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  • Antisemitism: Four clear reasons why Catholics must speak up

    Hatred of Jews is “a sin against God” (cf. Pope Francis, Feb 2024). When it comes to antisemitism, Catholics have a document, a history, a relationship and a teaching which amount to a serious obligation to call out this lethal prejudice and to offer the support so desperately needed by Jewish communities after October 7. 1.        Catholics have a conciliar document The Second Vatican Council taught that the Church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (NA, 4). This explicit denouncement of antisemitic prejudice is found in paragraph four of Nostra Aetate, Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, promulgated in 1965 with a clear eye on the Holocaust. Yet how many Catholics are even aware that this document exists? With the recent surge in antisemitism, unprecedented since World War II, it is incumbent upon Catholic leaders, teachers and preachers to give firm voice to their Church’s teaching on antisemitism, from pulpits and podiums, through ecclesial statements and media, in education and justice activities. 2.        Catholics have a history Catholics, like all Christians, have an antisemitic history that weighs on their collective conscience. Prior to the corrective teaching of Vatican II, toxic distortions of Christian thought (e.g., “the Jews are rejected by God”), had infected church catechesis for many centuries, giving credence to the subjugation, expulsion and violent persecution of Jews in the societies in which they lived. Inevitably, this was a contributing factor to the social conditions that allowed the ideology of Nazism to take root and the Holocaust to occur. Some courageous Christians resisted this evil. Yet too many turned a blind eye as their Jewish neighbours were progressively harmed — robbed of their jobs, their homes, their freedoms, their safety and eventually their lives. This shocking historical backdrop makes it inexcusable for Christians today to remain silent in the face of antisemitic hate speech, graffitied Jewish dwellings, chants in support of October 7 terrorists and torn-down posters of hostages. Fortunately, in Australia, we need not fear for our lives when we protest antisemitism; we have only to bear the discomfort of going against popular opinion in certain circles. It is a small price to pay for bearing witness to truth and healing the sins of the past. 3.        Catholics have a relationship Christians have a relationship with Judaism “which we do not have with any other religion” (Pope John Paul II, 1986). Christianity’s roots lie in Judaism and the Church is inconceivable without the story of the people of Israel, of whom Jesus is a son. It is but a logical step for an observant Christian to appreciate that the Jewish kin of Jesus, so close to his heart on earth, must be infinitely close to his heart now, from the magnified perspective of resurrection and glory. When Jews today are vilified, mocked, attacked, abducted and murdered, one would expect followers of Jesus to instinctively raise a full-throated and united voice in protest, out of a relationship of faith, not to mention of a shared humanity. When their public voice is hesitant, half-hearted or absent, antisemites are emboldened, social cohesion is weakened, and Jews are abandoned. 4.        Catholics have a teaching Catholics are proud of their Church’s social teaching and readily champion their justice commitments in defense of all sorts of minority groups facing specific challenges. But if these commitments do not extend to the defense of Jewish minorities battling “the world’s oldest hatred”, how credible is Catholic social teaching? The antisemitic climate is worsening in Australia. Through aggressive activism, our society is becoming less welcoming and more dangerous to Jews. The activists are not representative of fair-minded, inclusive Australians, but they are vocal, tolerated and getting away with behaviour that would be deemed totally unacceptable if directed at other minorities – Muslims, Asians, the LGBTQI community, First Nations people. In the face of all this, Catholics are neither powerless nor empty-handed. They have a document, a history, a relationship and a social teaching which together comprise a substantial resource kit for challenging antisemitic voices and ensuring that Jews can live in peace. This is the time to deploy it. Silence is not an option. Photo (J-Wire): Grafitti on wall of a Jewish school, Melbourne, 2024. Teresa Pirola, ThD is a freelance writer, faith educator and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023).

