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Philip PerlmutterDecember 09, 2000

The world of Catholic-Jewish relations is far, far better today than it was when I was growing up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Jews were the overwhelming majority. Sure, as a youngster I had some Italian, Polish, Puerto Rican and Russian friends, but I didn’t know they were Catholic or Russian Orthodox, except on Jewish holidays when we got dressed up and didn’t go to school - and they did, and resentfully so.

There were a few churches in that community, particularly in the Italian and Polish sections, but we never entered them. They were forbidden territory, into which we hesitated to look even when the doors were open. Instead, when walking past them, we grabbed a button on our shirt or jacket, as if to protect ourselves from evil (a ritual whose roots I have yet to discover). I knew nothing of Protestants, though rumor had it that many of the large synagogues in the neighborhood were originally Protestant churches, built before the Williamsburg Bridge, which links Brooklyn and Manhattan, was erected.

It was in high school that we became aware that Jews shouldn’t date or marry non-Jews, unless they wanted to shame their parents. I remember my mother telling me about a family in the next tenement who was sitting shiva because their daughter had married a Christian.

But she’s not dead, I protested.

To her parents she is, my mother replied, more in sympathy, I thought, with the parents than the daughter.

But it’s not fair, I said, wondering why my mother told me what had happened. Did she know that I secretly liked Angela, who didn’t even know I liked her?

Not until I joined the army in 1943 did I realize that Jews were truly a minority in America. While I was friendly with Christians in the army and then in college, I never discussed religion with them. According to the conventional wisdom of the day, you didn’t discuss religion or politics with strangers.

Not until after I graduated from college, got married, moved out of Williamsburg and started working at the Anti-Defamation League in New York City, did I first encounter the concept of Christian-Jewish relations. The league’s major problems in the early 1950’s were fighting anti-Semitism, improving race relations and keeping church and state separate.

Protestants, liberal ones that is, were our organizational allies, not only because they shared many of our views on church-state separation, but because they were equally suspicious of Catholics, especially of Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, who was then archbishop of New York. Conversely, as I later learned, many Catholics were distrustful and critical of both Protestants and Jews and felt themselves besieged. Rarely did Catholic church leaders engage in or encourage interfaith programs, lest their own faith be homogenized or relativized.

I remember hearing one day in the A.D.L. office that a priest was meeting with my boss, Oscar Cohen. I couldn’t understand why, especially when I also heard that the priest was a convert from Judaism. The priest was the esteemed Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher (1904-93), who I later learned was there to discuss the joint publication of some articles on Catholics and Jews. It was at the A.D.L. that the need for improving Catholic-Jewish understanding first became planted in my then liberal but ethnocentric brain.

A few years later in St. Louis, where I was the director of the local office of the American Jewish Congress, I first befriended a priest, but ever so gingerly. Then, as today, this congress was the leading Jewish defender of church-state separation. Somehow, I had decided to invite the priest to address our group on the church’s position on federal aid to parochial schools. I believed that we should hear the other side, however wrong.

The priest, whose name I have forgotten, agreed, but said he would first have to obtain approval from the archdiocesan chancery. Obtaining that approval took him a month. And when the meeting did take place, no minds were changed.

At that time in St. Louis, there was only one other priest who occasionally met with Jewish groups, Trafford P. Maher, S.J., (1914-92), director of a human relations center at St. Louis University. Otherwise, in my three years in St. Louis, there were no dialogues, no meetingsnadabetween the Jewish and Catholic communities.

In 1960, I moved to Boston to join the American Jewish Committee, where I underwent a series of dramatic changes in thinking, believing and behaving. The American Jewish Committee, and its Interreligious Affairs Department head, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, had made Christian-Jewish relations an organizational priority.

In Boston, as in St. Louis, Jewish relations with Protestants were better than those with Catholics. The Boston Jewish Community Relations Council had been formed in the mid-l940’s to counteract the young Irish toughs who were beating up Jewish youngsters while the police, the press and the diocese did little. Boston was also a bastion of support for Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) in the 1930’s and later on for Father Leonard Feeney (1897-1978). Both these men readily sounded anti-Semitic themes.

