Essays
May 15, 2024

Our Brothers’ Keepers: Catholics Against Antisemitism

We must forge, and render visible, a new alliance between Jews and Catholics, the like of which has not existed before.

Our Brothers’ Keepers: Catholics Against Antisemitism

On October 7, the terrorist organization Hamas decided to follow the Nazi playbook once more. As one observer of World War II put it, the Nazis “ripped the lid off Hell.” That’s what Hamas did. It ripped the lid off Hell. The comparison is inescapable. As noted earlier in this gathering, the Catholic moral record during World War II and the Holocaust was mixed. There were outstanding exceptions. But many European Christians, and others, back then and elsewhere in history, wronged our older brothers and sisters in faith. Many did not view the bond that tethers Catholics and Jews as unbreakable, but as one to escape when loopholes like war or personal advantage presented themselves.

That is what we need to change. We must forge, and render visible, a new alliance between Jews and Catholics, the like of which has not existed before.

There’s an observation by Pope Paul VI that’s been quoted many times, including by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It is this: “Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or if he listens to teachers, he does so because they are witnesses.” So I'm also going to stand and deliver as a witness. Following are three stories about anti-Semitism from different moments in my own life. Like all stories, their details are particular. But their lessons are universal, applying to us all.

The first story goes back decades in time—to rural upstate New York, where I grew up. The countryside there is glorious at its best; the rest of the time, forbidding (say, all winter). The setting of this first tale couldn’t be more ordinary: a parents’ night, right around this time of the academic year, at my high school.

In that part of northern central New York, by dint of religious history, people were mostly Protestant, if they were anything. Only a few families were Catholic. Almost no Jews lived in, or even near, that area. One exception happened to be our high school Spanish teacher. On that long-ago parents’ night, my mother stopped by his classroom for the usual presentations and reports. A few minutes after leaving, as she was moving on to some other teacher’s room, she was accosted and taken aside by another mother—one she didn’t even know. This other woman was angry. Bizarrely angry. She had seen my mother exit the Spanish teacher’s classroom, and she demanded to know, quote: “How can you possibly let your daughter be taught by that dirty Jew?”

When my mother came home that evening, she did not walk in with talk of presentations and reports. Nor did she enter explaining that some people hate Jews, and that this is wrong. She’d already told us that, even though, at the time, we didn’t know any Jewish people. Instead, the first thing she did was to describe her encounter with anti-Semitism, and how nauseated she was by it, and what she said to that other woman. I’m paraphrasing here. The printable part of what she said was, more or less: “How dare you call this fine teacher, or anyone else, a wicked term like that?”

The lesson of story one is twofold. As it suggests, anti-Semitism is a unique evil. It has nothing to do with individual Jewish people. No, it can insinuate itself, and does, into souls with peculiar, invisible cracks of some kind. These souls needn’t ever have encountered actual Jews. Most likely, that woman who took my mother aside that night never had. Part one of the lesson here is that if anti-Semitism can take root with no visible help in unpromising places, like stony soil in the remote foothills in the Adirondacks, it can grow anywhere. And so it does, as the history of anti-Semitism across Europe, especially, goes to show.

The second part of the lesson fans outward to include all of us, the living and the dead and those to come. Why, exactly, did my mother respond forcefully to that anti-Semitic comment? Not because she was a theologian. In fact, she never went to college. She didn’t need to. She was reacting with what St. Thomas Aquinas called “righteous anger” because she was a Catholic. She had been taught throughout elementary and high school by sisters of the Order of St. Ursula. These nuns had a history. During World War II, in Poland, they saved and sheltered Jewish children, and other children who’d been orphaned and abandoned. The Ursulines drilled their charges with the message that anti-Semitism and racism were wrong.

That is why, way back on that autumn evening, in an isolated corner of mostly Catholic-free America, a Catholic woman responded forcefully to an anti-Semitic challenge—because her faith had taught her that hatred of Jews, like hatred of anyone else, is a sin.

It is an iniquitous fact that some Catholics have seen no contradiction between their anti-Semitism and their religious faith. This is a historical shame that cannot be undone by those now living. But this is not a shame that need burden any of you. All you need is what those Ursuline nuns needed: the Catechism. It proves that there is no “get out of Hell free” card in the Catholic Church for hating Jews. Or anyone else.