  • Screams Before Silence: A Film That Bears Witness

    Screams Before Silence is a harrowing, yet sensitively crafted and ultimately viewable, documentary film about the weaponisation of rape by Hamas during the atrocities committed on October 7. Produced by Kastina Communications and directed by Anat Stalinsky, the film provides a platform for the testimonies of survivors, eyewitnesses, first responders and forensic experts to be heard by the general public as they recount what they saw or heard and, in some cases, endured as a result of the attack by Hamas militants in southern Israel. In a rampage of killing in streets, homes, kibbutzim and at a music festival, some 1200 Israelis were murdered, thousands more wounded and 240 hostages taken to Gaza. Make no mistake: the subject matter is distressing in what it reveals of the extent to which the bodies of women and girls were sexually abused, tortured, slaughtered and mutilated, especially at the site of the Nova music festival. However, Screams Before Silence is no ‘horror film’ of gruesome pictures, nor a demonisation of Palestinians. It is a sensitively delivered piece of storytelling and truth-telling that showcases not only the depravity of which human beings are capable, but also examples of extraordinary courage and human resilience. Relying largely on a series of interviews by Sheryl Sandberg and video footage from October 7, the film draws the viewer into the violent world of the massacre without plunging into a sea of traumatising images. Apart from the people speaking, most of the footage shows destroyed homes and cars, not dead bodies. Occasional images of a corpse are fleeting and have been deliberately blurred. The film carefully leads the viewer down into the depths of its dark subject matter before moving upwards towards the ‘light’ (if one may call it that) of an ending that strikes a note of resilience, purpose and empowerment. The film conveys what should be an uncontroversial message: the weaponisation of rape and sexual violence is never acceptable... Screams Before Silence places front-and-centre what should be an uncontroversial message: that weaponisation of rape and sexual violence is never acceptable, can never be excused by a larger political ‘context’, and must be condemned forthrightly by every decent human being and treated as criminal conduct without prevarication. What makes this film especially relevant is that the crimes of October 7 are not over. Some 129 hostages remain in Gaza, including women and children. From the testimony of released hostages we know that there is good reason to fear that sexual abuse of those who remain behind continues. “Bring Them Home Now!” should be on the lips of every vocal feminist protesting violence against women. It is not wise for all people to see this film. Protection of one’s mental health must be a priority. However, I urge those who feel they can do so, to watch the film. Its content and message need to be processed, in the same way that Holocaust documentaries play a critical role in our grasp of historical and present-day events. Holocaust footage is always disturbing to watch, but it is downright dangerous for societies to turn a blind eye. And, just as Holocaust denialism is widespread today, so too has October 7 denialism been embraced by some anti-Israel activists. Such a willful distortion of history is inadvertently exacerbated by the tendency of good and well-intentioned people to downplay these crimes through half-hearted reporting or utter silence, whether for political reasons or simply out of discomfort, ignorance or confusion. Rather than wallow in a sense of helplessness, the gift of this film is that it empowers a constructive response. By simply setting aside an hour to view it, anyone can bear witness to what actually occurred on October 7. I believe strongly that non-Jewish people have a special responsibility to view the film, so that Jewish communities are not left alone to bear the burden of witness. I believe strongly that non-Jewish people have a special responsibility to view the film, so that Jewish communities are not left alone to bear the burden of witness. So, I appeal to all non-Jewish adults who are able to do so: Please, set aside an hour to watch online Screams Before Silence. Allow yourself to be confronted by the raw truth of what occurred on October 7. Deal with your emotions: your tears, grief, anger or disbelief. Pray for the dead and the bereaved. Then, share the link; discuss the film with family, friends and colleagues; if you have a public platform to write or speak, then write, then speak! Be a voice for the voiceless — for the women, and for the men too, who were mercilessly abused on October 7 in unspeakable acts which appear to have been part of a calculated, targeted, systematic plan to destroy not only the bodies of women, but the soul of a nation. ************ Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). The trailer and full film of Screams Before Silence can be viewed here: https://www.screamsbeforesilence.com/

