(OSV News) — An annual commemoration of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people has become more crucial than ever amid a rise in antisemitism and Russia’s war on Ukraine, say scholars of Jewish-Catholic relations.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed on Jan. 27, honors the estimated 6 million Jews (including 1.5 million children) killed by Germany’s Nazi regime during World War II. Started by the United Nations in 2005, the occasion also marks the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi system of concentration and death camps, where at least 1.1 million individuals — 90% of them Jewish — were slain.
In total, some two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population were systematically murdered during the Shoah — the preferred Hebrew term for the Holocaust — through asphyxiation with poison gas, mass shooting, hanging, starvation and disease. Prisoners were also routinely subjected to forced labor, sterilization and medical experimentation.
In the decades since the war, “American Catholic bishops … have been consistent in their support for relations with the Jewish community,” resulting in a “deepening of trust” on both sides, Adam Gregerman, associate professor and co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, told OSV News.
In November 2022, amid rising anti-semitic incidents, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement highlighting the upcoming 60th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” (“In our time”), the Second Vatican Council’s landmark document on the Catholic Church’s relationship to other faiths, which denounced “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Vatican II’s call for increased interfaith dialogue has been vigorously echoed by all of the post-conciliar popes. Under Pope St. John Paul II, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued the 1998 document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” with the U.S. bishops offering pastoral implementation guidelines a few years later.
Throughout the world, a number of academic and theological centers have been formed to study Jewish-Catholic relations, increasing opportunities for scholarship, dialogue and advocacy.
“We are really in a unique period in the history of Jewish-Christian relations,” Arthur Urbano, professor of theology and chair of the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange Committee at Providence College in Rhode Island told OSV News. “Never has there been a time of such open communication, mutual respect and a real sense of fraternity.”
However, the church’s teaching in “Nostra Aetate” has become particularly urgent in the present climate, as the U.S. bishops have noted.
Marking “the re-emergence of antisemitism in new forms,” the U.S. bishops in their November statement decried “proliferations of antisemitic rhetoric, both online and in person, and … violent attacks on Jewish individuals, homes and institutions.”
According to an audit released by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2022, antisemitic incidents “reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2021,” with attacks against synagogues and Jewish community centers up 61% from the previous year, and overall incidents rising 34% year by year since 1979.
In Tampa, Florida, neo-Nazi demonstrators waved flags with swastikas outside a Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held in July, which the conservative group condemned “in the strongest of terms.” A year earlier, vandals had also sprayed a swastika and antisemitic slurs on the exterior walls of that city’s Florida Holocaust Museum.
Both incidents were denounced by the nearby Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, directed by associate professor of theology Matthew Tapie, who said antisemitic groups “are not large, but feel they can be more vocal … because of some of the language we have let into the public sphere.”
Antisemitism has spiked in Canada as well. A 2020 audit by B’nai Brith Canada found an 18.3% increase in recorded incidents compared to 2019.
“We really need to talk more about ‘Nostra Aetate,'” John Cappucci told OSV News. Principal and vice-chancellor of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, Cappucci holds the Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Religion and Conflict there.
In addition, Russia’s war on Ukraine has revealed “many of the dynamics and themes in the 1930s” that “seem to be recurring in a mutated form,” IJCR co-director Professor Philip Cunningham told OSV News.
Kremlin officials and propagandists have claimed Russia’s invasion is an effort to “denazify” Ukraine, while also targeting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s own Jewish identity — drawing condemnation from governments, historians and Jewish advocates worldwide.
The “accusations of Nazism flying around” are “a preposterous way of picking up a traditional antisemitic theme” in support of aggression, said Cunningham. “That’s why we really have to recall the events of the 1930s and 1940s, to be alert to a cycle that can regenerate itself.”
That task requires renewed effort, given the “passing of so many (Shoah) survivors and the receding of the events in history,” said Gregerman.
Christians, “and particularly Catholics,” have a unique responsibility “to stand up and say something” about antisemitism, said Tapie.
He pointed to the example set by Bishop Frank J. Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, who rallied support for the Jewish community following a series of area antisemitic attacks in 2022.
Education and opportunities for encounter between the Jewish and Catholic communities, and understanding each other’s positive contributions, are essential, said scholars.
“I’d like to see more parishes establishing relationships with neighboring synagogues — holding Catholic-Jewish adult education classes; working together against poverty, antisemitism and racism; and learning about each other’s holidays and traditions,” said Urbano.
“Have rabbis come and speak at Catholic services and schools, and have priests visit Jewish schools on appropriate occasions,” said Cunningham. “Have study sessions together in small groups, and talk about topics that enable us to get to know each other better.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News.