Yankee Protestants were less flagrant in their anti-Semitism. They limited themselves to excluding Jews from housing in the suburbs of Wellesley, Weston and Belmont; from positions in the city’s major law firms and banks; and from membership in the downtown and country clubs. They disliked Catholics a bit more than Jews, but whereas they had been able to discriminate against Catholics in the 19th century, they could no longer do so once Catholics in the city outnumbered and outvoted them.

Nevertheless, it was in Boston that I learned about Catholics as real people, as committed believers, as victims of Yankee intolerance and as dear friends. And it was here that I learned how hard it is for Catholics to understand the differences between the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. It was also hard for them to understand the differences between the reform, the conservative, the orthodox, andmost incomprehensible of allthose Jews who didn’t believe in God at all. It was easier for us Jews to understand and even envy Catholics, who seemed so united, so polite, never arguing with each other, with their clergy or with God.

Nevertheless, changes in relations between Catholics and Jews began with Cardinal Richard Cushing (1895-1970), under whose leadership a Catholic-Jewish committee was formed. More prominent then, at least in the broad Jewish community, was Robert F. Drinan, S.J., whose understanding of Jews and whose leadership in combating racism and anti-Semitism were second to none.

It is impossible to understand what was happening across America without remembering a number of international developments. These included a growing sense of Christian guilt over the Holocaust, the impact of Israel’s rebirth on Jewish and Christian psyches, and an increasing determination by Jews themselves never again to be silent about anti-Semitism by anyone, anywhere.

Major changes in Catholic-Jewish relations began with Pope John XXIII. Many of today’s Catholics and Jews, at least literate ones, are familiar with the Second Vatican Council and the many discussions and debates that were held on what was said and not said at the council, but few people know my mother’s reaction to Pope John XXIII.

I had become very friendly with a Catholic journalist, who one day jokingly asked me what Jews thought of Pope John. I told him I couldn’t say what all Jews thought, but I could easily find out what Brooklyn Jews thought about him. That evening I phoned my mother, who spoke broken English and could only read Yiddish and Hebrew. Momma, what do you think of the Pope? I asked in Yiddish, prepared to hear a bitter denunciation and recapitulation of all the wrongs she had experienced in Catholic Poland.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, Ehr iz ah tzaddick, meaning, He is a holy man. From the warmth with which she said those few words, I realized that if the pope had so touched her, he must have touched countless other Brooklyn Jews. The next day I told my friend, The pope has got it made with Brooklyn Jews, whose numbers I assured him far exceeded those of the Boston Jewish communitiesand whose chutzpah equaled if not exceeded that of the Boston Irish.

It was that Catholic friend who was also unwittingly responsible for ending my own repressed anti-Catholic feelings. One evening, at my home, in total violation of conventional advice, I found myself discussing religion and asking him how as a rational person, he could believe in so many unprovable things. He smiled gently, and said that he had once felt that way and had left the church; but once outside he had felt so lonely, so alone, that he returned. He said nothing more, and I didn’t need to ask anything moreeither about his or my faith.

In the 1960’s, small numbers of Jews and Catholics were forming dialogue groups across the country, usually at the behest of local and national Jewish organizations. I remember how some prominent and not-so-prominent Jews opposed interfaith dialogues, particularly theological ones, because they believed that Catholics knew more about their religion than Jews did about theirs and that Catholics were out to convert Jewsor at least weaken their commitment to Judaism. Of course, no such things happened. More often than not, both the Jewish and Catholic participants discovered they needed to deepen their knowledge of their own faith.