  • Ten Ways to Avoid Anti-Judaism in Holy Week

    “The Jews killed Jesus.” For much of church history, this erroneous, unjust and lethal accusation of Jewish collective guilt held sway among Christian populations. It was never defined as doctrine. However, as a sentiment and pattern of thought, the deicide charge (Jews accused of being “Christ-killers” or murderers of God) caused grievous harm to Jewish lives. It was repudiated by the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: "[W]hat happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today… "[T]he Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ…. "[The Church] decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone." (Nostra Aetate, 4) Thus did the Catholic Church, with the authoritative weight of an Ecumenical Council, dismantle a key pillar of the “teaching of contempt” – a term that describes the antagonistic attitude towards the Jewish people which had infected Christian communities since the early centuries of Christianity’s development. Post-conciliar ecclesial documents have reinforced this teaching and promoted a “teaching of respect”. In particular, teachers and homilists today are urged to take great care with Scripture so as not to perpetuate anti-Judaism patterns of the past. For example, in these statements of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews we read: "With respect to liturgical readings, care will be taken to see that homilies based on them will not distort their meaning, especially when it is a question of passages which seem to show the Jewish people as such in an unfavourable light. Efforts will be made so to instruct the Christian people that they will understand the true interpretation of all the texts and their meaning for the contemporary believer. (Guidelines, 1975, II) "The Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work. . . . Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus. To establish this is of capital importance if we wish to bring out the meaning of certain Gospel texts for the Christians of today. All this should be taken into account when preparing catechesis and homilies for the last weeks of Lent and Holy Week." (Notes, 1985, IV, 21) These steps, taken by the Catholic Church and by other mainstream Churches, are of critical importance; however, the task of addressing anti-Jewish prejudice is far from complete. The old contemptuous attitude that held Jews to be rejected by God, is still capable of tugging at the Christian mindset in subtle and subliminal ways, especially during Passion Sunday and Good Friday where the Passion narratives are at the heart of the liturgical rhythm. What might we do about this? How can we fortify our Christian minds and hearts against forms of subtle bias infiltrating our hearts as we listen to the evocative strains of the Passion story read, and perhaps also enacted, on Palm Sunday and Good Friday? This question is especially pertinent in the current global climate, when Jewish communities around the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of antisemitism and tensions emanating from conflict in the middle east are tearing at the fabric of normally peaceful societies. Here are ten suggestions, for this year and future years: View a series of short videos “Presenting the Passion…Without Blaming the Jews” (available at ICCJ.org) by leading scholars in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. Consult these guidelines (US Bishops) when planning dramatizations of the Passion story. Become educated in the history of the Church’s journey as it repented of the “teaching of contempt” and embraced the “teaching of respect”. A well-regarded history of the development of Nostra Aetate is John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother. The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews 1933-1965 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). As part of a Christian prayer life, approach Jesus with a consciousness of his Jewish identity and his Jewish kinship ties, in keeping with the Gospel narratives. Ask Jewish friends about how they perceive the history of Christian anti-Judaism and how it has impacted them or their own family’s story or community’s history. Listen and learn. Learn to identify old anti-Jewish stereotypes at work in present-day hate speech. In Lent and Holy Week each year, include a prayer of lament for the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, perhaps similar to the prayer of Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem (Judaism’s holiest site) in the year 2000. Pay attention to contemporary church statements on Jewish-Christian relations, such as the documents quoted above. Many more can be found at the Dialogika online library. Learn about the interfaith significance of the sculpture Synagoga & Ecclesia in Our Time, by Joshua Koffman, located at Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. The best antidote to prejudice is conscious acts of love. In an examination of conscience, review your words and actions, taking a lead from these words of Pope John Paul II: "For the Jewish people themselves, Catholics should have not only respect but also great fraternal love for it is the teaching of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that the Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling. No valid theological justification could ever be found for acts of discrimination or persecution against Jews." (Address to Australian Jewish Community, 26 November 1986) Finally, we can ponder these words from Nostra Aetate, 4-5, which underscore God’s love for the whole human family, and our task to love God and neighbour, inseparably: "Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of humanity and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows. "We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat anyone as a brother or sister, created as he or she is in the image of God. People's relation to God the Father and their relations to others as brothers and sisters are so linked together that Scripture says: 'The one who does not love does not know God' (1 John 4:8)." Teresa Pirola, ThD is a Sydney-based writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Preaching and Teaching (Paulist Press, 2023). (C) Teresa Pirola, 2023 | This article may be freely reproduced for non-commercial purposes with acknowledgment.

  • Pope Francis: Antisemitism is "a sin against God"

