“I think the Catholic Church is the closest friend of the Jewish Community”, What Rabbi David Fox Sandmel says is important. He is one of the directors of the Anti-Defamation League, perhaps the most authoritative organization for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism in the world, headquartered in New York. In this interview with SIR the Rabbi explains the reasons for his statement, listing all the times that Catholic Church representatives have taken action to defend the Jewish community from acts of violence and attacks, which are sadly on the rise. We met him in Rome on the sidelines of the meeting of the International Liaison Committee (ILC), that includes the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC). The meeting focused on the challenge of migration, anti-Semitism and the persecution of Christians.
Surveys on incidents and on basic underlying Anti-Semitic attitudes have shown that there is a steady increase in acts of violence against Jews at global level, in the United States and in Europe alike. As a result many Jews, faced with feelings of fear and unease, are considering leaving their home Countries. These are serious issues. Anti-Semitism is often connected with the migration issue because far-right anti-immigration movements often target Jews as the scapegoats! So as you see these themes are interconnected.
What worries you the most?
The rise in nationalisms and anti-Semitic speech. I don’t want to generalize, but these phenomena are common to all extremist groups, to the far right and to the far left. Criticism –albeit legitimate- has crossed the line, both in terms of rhetoric and extremist language. As a result, the increasingly invasive penetration of the Internet in people’s lives and across society has led to a stark deterioration of public discourse. In this respect anti-Semitism is a growing trend. People say things that would have been unimaginable five or ten years ago. It’s a very disturbing situation. But there are also positive aspects.
Could you name a few?
For example, governments’ reactions, with government representatives publically rejecting all forms of anti-Semitic bias. We saw it with President Macron in France and before him, a few years ago, with Manuel Valls; with Theresa May in the UK and Angela Merkel in Germany. My answer to those who claim that our present times are a reminder of the 1930s is that in those years anti-Semitism was theorized by the same Governments. But that historical past should make political leaders aware of their responsibility. When people start saying that they will no longer “attend Jewish events because I’m afraid”, or that they will stop “wearing a kippah in public”, it means we’re facing a serious problem.
I’m not saying it’s a problem of the Jews but that it’s all interconnected.
While in Rome you have met with Pope Francis. With regard to this problem why does the Catholic Church play an important role?
Already in 1965, with the publication of Nostra aetate, and before then, with John XXIII, the Catholic Church faced with utmost seriousness the theme of her Jewish roots and her relations with the Jews. The purpose was to uproot anti-Jewish sentiments present inside the Church. This commitment is evident in all Popes from John XXIII to Pope Francis, and not only at the level of leadership.
What do you mean by ‘not only at leadership level’?
As you probably heard, a few days ago a Catholic priest in Chicago invited Louis Farrakhan, African-American leader at the head of the religious organization The Nation of Islam, known for its positions against Jews, to visit his parish. Over the past years Farrakhan made terrible anti-Semitic statements and the Jewish community obviously protested against that invitation. The archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Cupich, immediately intervened with very powerful declarations and public apologies to his Jewish brothers and sisters for that gesture that he was unaware of. The same occurred in Poland. The Catholic Church in Poland has condemned an episode of anti-Semitism occurred during Easter in the town of Pruchnik where an effigy made to look like a haredi Jew was beaten and burnt. There too the local Catholic bishop released a statement in which he declared that the Catholic Church would no longer tolerate such heinous episodes of contempt. Thus I believe the Jewish community has its best friend in the Catholic Church. I also believe it is important for Christians and Jews to jointly discuss the challenge of migration and anti-Semitism not only for the purpose of dialogue but also to identify actions to be undertaken together for the benefit of others.
So what is your message to such a complex world, where accepting otherness is increasingly difficult?
I disagree with those who claim that accepting others is increasingly difficult. What I see is that haters are receiving a tremendous amount of attention, both in the press and on the Internet. The recent attacks in ChristChurch, or in Pittsburgh, or in Sri Lanka, show that few people have the power to annihilate human lives and gain huge attention. But the truth is that the majority of people consider these actions an abomination. The challenge therefore is how to bring ‘good people’ together and ensure that good deeds hit the news and reach out to those who have been poisoned by bad news. I live in an apartment building, and when the shooting in Pittsburgh occurred my neighbour came over to hug me and offer me condolences. These are the kind of things that should be given attention.