Then came the 1967 Six Day and Yom Kippur wars, which decisively ended the stereotypes of Jews as unable to fight militarily and of Jews as a dispersed and accursed people. Equally significant were gradual changes in Catholic opinion on Israel. It moved from critical and even hostile to either favorable or neutral. It was also in those war years that a small number of Protestant and Catholic religious leaders in greater Boston, men like the Rev. Robert Bullock and the Rev. Robert Griese, courageously spoke up on behalf of Israel.

In contrast, Jewish relations with mainline Protestant church organizations cooled at that time. Groups with whom Jews had been allies on many social issues began criticizing Israel for allegedly violating the human rights of Christian Arabs. Jews reciprocated by accusing the critics of double standards, if not of being anti-Semitic.

No less surprising, however, were the changes in the Protestant fundamentalist and evangelical churches, which had long nurtured anti-Semitic beliefs. Now they became militantly pro-Israel and even philo-Semitic, because they believed that a victory for Israel and the return thereof would hasten the Second Coming.

And so, slowly and surely, interfaith tolerance and dialogue began replacing ethnocentrism and xenophobia. John F. Kennedy’s election as president finally ended Protestant triumphalism and Catholic insecurity. Meanwhile, in the Boston Irish Catholic community, racism started superseding anti-Semitism as differences erupted between African Americans and Irish Catholics, as well as between African Americans and Jews, over forced busing and integrated housing.

And then, wonder of wonders, in Rome on Oct. 16, 1978, a relatively little-known Polish bishop became the pope whose words and deeds were to revolutionize Catholic-Jewish relations. Clearly and repeatedly, John Paul II has denounced anti-Semitism as a sin against God and man. He has apologized for the wrongs done to Jews by Catholics, reaffirmed the validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, formally recognized the State of Israel and befriended Jews around the world. As a direct and indirect result of his leadership, unprecedented numbers of Catholics and Jews began cosponsoring studies, courses and institutes on Christian-Jewish relations, as well as interfaith missions to Israelall without the need for lengthy clearance or fears of creedal homogenization.

While such programs expanded in Boston under Cardinal Cushing’s successor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros (1915-83), it was with Cardinal Bernard Law, who has been archbishop of Boston since 1984, that they moved into high gearfrom dialogue to reconciliation. What Pope John Paul II was doing internationally, Cardinal Law did locally. In fact now, for the first time, some Catholics began taking the lead in reaching out to Jews, as well as to Protestants and Muslims.

As I look back, it is clear to me that more progress has been made in just a few decades than in all of previous American or world history, a progress that no one, not my mother nor anyone else’s, could have predicted.

It is also clear that never again will the church be silent about anti-Semitism; that never again will Jewish history and teaching be demeaned; that never again will the Jewish roots of Christianity be ignored; that never again will Jews feel threatened by the church; and that never again will Jews themselves be as ignorant, suspicious or critical of Catholics as they were in the past. Certainly, there are still problems, but they are not as big as they once were, nor as big as the media sometimes project them, nor as big as some irreconcilables in both communities would have us believe. Today differences and debates can be held, openly and honestly.

Yes, I am an optimist about the future of Catholic-Jewish relations, because I remember the darkness of the past and rejoice in the light of the present.

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15 years 6 months ago
I enjoyed reading the perspective of Philip Perlmutter on Catholic-Jewish reconciliation (12/9). I would find it helpful if America would consider an article or more on the essential tenets of Judaism as well as of Islam. As a Catholic with a poor knowledge of these two other major religions, I would like to learn more about them in both a religious and cultural perspective. Perhaps, as recent editions have permitted a response from an educated reader, these articles could permit someone quite theologically grounded to provide the Catholic response perspective.

15 years 6 months ago
I enjoyed reading the perspective of Philip Perlmutter on Catholic-Jewish reconciliation (12/9). I would find it helpful if America would consider an article or more on the essential tenets of Judaism as well as of Islam. As a Catholic with a poor knowledge of these two other major religions, I would like to learn more about them in both a religious and cultural perspective. Perhaps, as recent editions have permitted a response from an educated reader, these articles could permit someone quite theologically grounded to provide the Catholic response perspective.

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