    Pope Francis has written a letter to “his Jewish brothers and sisters” in Israel (2 Feb 2024) in response to communications received and specifically in light of an Open Letter by Jewish Leaders and Scholars. In Pope Francis’ reply letter, he begins by lamenting the wars and divisions that are increasing all over the world. He then makes three essential points: First, he assures his Jewish brothers and sisters that he is with them in their grief and pain. “My heart is close to you, to the Holy Land, to all the peoples who inhabit it, Israelis and Palestinians, and I pray that the desire for peace may prevail in all. I want you to know that you are close to my heart and to the heart of the Church…” Second, the Pope’s letter affirms the teaching of the Second Vatican Council when he writes that the Church “rejects every form of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, unequivocally condemning manifestations of hatred towards Jews and Judaism as a sin against God.” Here, Pope Francis acknowledges the grim reality on the ground: “Together with you, we, Catholics, are very concerned about the terrible increase in attacks against Jews around the world. We had hoped that ‘never again’ would be a refrain heard by the new generations, yet now we see that the path ahead requires ever closer collaboration to eradicate these phenomena.” Third, the papal letter stresses the shared task of peacebuilding. “Together, Jews and Catholics, we must commit ourselves to this path of friendship, solidarity and cooperation in seeking ways to repair a destroyed world, working together in every part of the world, and especially in the Holy Land, to recover the ability to see in the face of every person the image of God, in which we were created.” Our Jewish friends appreciate Catholic words of compassion, support and solidarity. They appreciate them even more when our words translate into practical commitments. So, what can Catholics do to live the sentiments of Pope Francis’ letter? Here are six suggestions: Write a note of support to a Jewish friend, or to a Jewish community or organisation in your neighbourhood or state. There has been a staggering 738% increase in antisemitic incidents in Australia in recent months, and many Jews are feeling unsafe in their own country and concerned for the safety and wellbeing of their children.  A note of reassurance from a fellow Australian is a welcome gesture. Parents, teach your children what antisemitism is, and model what it means to be upstanders, not bystanders, whenever Jews, or any person, is harmed by prejudice and hate speech. Engage in respectful conversations about matters such as the war in Gaza where opinions are divided, taking care that social media and ‘placard’ narratives do not replace the real work of education about social, political and historical realities. Support peacebuilding initiatives that bring together people of diverse faiths and cultures. Pray for Jewish communities in their heartfelt concerns, including joining in prayer for the hostages who are still being held by Hamas. And we pray for peace for all in Gaza and in Israel at this time of great distress. If you live in Sydney, join in a peaceful rally against antisemitism this weekend: Sunday 18 February, 3.00 pm (youth event at 2pm) at the Domain in the city of Sydney. “Never Again Is Now” is a Christian initiative and open to all Australians. See: www.neveragainisnow.com.au. Say No to antisemitism and affirm the bond we share as Australians committed to a peaceful and cohesive society. Teresa Pirola is Sydney-based freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023).

  • “Never again” means protesting Hamas’ brutal crimes against Israeli women

    Will Catholic feminists be a voice for the voiceless when it comes to the Israeli, mainly Jewish, October 7 victims of rape who cannot speak? Teresa Pirola writes about an injustice that has gone unacknowledged by many advocates for women and justice, and looks for the response of her own Catholic community. Why has it taken so long for the world, and even Israeli authorities, to acknowledge the growing evidence that sexual violence against Israeli women was a significant component of the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7? This was the question addressed at a seminar last month by Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Founding Director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University Law Faculty in Israel, whose career has encompassed membership of a United Nations convention on discrimination against women. Speaking at an online gathering hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia on 10 December 2023, Professor Halperin-Kaddari outlined a number of factors that delayed the investigation of sexual crimes in the aftermath of October 7. In terms of Israel’s response, one reason was the sheer number of corpses and body parts that were being brought into morgues, and the confusion and desperation among the Israeli population to know if relatives were dead, taken hostage or missing for other reasons. “The first priority was victim identification,” Halperin-Kaddari explains, adding that, due to the