The holdings of the ISA contain millions of documents, mostly consisting of the written word. These documents show how important wording can be, and how much can hang on the exact word or phrase. This is even more true in diplomatic documents, where weeks are sometimes spent on refining a formula. Diplomatic telegrams are usually succinct, and every word counts. Here is an example of a small change in a telegram which caused a major diplomatic commotion. It was sent after the visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in January 1964, the first visit by a reigning pope. At that time, before the Six Day War, many of the Christian Holy Places were in Jordan, and the Pope visited both Jordan and Israel.
We covered this subject recently in our exhibition at the Foreign Ministry, "The Revealed and the Concealed". Although defined as a private visit, the Israeli authorities hoped that it would bring about an improvement in Israel's difficult relations with the Vatican, which had not recognized the state. In addition, like many other countries, the Vatican did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital (see more posts about the status of Jerusalem here and here).
| President Shazar welcoming Pope Paul VI at Megiddo, 5 January 1964. |
On his right is Prime Miister Levi Eshkol.
Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office
At first it seemed that their hopes had been realized. The pope met with Israel's president, Zalman Shazar, at Megiddo on his arrival from Jordan, and at the Mandlebaum Gate crossing into East Jerusalem. The Israeli ambassador in Rome, Maurice Fischer, summed up the visit as a great success. Although the Jordanians had protested against Shazar's mention in his speeches of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the Vatican had brushed off these complaints. On his way back to Rome Pope Paul sent Shazar a telegram of thanks through the control tower at Lod Airport, which began with the words: "To his Excellency the President of Israel, Mr. Zalman Shazar, Jerusalem." There was great excitement over this formula, which seemed to show that the Vatican recognized Israel, and Jerusalem as its capital. The fact that the telegram was signed "Pope Pius 6" instead of Pope Paul did not set off any alarm bells in Israel. Shazar's aides were delighted and sent a copy of the telegram to all the media.
But the satisfaction in Jerusalem did not last long. By the following day it became clear that the text of the telegram was incorrect. It was the staff at the control tower and not the Pope's aides who had written the address. In a telegram to Fischer, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry explained the mistake and added the correct version as supplied by the Vatican. Here the opening sentence was addressed to "his Excellency the President, Mr. Zalman Shazar, Tel Aviv." Fischer proposed to protest to the Vatican officials that the president was insulted that the Vatican had chosen his capital for him, but on reflection thought better of this cynical remark.
Fischer's correspondence with the Foreign Ministry is in File MFA 217/13 and can be seen on our Hebrew blog. The writer of the post there, who was a child at the time, vividly remembers the excitement of the Pope's visit and the elation surrounding the telegram, soon to be followed by disappointment – all because of two words.
The Vatican finally recognized Israel in 1993. In February 2014 Pope Francis visited Israel on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul's historic visit. Below you can see a video clip about Pope Paul's journey posted by the Vatican.