Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Power of a Word (or Two): How a Mistake in the Pope's Telegram Aroused Hopes in Israel, 1964

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.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

More Tales from the Vienna Woods: Villa Moeller, Part 2

After we published the post on Villa Moeller last week,  Mr. Yoel Sher, the Israeli ambassador in Vienna from 1995 to 1998, sent us a short article with more details about the history of the house,  also describing his experiences of living and working in this unusual building. Below we bring you some extracts from the article, translated into English. 

The story goes that Adolf Loos, the architect who built Villa Moeller, lived with Hans Moeller and his family for three months in order to learn about them and their preferences, and planned the house accordingly. They would have been very happy there if it were not for the Germans, who annexed Austria in 1938. The Moeller family, whose relatives had already founded the ATA factory in 1934, decided to immigrate to Palestine.

During the war the commander of the Gestapo in Vienna lived in the house. After the war it was returned to Moeller, but he was so angry about the demand to pay city taxes for all the years of occupation and war, that he no longer wanted it. He gave it to the state to serve as a home for Israel's representatives in Vienna, at first at consular level.  In 1955 the four occupying powers decided to leave and signed an agreement by which Austria became independent again, on condition that it remained neutral between East and West. Israel recognized Austria and sent an ambassador to Vienna.
,Ambassador Sher presents his credentials in a snowstorm in Vienna, December 1995
  accompanied by the Austrian head of protocol. Photograph: Yoel Sher, private collection
[…..]
Israel's representatives in Vienna continue to live and work in the house even though it is not very convenient. Since it was built by Loos, it is a listed historic building, and not even a nail can be knocked into the wall without permission from the department of preservation of the Vienna municipality. The small dining room, for example, cannot be enlarged to make it suitable for official entertaining.

Hans Moeller was an amateur cello player and liked to invite people to musical evenings in his home. Loos planned a raised dining room which served as a stage, with stairs without a railing down to the living room. Many ladies have sprained or broken their legs trying to walk down the stairs in high heels. 

As well as the straight lines of the exterior, Loos' style included built in furniture which is fixed to the walls, such as sofas which cannot be moved or replaced. Not very practical!

 . View of the dining room, Villa Moeller
Photograph: Wikiarchitectura

The house is in a suburb off the main road, and busloads of architectural students from all over the world come to see and photograph it. They would very much like to see inside, and it's a pity the embassy can't let them in and charge admission fees. Some ambassadors have tried to persuade the Vienna municipality to turn it into an architectural museum and to give the embassy a more suitable home. In the face of municipal bureaucracy and delays, the three years of their posting come to an end and they pass on the responsibility to the new ambassador ….