How the Catholic Church Transformed Its Relationship With Jews

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My rabbinic colleague, David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, issued a “glass half full” report earlier this month, noting that “… over the last several years there’s been a steady increase in the percentage of people who live in countries that … have serious restrictions on religious freedom.”

At the same time, he noted, “we’ve seen enormous expansion of interfaith efforts on almost every continent to try and address the challenges.”

Much of that “enormous expansion of interfaith efforts” can be traced to the historic Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) Declaration that the world’s Catholic bishops adopted 50 years ago at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

What the Polish President Could Have Said About His Country’s Holocaust Complicity

Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Joshua Roberts / RNS

FBI Director James B. Comey. Photo courtesy of REUTERS / Joshua Roberts / RNS

The director of the FBI stepped in it.

Or did he?

Last week, James B. Comey delivered a speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in which he said the murderers and accomplices of Germany, Poland, and Hungary “convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.”

The Polish government was not happy. President Bronislaw Komorowski castigated Comey for his “ignorance, lack of historical knowledge, and possibly large personal aversion” toward Poles. And, as a gesture of goodwill, Comey has apologized.

Let’s be clear here. Comey was not accusing the nation of Poland of being complicit in the Holocaust. For all intents and purposes Poland as a nation temporarily ceased to exist during World War II.

But Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Croats, Estonians, Dutch, Latvians — who can deny that so many of them were willing conspirators with the Nazis in the roundup of Jews and the wholesale destruction of European Jewish life?

Here is how Komorowski could have responded:

“Poland suffered terribly during World War II. We were invaded by both the Soviet Union and Germany. The Nazis intended to turn our people into a permanent underclass of slaves. If you have read William Styron’s book Sophie’s Choiceor if you have seen the movie, then you know that the Nazis kidnapped Polish children and raised them as their own. Auschwitz was a killing field for the Poles, no less than for the Jews.

Report Counts Sharp Spike in Global Anti-Semitism

Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

A woman lights candles in front of the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris. Photo via REUTERS / Charles Platiau / RNS

The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world surged nearly 40 percent last year, according to a report released April 15 by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

The report found there were 766 recorded incidents against Jewish people in 2014 — the worst year for attacks since 2009. It was released ahead of Israel commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began April 15 at sundown.

The attacks were “perpetrated with or without weapons and by arson, vandalism, or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries, and monuments as well as private property,” the authors of the report, based at the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, said.

In 2013, there were 554 registered incidents.

Anti-Semitism in U.S. Spikes After a Decade of Decline

Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS

A man wearing a yamaka stands at an interfaith “Service of Unity & Hope” April 17, 2014. Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS

Anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. spiked 21 percent last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, unsettling many American Jews who had thought that hatred of Jews and Judaism was on the decline, at least here at home.

The ADL has released a spring report for the past 10 years that showed fewer incidents targeting American Jews. That downward trend contrasted sharply to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe — recently witnessed in the January killings of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

“The United States still continues to be unique in history” as a safe place for Jews, said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.

But this new ADL report casts a shadow on the idea that the U.S., which is home to more than 40 percent of the world’s Jews, stands in stark contrast to European anti-Semitism and far higher levels of antipathy against Jews in the Middle East, as reflected in studies of anti-Semitic attitudes worldwide.

“It’s still different here than anywhere else, but don’t take anything for granted, and be concerned,” Foxman said.

Let's Drop the Anti-Semitic Messages this Good Friday

Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS

A statue depicting Mary holding Jesus after his crucifixion. Photo via Sally Morrow / RNS

This year, Good Friday and the start of Passover occur on the same date: Friday, April 3. The coincidence is no accident.

Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the eight-day Jewish festival marking the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egyptian slavery was a religious requirement for Jews of his day. After his death by Roman crucifixion, Passover became an integral part of the Easter story, and Jesus’ Last Supper was like an early version of what later became the Passover seder meal.

In past years, I anonymously attended Good Friday services in New York and sat alongside Christians as they commemorated the death of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament Gospel of John. I alternated each year between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches because I was interested in how preachers handled John’s 71 references to the Jewish people, a text that’s often called “radioactive” because of its negative teaching about Jews and their alleged culpability in killing Jesus.

I attend the most solemn Christian service of the year knowing it had often been a day of dread and even death for many European Jewish communities.

Examining Anti-Semitism on U.S. College Campuses

UC Berkeley Sather Tower. Image via Chao Kusollerschariya/

UC Berkeley Sather Tower. Image via Chao Kusollerschariya/

Is anti-Semitism rising on U.S. college campuses?

According to most statistics, yes — but the phenomenon is far more complicated than it first appears, primarily because everyone oversimplifies it.

