The sin of anti-Semitism resurfaces

A man reacts during a candlelight vigil April 27, 2019, at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for victims of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif., near San Diego. In response to the shooting, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an April 28 statement: "Our country should be better than this; our world should be beyond such acts of hatred and anti-Semitism." (CNS photo/John Gastaldo, Reuters)

The world reacted with horror and outrage earlier this year when a town in Poland marked Good Friday with a ritual beating of a Judas effigy.

The effigy was crafted to resemble a stereotype of an Orthodox Jew. Adults dragged the effigy through the town while children beat it with sticks. It was later hanged and then burned.

Both the Polish church and the Polish government condemned the incident, but the event heightened a growing concern with the rise of anti-Jewish violence across Europe.

Almost 75 years after the last of the Nazi death camps were liberated, the world is watching a new generation succumb to the poison that many had assumed had been eliminated when the world was shown those horrors.

In Europe and the United States, anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise. Verbal and physical assaults, including murder, are increasing. Anti-Semitic incidents in France increased more than 70 percent in 2018, in Germany by 20 percent, which also saw a near doubling of violent attacks.

In our own country, the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the synagogue shooting in Poway, Calif., are the most extreme examples of the kind of hate that is being rekindled. During the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017, the demonstrators chanted "Jews will not replace us," an allusion to a popular white nationalist claim that the white race is under attack. 

Anti-Semitism has a long history. It often arises in times of group resentment and fear. Hitler’s movement channeled historic anti-Semitic tropes and grew out of the economic chaos and depression following Germany’s defeat in World War I.

Today, in our country, the turmoil following the Great Recession as well as social and technological upheaval and the exploitation of politicians has led to more expressions of bigotry of all forms.

Our Church has its own long and dark history of anti-Semitism that too often led to or sanctioned acts of discrimination and even violence.

Since the Second Vatican Council and its groundbreaking document Nostre Aetate, much progress has been made in healing 2,000 years of Christian-Jewish tensions. St. John Paul II was an important figure in this respect. The first pope to visit a synagogue in modern times, he referred to the Jewish people as our elder brothers in the faith.

During a visit to Israel, he followed the practice of leaving a prayer in the cracks of the Western Wall. It read in part: "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

Unfortunately, even in Catholic circles, we must be on guard that the great evil of anti-Semitism does not return, nor give intellectual cover to those who invoke its slanders.

Last summer, Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, writing in Chicago Catholic, warned that “we live in an era that is witnessing a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism and hate speech.” And in a warning that surely must concern all Americans, he quoted Rabbi Johnathan Sacks: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.”

Fr. Edward Flannery, one of the first chroniclers of Catholic anti-Semitism, concluded, “The sin of anti-Semitism contains many sins, but in the end it is a denial of Christian faith, a failure of Christian hope, and a malady of Christian love.”

In this time of resentment and upheaval, we Catholics would do well to be on our guard that we do not countenance this sin. Such “tolerance” of great evil would make a mockery of the faith we proclaim, the Savior we follow.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].