminding the world that the Vatican does not accept Jerusalem as the Israeli capital — and, in any event, an obvious inaccuracy, since the city of Tel Aviv does not have its own military.

More basically, it seemed to some Israeli and Jewish leaders that Neuhaus is inviting Jews to accept a dialogue largely on the Vatican’s terms, i.e., bracketing off the theological question of Israel’s relationship with the Holy Land, meaning Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish state, and prioritizing a political solution to the Palestinian problem.

That’s not a basis that at least some Israeli and Jewish leaders appear prepared to accept.

“Certainly, the dialogue should continue,” Schutz told Crux about the latest Neuhaus essay. “The important thing is that we must speak truth to one another. If the dialogue is based on turning a blind eye to unpleasant points, then it’s problematic.”

Schutz pointed to a 2000 document titled Dabru Emet (“Speak Truth”), signed by over 200 rabbis and Jewish intellectuals, on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, as a template for the dialogue. He also said that going forward, the centrality of Israel in the Jewish/Christian conversation should be stressed, because, as he put it, “a denial of Israel’s existence is, in turn, a form of anti-Semitism.”

Granted, Neuhaus is not a Vatican official, and it’s possible to argue that his views don’t necessarily represent those of Pope Francis or the Vatican diplomatic apparatus – possible, that is, though frankly a little bit of a tough sell, given the wide prominence Neuhaus’s analysis has been given by Vatican media outlets.

Regardless, Neuhaus is a respected and influential figure in Jewish/Catholic relations, and his views are not a personal idiosyncrasy but reflect convictions shared, with varying nuances, by many senior Catholic leaders.

The soft power conflicts he’s unleashed don’t appear to be resolved, but they at least help paint a picture of the rebuilding challenges facing Catholic/Jewish relations going forward.

In the meantime, Pope Francis’s own “soft power” push in favor of peace continues unabated. Yesterday in the Italian city of Verona, he presided over an “arena of peace” event in which, among things, two young men who’ve become close friends, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, both of whom have lost family members in the Gaza war, embraced one another on stage to loud applause.

“Looking at the embrace of these two, pray within yourself and make an internal decision to do something to end these wars,” the pope urged the crowd, adding that “peace will never be the result of mistrust, of walls, of weapons pointed at each other. Let’s not seed death, destruction and fear, but hope.”