overload of corpses to be examined, in many cases examinations were too late for collecting forensic evidence of rape. Another complicating factor was the lack of personal testimony, as the vast majority of suspected victims of rape were also murdered. Of those who survived, a number are believed to be hostages, or are not ready to speak about their ordeal. There was a further reason why investigations into sexual violence lagged, says Halperin-Kaddari. It was not part of the protocol. Israeli procedure for dealing with a victim of a terror attack did not enquire into the possibility of rape. Never before had rape been identified as a weapon of war used by Hamas. But why, as reports of sexual violence began to emerge within a week of October 7, did it take so long for them to be acknowledged by the United Nations and by international justice groups and women’s organisations? The crescendo of voices now protesting the silence surrounding the sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 has included academics, women’s rights activists, and first-responders. On social media, the slogan “Me Too unless you are Jew” signals the distressing view that the women’s rights movement has betrayed Israeli and Jewish women. Halperin-Kaddari believes that part of the problem is that too many people are ‘hardwired’ to view the conflict through a lens that depicts Israelis as aggressors and Palestinians as perpetual victims. Israel’s military response and the ensuing war in Gaza seemed to reinforce this in the minds of many who eschew the complexities. In Halperin-Kaddari’s view, it was this ingrained impression that likely prevented those who would normally be attentive to rape allegations from acknowledging the mounting evidence and calling for a full investigation into the claim that on October 7 Hamas used brutal forms of gendered-based sexual violence as a weapon of war. Thankfully, UN Women has now made a clear statement and the official investigation is underway. According to Halperin-Kaddari, while it is difficult to establish the case without surviving victims, the evidence is there, including information that points to the premeditation of the attacks. There is the testimony of first responders on the scene, those who collected the bodies or who received the victims at hospitals and morgues, as well as photographic evidence. Repetitive scenes, witnessed in multiple locations, indicate widespread acts of sexual violence: bodies stripped of clothes, torn underwear, bleeding from the genitals, broken pelvises, mutilated and eviscerated sexual organs, bodies of women and girls who had been shot in the breast, vagina, face or head, often multiple times. There is also eye-witness testimony of gang rape of unspeakable brutality and the admissions of captured Hamas militants saying that they had orders to ‘dirty’ the Israeli women, or ‘to whore them’. So, why should this horrific subject find space in a blog devoted to issues of Christian-Jewish relations? Clearly, our interfaith commitments must never be sanitised slogans or window dressing; Christian relations with Jews demands concrete action and falls squarely into the category of what it means to be “a just neighbour” against the backdrop of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is especially the case in light of the fraught history of Christian relations with the Jewish people, remembering that Nazi atrocities against Jews were too often met by the silence of Christians who turned a blind eye to, or even collaborated with, the persecution of their Jewish neighbours. This must not happen again. Professor Halperin-Kaddari sheds light on a specific moment in our own present-day story where violence against women calls for protest, in the context of October 7 being the largest systematic slaughter of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust. So, I ask members of my own church community, where are the voices of Catholic feminists? Will they condemn Hamas’ atrocities? Will they be a voice for the voiceless, in this case, for the Israeli, mainly Jewish, victims of rape who cannot speak? Will they advocate for the return of the hostages, including the 17 women between the ages of 20 and 40 who remain in captivity and at risk of abuse at the hands of Hamas? It is heartening to hear the voices of those courageous Muslim women who have recently spoken out against Hamas' atrocities and the weaponising of rape on October 7. I am listening to hear the voices raised from the Catholic sisterhood too. The oft-repeated declaration, “Never again” (to the past atrocities of the Nazis) should not be an empty platitude. Protesting the gender-based atrocities of October 7 is one way to show that we mean what we say. ************* Teresa Pirola, ThD is a freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press/Stimulus, 2023). Image: Destruction in Beeri after the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023. Source: Zeev Stein Pikiwiki Israel, Wikimedia Commons Participate in "Never Again Is Now", a public rally against antisemitism to be held in Sydney, 18 February 2024. Learn more. Participate in an online prayer initiative for those held hostage by Hamas.