That is the larger lesson of story number one. It is amazing, in a sense, that it needs reiterating at all. But the necessity seems never to end. A little while back, a friend asked if I knew about the anti-Semitism metastasizing online among some self-described Catholics, mainly on the alt-right and among some who reject Vatican II. My first reaction was an eye roll. Anti-Semitism? It’s no secret that Catholics are pretty challenged these days. But that? I went googling. My friend had a point.

How do you know anti-Semitism when you see it? A few clues: inserting that article “the” before “Jews.” Holding “the Jews” responsible for societal disintegration of all kinds. Trying to re-litigate the number of people who were murdered in the Holocaust. And so on, ad nauseam.

Some of today’s nouveau anti-Semites might call themselves Catholic. But they cannot, to borrow a phrase from one of our Jesuit brethren, make 2+2=5. They might say novenas till all the cows in Ohio come home. But anyone who believes even remotely in the Catholic Catechism knows that getting one big thing wrong risks perdition.

To say that an anti-Semitic “Catholic” believes in Catholic teaching is incoherent. It’s like saying “carnivorous vegan.” Or “teetotaling drunk.” It’s an oxymoron. Here’s a quick plea to the clergy. Although this kind of scandal lives mostly online, and although its perpetrators are few, they are real. If their diocese is your diocese, please act.

This brings us to story number two, whose subtitle should be: Words count. Words always count. The time is the mid-1980s. The setting, New York City.

After graduating from college, I was hired as an assistant editor at the magazine The Public Interest, thanks to a professor friend, Jeremy Rabkin, who is also Jewish. It was run by the legendary American intellectual Irving Kristol. Irving was Jewish, as were some of the writers for the magazine. And because of those facts, back in those days before the internet, anti-Semitic hate mail slithered with some regularity into The Public Interest office.

These missives were easy to separate from normie office mail. Usually, they featured handwriting scrawled on both sides of the envelope, stamps in the wrong place, misplaced exclamation marks, and other spasmodic imprints of feverish minds. Inside, the contents of these letters reeked of malignancy.  On and on their authors ranted about how the global Jewish conspiracy was running the world to the detriment of everyone else. (This paraphrase, again, is polite.) Often enough, they would also cite our tiny, two-room magazine office as the conspiracy’s epicenter.

As it happened, at that moment in the mid-1980s, the junior staff at the magazine weren’t Jews at all. Most were cradle Catholics. We thought these letters perversely amusing because their contents and presentation were so manifestly deranged. They entertained us in the way that people in their teens and twenties find the inexplicable insanity of supposed grownups, well, something to laugh about.

Enter Providence, or maybe just an exercise in cosmic comeuppance. Thanks mostly to that mentor Irving Kristol, I was next hired for another job, this one working at the United States Mission to the United Nations. My new boss was the late, great Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. She was a fearless voice for America and for human rights around the world. My work for her meant poring constantly over the documents issuing nonstop from the international diplomatic bureaucracy, trying to make sense of them.

At the United Nations, I learned that the anti-Semitic madness encountered back in the Public Interest office wasn’t some harmless outpouring of ineffective malevolence after all. Anti-Semitism, usually but not always under the guise of anti-Zionism, was the central theme sounded through that vaunted institution’s marble halls. To judge by what the representatives of many  governments at the United Nations maintained in one venue after another, the most ominous problem on Earth was not, say, nuclear weapons. Or the Gulag archipelago that still existed, imprisoning millions. Or that so many people around the globe knew nothing but crushing poverty and ill health. Or that terrorism was once more ascendant.

No: According to the sententious declarations of not one, but sometimes a majority, of foreign representatives, the pre-eminent threat to what was incomprehensively dubbed the “international community” was something else. One small nation—the longest-running functioning democracy in that area of the world. Which just happened to be the one and only nation run mostly by Jews.

The United Nation’s ferociously lopsided and negative focus on Israel has been confirmed by many independent observers. One 2014 analysis from the Center for Economic Studies Institute in Munich, Germany, for example, summarized: “We compiled data on all United Nations General Assembly resolutions on which voting took place between January 1990 and June 2013 and find a preoccupation with one country: in 65 percent of instances in which a country is criticized in a resolution, the country is Israel.”

No Catholic is being asked, anywhere, to rubber-stamp the internal or external politics of any government, including Israel’s. But we should consider a different question, obvious to anyone who’s spent time listening to what is said and sometimes screeched at the United Nations: If Israel were anything but the Jewish nation, would the entire history of what transpires in that place look different?

