Before the gathering at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem of more than two dozen world leaders last week – as well as during and after – the question of its results, particularly in regard to fighting today’s growing anti-Semitism, looms. It was an impressive, well-organized event. A sense of spiritual uplift prevailed in the great tent, sometimes to the point of tears, such as when the choir and orchestra performed the opening of Mozart’s “Requiem”; and during the remarks by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and then by Israel Meir Lau, Israel’s former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, who at 7 was imprisoned at Buchenwald; or when kings and princes laid wreaths at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, building a wall of flowers. But the question of lasting results remains.
I raised the issue with Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s delegate to the forum and the head of interreligious affairs in the Catholic Church. The capacity of Church leaders, and especially the pope, to influence the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics is indisputable, but it hasn’t always been acknowledged in Israel: After centuries of troubled relations between the Church and the Jewish people, during which a negative image of the Jew was created – ugly inside and out, repulsive and dangerous – it’s hard to fully accept the dramatic change in the Church as a result of the Holocaust.
It began with the 1965 Nostra Aetate, exonerating the Jewish people from the collective charge of deicide, affirming God’s covenant with them and firmly denouncing anti-Semitism.
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A few years later, instructions and proposals for implementing the so-called Jewish Document were issued. Guidelines from 1974 noted that Nostra Aetate “finds its historical setting in circumstances deeply affected by the memory of the persecution and massacre of Jews which took place in Europe just before and during the Second World War” and that the time had come, after 2,000 years of mutual ignorance and periodic confrontation, for dialogue and a new relationship. To that end, directives were issued to the leaders of Catholic communities in various countries, and it was again stressed that anti-Semitism in any form violates the spirit of Christianity.
The Vatican published a number of documents condemning anti-Semitism. They noted the common heritage of Jews and Christians, which should be taught at every level of Christian education, from seminaries to the mass media.
The 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel also states that the Church deems anti-Semitism anywhere and at any time as illegitimate and roundly condemns attacks against Jews, the desecration of synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust memorials.
In 1998 the Church published “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.” It expressed the aspiration that the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity would not bring the return of a holocaust and that the seeds of anti-Semitism would not again take root among humanity. Popes have spoken in that same spirit, on visits to Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and the central synagogue in Rome, where Italy’s chief rabbi said it had taken 2,000 years to travel the short distance between the synagogue and the Vatican.
A letter published in 2015 by Pope Francis stressed the need for dialogue and mutual recognition. “A Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” the letter stated. When asked, as we stood in the Fifth World Holocaust Forum tent at Yad Vashem, whether, as a result of the current state of anti-Semitism, the pope Francis would issue another strong or even stronger letter, the cardinal said the pope condemns anti-Semitism and at every opportunity repeats the key statement that “a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic.”
To which I replied that the Church’s declarations and documents on the subject are written in a manner that the Jewish people had dreamed to see for centuries, but where are the results? In the meantime, anti-Semitism has been growing. Have these important statements actually been permeating the level of the individual believer in faraway countries, in villages and schools? The cardinal replied that considerable effort is being made to bring about change, to instill the Vatican’s message in this regard and to ensure respect for the popes’ directives on the subject.
When asked whether the implementation of the directives is being monitored, Cardinal Kurt Koch said that there is an annual gathering of bishops in Rome with a week of briefings and exchange of information, including reports on efforts to combat prejudice.
Nearly all of the participants in the Fifth World Holocaust Forum were Christians. Perhaps now, after they have returned to their home countries, something of the special atmosphere of the events at Yad Vashem and at the President’s Residence will remain with them and they will act against anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination everywhere and of every kind.
Prof. Dina Porat is the head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and the chief historian of Yad Vashem.