Did Pope Francis equate anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism?

The Times of Israel believes so, and so did Portugese reporter Henrique Cymerman, who first reported the pontiff’s e-mailed remarks. Given the questionable reporting on papal remarks in general, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically, it’s best to treat these with some level of skepticism. Still, if Cymerman accurately represented the e-mail, this goes beyond what the Holy See has said in the past (via Jeff Dunetz):

In what would constitute a stunning rhetorical volte-face, Pope Francis reportedly walked back earlier statements praising Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and dubbed some of Israel’s detractors “anti-Semitic.”

In comments made to veteran Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman Thursday, Francis was quoted as saying that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel — and their right to exist — is guilty of anti-Semitism.”

Francis was also said to have backtracked on statements he was reportedly heard making earlier this month designating the visiting Abbas “a bit an angel of peace.”

The “angel of peace” remark was widely misunderstood, as John Allen reported at the time. Pope Francis gave Abbas an award and urged him to be “an angel of peace,” but didn’t declare him to be one. (Worth noting, as Allen does, is that Francis has called Abbas “a man of peace” on other occasions.) The Times of Israel’s Avi Lewis suggests that the new statement on anti-Semitism may be an attempt to walk that controversy back, although Lewis’ suggestion that Francis meant it as a walkback of previous salutations to Abbas is probably way off. It still underscores the seriousness with which the Vatican will defend the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

In order to get some perspective on this story, I contacted long-time Vaticanista John Thavis, a friend of mine, to get his reaction to the story. John has covered the Vatican for over 30 years and wrote the essential book The Vatican Diariesso he has some significant perspective on this question. He notes that this isn’t terribly different from other defenses of the State of Israel from the Vatican in the past, and that it may be more of a reminder that the Holy See supports both Israel and the Palestinian proto-state:

There’s always a danger of reading just a bit too much into these rather spontaneous papal statements. My immediate reaction is that the Vatican has always defended the rights of the Israeli state and, of course, those of the Jewish people. Here they are tied together and related to anti-Semitism. I’m not sure that means the pope is equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, however. He does seem to be saying the Jewish state has legitimate rights, but to me that is pretty fundamental, and far from a rebuke to all critics of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian question (on which the pope and the Vatican have been pretty clear.)
So yes, it’s probably a bit of an attempt to placate critics of the “angel of peace” comment, which to my mind was over-interpreted (and only half-understood, anyway.) But I wouldn’t go as far as this article does.
As I noted when the “angel of peace” comment blew up, the Vatican has a vested interest in keeping both sides talking, which are the small and shrinking Christian communities in each, especially in the West Bank. The Vatican only gave official diplomatic recognition to Israel in 1994, and waited almost 20 years to offer the same to the Palestinians — under Benedict XVI. It has tried to remain supportive and engaged with both for much longer than that, with peace its goal both for the overall benefit it could bring to the region and for the safety of the vanishing Christian communities that go back to the start of the faith.
So expect to see more supportive statements from Francis to clarify that bilateral support when he has the opportunity. And expect to see the same from the next Pontiff, too.