The Editors: Rising antisemitism requires a clear Catholic response
On Oct. 7, Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, torturing, raping and murdering over 1,400 innocent men, women, teenagers, babies and grandparents who were celebrating Simchat Torah. In the month since the attack, countries around the world have reported a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents.
By coincidence, two days after the Hamas assault, Catholic and Jewish historians gathered at a conference in Rome to discuss new research on what the church did and failed to do during the Holocaust to save Jews from Nazi extermination.
At the opening of the conference, Suzanne Brown-Fleming, the director of international academic programs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, noted that some Catholics in Rome during the German occupation of Italy in the final years of World War II overcame their antisemitic prejudices to shelter Jews, “sometimes at the cost of their lives. Others did not.” Despite the heroic actions of individuals and religious institutions, the answer to “What did the church do for the Jews?” is the same as it is for the rest of the Western world: not enough.
How will the Catholic response to a rise in antisemitism around the world, following the deadliest day for the Jews since the Holocaust, be viewed in 50 years? Will it have been enough?
America has long called for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that respects the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live in Jerusalem and the surrounding territories and has criticized Israeli policies that have set back a much-longed-for peace or failed to uphold the human dignity of Palestinians. Last week, America called on Israel to end its total siege on Gaza and to allow in humanitarian aid adequate to the massive and growing lack of food, water, medicine and fuel. The need for such aid remains critical.
But this is not about the cycles of violence, repression and reprisals that preceded Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel on Oct. 7, nor the invasion and siege of Gaza that has followed, but what is happening today on college campuses, social media and the streets of cities around the world. The evil of antisemitism and the threat it poses to Jews around the world must be condemned clearly and distinctly, separate from criticism or support of Israel as the Jewish state.
The evil of antisemitism and the threat it poses to Jews around the world must be condemned clearly and distinctly, separate from criticism or support of Israel as the Jewish state.
The world began to see antisemitism almost immediately in the wake of the Hamas attacks. The dead were still being counted in Israel on Monday, Oct. 9, when chants of “Gas the Jews” and “F— the Jews” were heard at a pro-Palestinian rally at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. On Oct. 30, in the Dagestan region of Russia, an angry mob stormed an airport in search of Jews arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv. Antisemitic graffiti is spreading across France, including in Paris, where dozens of stars of David have been painted on buildings around the city, widely seen as an echo of the badge Jews were forced to wear under Nazi regimes.
On Nov. 5, the European Commission said in a statement, “The spike of antisemitic incidents across Europe has reached extraordinary levels in the last few days, reminiscent of some of the darkest times in history.”
In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League has recorded a 388 percent increase in antisemitic incidents—including verbal and physical attacks—since the massacre on Oct. 7. “Antisemitism has been intensifying and increasing,” A.D.L director Jonathan Greenblatt said on Nov. 5. “We’ve seen it normalized, and from the far-right and from the hard left.”
Some activists and academics have celebrated Hamas’s atrocities as an act of resistance. At Cornell University, the F.B.I. was called in to investigate violent threats posted to online message boards. “If you see a Jewish ‘person’ on campus follow them home and slit their throats,” one message read. One student has been arrested in connection with the threats. On campuses and city streets, posters displaying the faces of the more than 200 people being held hostage in Gaza have been torn down by critics of Israel.
Universities were quick to denounce antisemitism and white supremacy by name when chants of “Jews will not replace us” rang out during a right-wing march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017; they should be just as forceful in condemning hate emanating from their own campuses.
Many Americans, seeking to understand the sheer scale of the attack on Oct. 7, have described it as “Israel’s 9/11.” Jews do not need such an analogy. They have a word for this horror: pogrom. Throughout the history of Christian Europe, Jews have been the target of sporadic mob violence. In the medieval period, the Crusades excited religious fanaticism among Christians, who then channeled that fervor into violence against their Jewish neighbors. In the early modern era, Jews, a stateless people with deep religious commitments, were frequently scapegoated as enemies of the emerging nation-state and the Enlightenment project. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, nationalists and Red Army soldiers killed tens of thousands of Jews in modern Belarus and Ukraine.
The reasons for Jew-hatred throughout history have been chameleon-like: Jews are too rich, too poor, too powerful or too weak; they are stubborn monotheists or godless communists. This adaptability also makes antisemitism resilient and is why we must always be attentive to its resurgence in our midst. When some of the chants coming from protests on campuses and streets echo the hatred of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, we cannot answer them with silence.
Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, though many Jews will say it is becoming harder to tell the difference. But celebrating Hamas’s depravity or arguing that the targeting of innocent Israeli civilians is understandable as an act of armed resistance reveals a deeply ingrained, and deeply immoral, disregard for Jewish life.
Those calling for a ceasefire out of concern for the innocent lives being lost in Gaza must also acknowledge the very real fears of Jews in Israel and in the diaspora.
Catholic leaders have not been silent in the face of this wave of antisemitism. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, condemned the recent outbreak of religious hatred toward both Jews and Muslims in a statement on Nov. 1. “As countless voices celebrate the brutal terrorist attacks of October 7, our Jewish brothers and sisters reasonably fear for their lives,” the cardinal said.
The United States has long been a refuge for the Jewish people, a place where they could live without fear. It is incumbent on Catholics, and all people of good will, to ensure it remains so. That starts on the individual level. Our Jewish friends are scared and hurting. Many know someone who was killed, injured or kidnapped or who is currently fighting in Gaza. One need not share their politics to offer comfort and support.
Over the last month, concerned citizens—Catholic, Jewish and Muslim alike—have rallied in cities around the globe to call for an immediate ceasefire. On Sunday, Pope Francis, who has repeatedly called for the release of the hostages and an end to the siege of Gaza, appealed “in the name of God” for a ceasefire. As Catholics continue their witness for a just peace, they should remain in dialogue with Jews who see calls for a ceasefire as a double standard that would never be applied to a country that has been so ruthlessly attacked and whose adversaries show no appetite for peace. Those calling for a ceasefire out of concern for the innocent lives being lost in Gaza must also acknowledge the very real fears of Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. Solidarity with those suffering in Gaza must be held together with solidarity with Jews fearful for their security and for their loved ones in Israel.
In a speech in Chicago on Nov. 3, former president Barack Obama urged Americans to “take in the whole truth” of the conflict between Israel and Gaza. He said it is true “that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable.”
“And what is also true,” Mr. Obama continued, “is that there is a history of the Jewish people that may be dismissed unless your grandparents or your great-grandparents, or your uncle or your aunt tell you stories about the madness of antisemitism.”
Catholic-Jewish relations have made great strides since World War II. With the wider world, Catholics pledged that “never again” would we stand by idly as Jews were persecuted and killed in the name of religion or ideology. Today, our Jewish brothers and sisters are asking us to make good on that promise.