This is the lesson of story number two. During the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” It’s the dumbed-down version of what Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, calls “a pox on both your houses.” In other words, moral lines can’t be drawn in the matter of October 7, or anywhere else. Everybody’s wrong.

Whatever else may be said of this reaction, it is not Catholic. As Andrew Doran of the Philos Project has written, “the monstrosities in Israel crowd out moral ambivalence.” Longstanding Catholic teaching acknowledges that human beings have the duty to protect their own lives, hence, a right to self-defense. St. Augustine first put forth “just war theory” in the fifth century. St. Thomas Aquinas adapted and explicated it further in the 13th century. Eight hundred years later, Vatican II reiterated the teaching. Not only should Catholics refrain from moral equivalence. We have a positive obligation to discern what is just and unjust.

In the way that evil has of reproducing itself, the murderousness of Hamas now unleashes torment and death outside Israel, on the people of Gaza, and on the hostages taken on October 7. Like many civilians caught up in World War II, in different countries, they are victims of the just pursuit of murderous enemies. There is one villain here: Hamas. The suffering of the people of Gaza demands prayer and aid—and understanding why this has fallen on them demands clarity of the kind that students of just war theory will recognize.

There’s a second lesson from story number two. This one goes out to all Americans, not just Catholics. The representatives at the United Nations and elsewhere proclaiming that “Zionism is racism” despise one other nation on earth as well as Israel: the United States. The same voices that cheer when Jews are hurt or killed also cheer when Americans are hurt or killed. This was true in 1983, almost exactly forty years ago, when some of bloody Hamas’s likeminded bloody terrorist friends invaded a barracks in Beirut where America and other countries had sent a peacekeeping force. Those terrorists killed 307 people, most in their sleep, including over 200 United States Marines. This point about common enemies was also true in 2001, when haters of America and Israel flooded streets around the world, exulting in the deaths of American citizens. And it is true today, as the enemies of both Israel and the United States once again high-five the slaughter of innocents.

American leaders know this. In 1975, delivering what some have called the most famous speech in United Nations history, Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, responded to a resolution declaring that Zionism is racism. He said: “In all our postwar history there had not been another issue which has brought forth such unanimity of American opinion. [One] after another, the great private institutions of American life pronounced anathema in this evil thing—and most particularly, the Christian churches have done so.”

Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a longtime Democrat who switched to the Republican side precisely because of her concern for the protection of human rights everywhere, had her own choice words for the calumnies that made the rounds of the United Nations. She also said, after her service there: “I think the Holocaust is possible again. I didn’t think so before I came to the U.N., but I think so now.” We can be proud not only of our Catholicism, but also of our country, and both its political parties, for consistently taking the side of justice despite fierce and often malignant opposition on the so-called world stage.

Story number three. It is February 2023. The setting for this final act of witness is my first-ever trip to Israel under the auspices of The Philos Project.

In the Book of Matthew, Jesus asks, rhetorically, “What did you go out into the desert to see?” It’s a question that travelers to the Holy Land of any faith can only answer for themselves. But one sight that did not exist until the second half of the twentieth century should not be missed by anyone. That is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum.

Obviously, Israel is about much more than the Holocaust. To focus on Yad Vashem is not to detract from any of the country’s enormous historical, social, spiritual, cultural, or other riches. But for anyone who has been to Israel, and even more, for those who have not, to scant Yad Vashem in discussing anti-Semitism would be inexplicable. Let me cite the observation of the late British novelist Martin Amis. Amis, who was not Jewish, was once asked why his mind and work returned so often to the Holocaust. He replied by citing a German novelist, who said, because “no serious person ever thinks about anything else.”

Students and fellow participants, we try to be serious people. So we will talk for a moment about Yad Vashem. As one might expect, horrors abound in just about every square inch of that place. There are the numbing, overwhelming statistics everywhere that try to take the measure of the Shoah. There are the items that look like things you might see in the cabinet under your kitchen sink, like canisters of Zyklon B, used to make killing gas. There is a board game invented in the late 1930s to teach anti-Semitism to children, which involves moving pieces toward the goal of getting Jews out of Germany. Its name translates, basically, “Out with the Jews!” Its wooden pieces are grotesque caricatures of supposedly Jewish faces.

Like most tours of Yad Vashem, ours ended in a room dedicated to the Righteous Among the Nations—that is, to the brave non-Jews who helped to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, sometimes dying themselves on account of those acts of solidarity. That’s where this number appeared: 28,217. That is how many of the Righteous have been catalogued meticulously to date, from all over the world.

