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I was born in the Bronx during die milhomeh yahren, and I was raised by religious parents (European-born, Yiddish-speaking). They exposed me early to the traditional way of life exemplified by yeshiva learning and observance. I juggled daily the de-orayta (regulations of the Torah), the de-rabanan (decisions of the Sages), and being an American. Together, they shielded me from the ideology of Jew-hatred.
During my high school years I developed an interest in the war against the Jews (1933-1945). My scholarly introduction to anti-Semitism and the Shoah took place at Hunter College in the Bronx. The Security Council of the United Nations had held its first formal meetings on American soil in Hunter (Mar. 25 – Aug. 15, 1946) when it established a preliminary Commission on Human Rights headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. It was there that I read Malcolm Hay’s Europe and the Jews (1961), and James Parkes’ The Conflict of the Church and Synagogue (1961). I discovered the role of Christian anti-Judaism (New Testament passages, writings of Church Fathers, Roman Catholic Saints, Protestant Reformers) in sustaining the oldest hatred.
Second Testament and Church History were among my areas of concentration at the Graduate School of Religion at USC. I was driven to probe the interrelationship – if any – between classical Church history and doctrine and the Shoah. The Torah teaches, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Devarim 16:20), and the Prophets admonish that without the constant vigil of justice and righteousness, religion is a sham, abhorrent to God.
Whether Christian leaders did enough to save Jews during World War II can be debated. Few deny that Catholic-Jewish relations turned for the better when Pope John XXIII directed the Second Vatican Council, when the term “perfidious Jews” was deleted from the Good Friday service and the Christian image of the wandering Jew cursed by God was criticized. Despite opposition from Arab Christians and fear of anti-Christian backlash in the Muslim world, Vatican II issued the document Nostra Aetate (“In Our Times”), the first-ever Catholic document repudiating collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Jews inspired many dioceses and archdioceses to implement Nostra Aetate and to rid Christian teaching of the anti-Jewish bias.
But few can rival Pope John Paul II’s twenty-two year papacy in ridding the Church of anti-Semitism. He more than any predecessor has condemned “the hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place” (Yad Vashem, Mar. 23, 2000). He has labeled the hatred of Jews as a sin against God, referred to the Jews as Christianity’s “elder brother” with whom God’s covenant is irrevocable, and established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel (1994). The Vatican documents We Remember (1998) and Confession of Sins Against the People of Israel (St. Peter’s Basilica, Mar. 12, 2000) are major milestones in the Church’s efforts to reconcile with the Jewish people.
Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Eretz Israel may have been fraught with diplomacy. Still, the pontiff’s purpose was to come as a pilgrim to the places of the Church’s origins. Most memorably, in his powerful talk at Yad Vashem, he said that “we wish to remember (the Shoah) to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism.” His profound identification with Jewish suffering at Christian hands was expressed also in the note he left at the Western Wall (Mar. 26, 2000): “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendents to bring your Name to the Nations: 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.”
For one unprecedented moment – on a sacred hill in Jerusalem – the pontiff cried, and I sensed a post-Shoah symbiosis of the teaching and the word: “Not only with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today (and) the Lord spoke with (us) face to face at the mountain, out of the fire” (Deut. 5:2-4).
* Prof. Garber is Chair of Jewish Studies at Los Angeles Valley College and editor-in-chief of Studies in the Shoah series (UPA). His essay is reprinted, with permission, from Jewish Spectator, Summer 2000