I saw this problem on full display at an event at an evening of Jewish-Catholic dialogue that took place in Brighton in early May. At the event, hosted by St. John Seminary, representatives from both the Jewish and Catholic communities spoke incisively about the problem of Christian anti-Semitism and the decades-long effort to correct it in the Catholic Church. The upshot is that the Catholic Church no longer holds the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus and affirms that God’s promises to the Jews are still valid.
As incisive (and moving) as the discussion was, it was marred by an air of unreality. There was no mention of Jews being harassed and intimidated by anti-Zionist bullies on college campuses in the U.S., nor was there any reference to the murder of Jews by jihadis in Europe. Yes, Nostra Aetate was one of the great achievements of the 20th century, but talking in congratulatory terms about Nostra Aetate without confronting current realities of the 21st century is not an act of truth telling; it is an act of evasion.
Similar evasion was on full display at a lecture given by Fr. David Neuhaus, S.J., Ph.D. at the Center for Christian-Jewish learning at Boston College on Oct. 30. As an Israeli, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and a Jesuit scholar, Fr. Neuhaus argued Christians can no longer view Jews through the “teaching of contempt” and that the Church must somehow communicate the sad lessons of Christian history to Israeli Jews who, under Israel’s current leadership, use a discourse of “fear and loathing and hatred” in reference to the Palestinians. In sum, Fr. Neuhaus argued Israeli Jews need to learn the lessons of Christian history and apply them to their conflict with the Palestinians.
“The duty of Christians within Jewish-Christian dialogue might be to warn Jews that they should not fall into a trap Christians know too well from their history – the trap of a religiously justified empowerment that ignores the cry of those they have marginalized,” he said.
Under questioning, Fr. Neuhaus acknowledged there is a similar problem in Palestinian society, but he did not speak of it with nearly the same level of outrage – or detail – as he did about Israeli discourse about the Palestinians. His primary beef is with his fellow Israelis, not with Palestinians who call for their murder.
Neuhaus, who, before becoming a Jesuit, protested against Israeli policies alongside the left-wing Women in Black, said Israeli society inculcates young Jews in a “profoundly militaristic” discourse about the Palestinians from a very young age.
“The description of reality is framed by an experience that begins when kids are in their diapers, but then takes on a very, very real expression when they are adolescents, 14, 15, doing paramilitary training in school. And then of course going into the army, which is a universal experience for Israelis.” This militarized discourse is hardened by the tragedy of Jewish history and the fear it causes, Neuhaus reported. “I’m not sure how we can convince Palestinians to take that into account,” he said.
The problem is made worse, Fr. Neuhaus said, when Israeli authorities use language that “points to the Palestinians as an enemy that is carrying the weight of a historical enemy that is very beyond anything that the Palestinians can really shoulder.”
The message that Fr. Neuhaus seemed intent on conveying is that Israeli Jews (and Americans) view the Palestinians with the same fear and loathing that has been directed at Jews because of Christian teachings of contempt.
It is a neat argument, but fails to address a hugely important question facing the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths in the 21st century: How are Jews, Christians and Muslims supposed to respond to the problem of anti-Jewish (and anti-Christian) polemics in Islamic sources, in light of the lessons enunciated in Nostra Aetate?
This is a poignant and tough issue for Christians to address in light of their own history. Fr. Neuhaus explicitly stated he wants his fellow Christians to instruct Jews humbly in the evils of using scripture to make claims of empowerment. But can Christians credibly offer such an admonition in light of their failure to confront the problem of Islamic supremacism – which has not only terrorized Jews in the Middle East, but also resulted in the deaths of so many Christians in the region?