28,217: The number seemed stuck in my head, like a song that won’t go away. How to interpret it? 28,217. In a way, unlike other statistics about the Holocaust and World War II, this seems like a sum that human beings can at least grasp.

28,217: That’s only ten thousand more people than live in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s just ten thousand fewer people than can fit in PNC Park Stadium, in Pittsburgh.

Or to invoke another metric: On that same trip to Israel, we visited the offices and warehouse of a pro-life group called Efrat. Founded by a Holocaust survivor named Hershel Feigenbaum, who lost most of both sides of his family, Efrat has for forty-six years provided counseling, cribs, weekly care packages, and other vital help to women and families who want babies rather than abortions. This is another sight that visitors who come to the desert should see, especially ardent pro-lifers. How many people have come to exist in Israel, because of this organization’s good work? 84,727. That’s how many. 84,272. Weirdly. Almost exactly three times the number of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.

Back to 28,217. Any non-Jew who helped a Jew during the Nazi period took a grave risk. By the time the Nazis occupied Poland, that risk had become catastrophic. That’s because it is one thing to risk your own life. It’s another to risk your entire family’s, sometimes your entire town’s. Those, under the Nazis, were prescribed punishments for Poles who helped Jews.

Yet according to Yad Vashem, over 7,000 non-Jewish people of Poland chose to help Jews anyway—one-quarter of all those honored as Righteous. The number is more astonishing because anyone on the ground knew exactly what lay in store for Catholic Poland. The Nazis dreamed of exterminating most of the Poles once they had finished with the Jews. Only a remnant, according to plan, would be kept alive for the necessary slave labor. Toward that end, the Nazis pre-emptively and savagely executed many in the Polish elite, many in the Church, and nearly anyone who threatened to be a leader. Go to Auschwitz, outside Krakow. You will find some of their stories, as well as an understanding of the Holocaust that will never, ever leave you. The Nazi occupation of Poland was the crucible in which John Paul II, among many other heroic Poles, was forged. Or go to Dachau, in Germany, which has been called “the world’s largest cemetery of the clergy” because of all the priests imprisoned and killed there.

28,217.

A book by Grzegorz Gorny and Jansz Rosikon called The Righteous! tells the stories of some of those Poles who helped to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. These include the family of Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children, ranging in age from eighteen down to two years old, plus the baby in Wiktoria’s womb at the time. The Ulmas were a Polish Catholic family who hid Polish Jews in their home during the Holocaust. On March 24, 1944, the Nazis rewarded these acts of charity with execution of them all—exactly as Hamas just destroyed whole families of Israel. A month before Hamas’s massacres, every member of the Ulma family was beatified in their village of Markowa.

28,217. Since October 7, many universities in the United States and elsewhere have disgraced themselves. Some students sided openly with the murder of innocents. Some administrators stayed mute out of cowardice. As is more visible with each passing day, it is not the atheists or agnostics of the world who can be counted on to have the backs of Jews, or others, needing aid and solidarity. Rather, it is other people of the Book.

We want Jews inside and outside the United States to know that Catholics are stepping up to stand with them, to spurn moral equivalence, and to be that refuge when it is needed. It is faithful Catholic institutions that can harness and ride moral energy into the future with the creative, confident leadership absent in today’s non-Christian and anti-Christian schools.

Solidarity with our older brothers and sisters in faith is not a fast-track to affirmation. Solidarity may never win you likes, anywhere. But as the historian Norman Davies put it in his introduction to that book, The Righteous!, “There are ‘righteous Poles,’ who are known to Yad Vashem, and others whose names are known only to God.” It does not matter whether your good deeds are inscribed for all to see—or whether they are known only to God. It only matters that you do them.

The newly founded Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism is the spearhead of that new cause. A Statement of Solidarity and Action stating the aims of this group is now making the rounds. Catholics in public life and from private life are signing on, from academia to government to think tanks, to Catholic colleges and universities, and Catholics of every vocation to come.

Hamas and the other enemies of the Jewish people who revel in killing often say, scornfully, “the Jews love life.” So they do. And so do we. To love life as Catholics do is to love the Jews from whose roots we grew. Many people these days ask where the pro-life movement is now. The answer is, where it’s always been: fighting against the destruction of the innocent, from conception to natural death.

There is more than enough room in that loving formulation to include under its protective umbrella the people of the Covenant. From now on, so be it. Fellow Catholics: Go show the world what being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers really means.

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