The data, and the anecdotes, are shocking. In a study conducted in spring 2014 (notably, before the Israel/Gaza conflagrations of last summer), 54 percent of Jewish students said they had personally witnessed or experienced an anti-Semitic incident. And in just the last two months, swastikas have been painted on walls at the University of California’s Berkeley and Davis campuses and at New York’s John Jay College.

But what do these incidents mean? There is a great reluctance even to engage with the question.

Among liberals, even though it is obvious that many of these incidents are motivated in part by Israel/Palestine politics, no one wants to give hatred a pass. A swastika is a swastika, graffiti is graffiti, and collective guilt — in this case, blaming all Jews for specific actions of Israel — is always wrong.

Conservatives, meanwhile, routinely conflate anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speech. The far-right David Horowitz Freedom Center, for example, recently released its list of the American college campuses with the “worst anti-Semitic activity.” But many of those activities were protests of Israel. Extreme, perhaps, and unfair; but not really the same as anti-Semitism.

The fact is, the borders of anti-Semitism are permeable. Human speech does not divide neatly into “hate speech” and “political speech.” Thus, if we are to avoid the over-generalizations, we must be more rigorous in our definitions of the phenomenon or we risk diluting the evil of anti-Semitism itself.

In fact, a swastika is not just a swastika. Consider an anti-Israel protest that depicts an Israeli flag with a swastika on it. Offensive, to be sure. But what is it saying? It’s saying that Nazis are bad, and that the Israeli government is Nazi-like.

Now consider an anti-Semitic incident in which someone sprays a swastika on a synagogue door. Also grossly offensive, to say the least. But it is saying something very different. It is saying that Nazis are good, and we should finish the work they started.

The same symbol thus has two nearly opposite meanings.

Despite Rising Anti-Semitism, Jews Thrive in Central Europe

Cafe Elfenbein in Berlin, certified to be Kosher and serves foods like bagels an

Cafe Elfenbein in Berlin, certified to be Kosher and serves foods like bagels and rugelach. Image via RNS/USAToday.

In Cafe Elfenbein, which opened last year in a trendy Berlin neighborhood, two businessmen wearing yarmulkes — Jewish skullcaps — chat away.

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and homemade rugelach pastry fills the shop, where a rabbi has certified that all its food is kosher.

The hip addition to the city points to a trend obscured by rising anti-Semitism and terror attacks in France and Denmark that have alienated Jews. In central and Eastern Europe, Jewish life is thriving.

One major reason is that a young and more confident generation is shaping a new Jewish identity.

“Jewish life is flourishing in Berlin and the rest of the country,” said Jutta Wagemann, spokeswoman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

The Jewish community in Germany remains small, about 200,000 out of 80 million people. It has grown significantly from its postwar population of 37,000 in 1950 because of immigration from the former Soviet Union. The community is putting its stamp these days on the country’s cultural landscape.

In the East German city of Cottbus, an area known for right-wing extremists, a disused church was recently turned into a synagogue, providing space for the 460 members of the Jewish-Russian community.

The Top 10 Worst Attacks on Jews and Judaism in 2014

2014 had distressing cases of anti-Semitism. Image courtesy RNS.

2014 had distressing cases of anti-Semitism. Image courtesy RNS.

Hoping to draw more attention to the global problem of attacks against Jews and Judaism, the Simon Wiesenthal Center on December 29 released its list of the top 10 worst anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents of 2014.

The list can “bring focus to the fact that anti-Semitism has been increasingly manifest in the mainstream of society,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, which is named for the famed Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter.

“Anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem, and it certainly is not going to get solved without awakening the non-Jewish world to deal with it.”

Founded in 1977 to combat anti-Semitism and bigotry in general, the Los Angeles-based center started drawing up the annual list in 2010 to highlight prejudice against Jews, but also criticism of Israel that seeks to delegitimize or demonize the Jewish state.

Below are the three worst incidents on this year’s list.

Principles for Prophetic Action in the Middle East

Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler


As Christians concerned about peace and justice, this time of crisis in the Middle East provides us an opportunity to return to our principles, the “springs of living waters” for people of faith:

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Dispute Over Israel Funding Has Jewish Film Festival in London Looking for New Home

A view of the Tricycle Theatre in London. Photo courtesy of Cnbrb, via Wikimedia Commons.

A London theater is refusing to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because it receives partial funding from the Israeli Embassy.

The Tricycle Theatre has hosted the film festival for the last eight years and was scheduled to screen 26 films in November.

But the theater’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, the English-born daughter of Sri Lankan parents, issued a statement Tuesday saying that because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the theater’s board decided not to host the festival under its current sponsorship arrangement.

“The festival receives funding from the Israeli embassy and given the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, we feel it inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved,” she said in a statement. “We offered to provide alternative funding to cover the loss of the contribution from the Israeli embassy. However, the UKJFF decided it was not willing to decline sponsorship from the Israeli embassy and, to our regret, withdrew the festival from The Tricycle.”