  • 'Baby Jesus in the rubble': handle with care

    By Teresa Pirola and Julie McCrossin AM Historically, theologically and morally, the nativity scene of ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ must be handled with care. It can be a beautiful image that speaks of God’s closeness to Palestinian children suffering in Gaza. Or it can become an antisemitic icon. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, where Christmas celebrations have been subdued due to the Hamas-Israel war, a baby Jesus figurine rests in a ‘crib’ of broken rubble, as a symbol of solidarity with children in war-ravaged Gaza. For Christians it is a deeply moving image, widely shared on social media, and in many ways communicates the significance of the baby Jesus, the Christ-child, according to Christian understanding: God enters human history in the form of a vulnerable child born into a dangerous world and, in doing so, embraces the fragile humanity of every person — including vulnerable Palestinian children trapped in the horrors of war. As a Christian image, then, ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ operates in a similar way to countless nativity scenes around the world which have depicted the Christ-child in the imagery of their culture and time and place. Baby Jesus can be found lying in a cattle trough in outback Australia, in a dreamtime scene of Aboriginal art, in a woven basket surrounded by African tribal figures, in the arms of Mary wearing an Indian sari, and, yes, wrapped in a Palestinian keffiyeh amid symbols of war-torn Gaza. While these expressions of inculturation point to the universal significance of the Christ-child and the meaning of ‘Emmanuel’ (‘God with us’), they also harbour certain risks. Universal meaning is not meant to eclipse the particular realities of the nativity story. If not handled discerningly, ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ can end up distorting the Christmas message and doing harm where good is intended. Before going further, let’s acknowledge that a nativity scene situated in modern-day Bethlehem has its own unique power to share the message of Christmas. It is in Bethlehem that Christian pilgrims from all over the world normally flock to pray at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Set in the Holy Land, it carries sacred memory and leads us to ponder the ancient roots of the church, a community that drew together both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Today, Bethlehem lies in the West Bank which is home to three million Palestinians, of whom a tiny portion are Christians. Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, who live under great pressures (for a range of reasons), are profoundly connected to the nativity story and have a special charism for sharing it with the Christian world. It is entirely understandable and appropriate that they would employ Palestinian symbols in a nativity scene set in their own cultural setting. However, care is needed in the reception of this image, widely shared around the globe. Palestinian imagery in a nativity scene should not lead to negating the Jewishness of the historical Jesus and his appearance via the story of ancient Israel. The historical Jesus was not a Christian, not a Muslim, not Greek or Roman, he was a Galilean Jew. Scripture and scholarship continue to impress upon us the importance of understanding Jesus of Nazareth within the framework of first century Judaism: Jesus was born and circumcised as a Jew, his faith was shaped by Torah and centred on the God of Israel, he was raised in Jewish traditions, celebrated the Sabbath and the Passover, frequented the synagogue, went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for Jewish festivals, and engaged as a Jew in everyday discourse. The Gospel writers themselves never call into question Jesus’ Jewish identity. As theological statements, rather than strictly historical or biographical writings, the Gospels make abundantly clear that the One proclaimed to be Messiah is a son of Israel, enmeshed in the story, traditions, scriptures and land of his Jewish ancestors. Thus, baby Jesus is born of a Jewish mother, “in Bethlehem of Judea” according to the infancy narratives (Mt 2:1; cf. Lk 2:4). Precisely because it was important to the Gospel authors to communicate the Good News while emphasising Jesus’ Jewishness, it is incumbent upon Christians to honour their testimony and to do the same, so as to give faithful witness to authentic Christian tradition. While the term Palestina was in use at the time of Jesus, it referred to a geographical region in a general way, without precise definition. It did not refer to a specific polity or administrative area. Nor did any national or ethno-cultural group claim it as a form of self-identification. Jesus and his kin did not define themselves as “Palestinians”. The term is not found in the New Testament, but other names, associated with Jewish history, are: such as ‘Judea’ and ‘the land of Israel’. It was only after the bloody, crushing defeat of the Jewish uprising led by Shimon Bar Kokhba, and the mass expulsion of Jews from their homeland in 135 CE, that Judea was renamed Syria-Palestina by the Roman victors. As obvious as it is that Jesus was a Jew, it needs to be said, because there are forces at work in the world - whether through malice, ignorance or reinterpreted religious symbolism - that air-brush Jesus’ Jewish identity from the pages of history and from the Christian narrative. In social media feeds in the days of the recent Christmas season, posts by certain Islamic preachers claim Jesus to be a Muslim by faith. Elsewhere, social media is awash, in image and song, with Christians drawing every parallel possible with life in Gaza in order to present the nativity story through a Palestinian lens: “If Jesus was born today, he would be born under the rubble of Gaza”, states one Christian pastor. Yet the writers of the Gospel infancy narratives placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, for good reason. Through the lens of Jewish scripture and tradition, they understood Bethlehem to be the birthplace of Israel’s King David and from where a messianic ruler was to come, from the line of David. While each social media post has to be evaluated individually, as a collective dynamic the obscuring of Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity and cultural-religious context poses a serious problem in societies where religious literacy is waning, and in churches with a long history of supersessionism, that is, of spreading the erroneous idea that Israel is “replaced” by the Church and therefore Judaism rendered obsolete. A single social media post featuring ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ as a Palestinian infant is one thing; but a deluge of the same, circulating in a cyber ‘bubble’ with no balancing reminder of Jesus’ actual Jewishness or of the Jewish perspectives employed by the Gospels, is alarming. Distortions of the Christian message are inevitable, which feed into toxic theologies and then into the hands of extremists who seek to do terrible harm to Jewish people. Outright denial of Jesus’ Jewishness is already a tactic of hard-core antisemites today. We would do well to remember that negation of Jesus’ Jewishness was a manoeuvre in Nazi Germany where Christian supersessionist theologies were manipulated by Nazi ideology to redefine Jesus as an Aryan, and where the so-called ‘Aryan race’ was championed in violent opposition to those with Jewish ancestry. Following the end of World War II, as the horrific crimes of the Holocaust came into clear view, the Catholic Church and other mainstream Churches took decisive strides to address the antisemitic errors and sins of their past. They repudiated false notions such as an Aryan Jesus or a Jesus who rejected his own people and tradition. They embraced the Jewishness of Jesus as core to the Christian proclamation: to speak of God’s word incarnate in Jesus, is to say that the infinite God took human form in the flesh-and-blood earthly life of a particular Jew, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4). God’s gift of liberating love is offered universally by way of a particular people, the people of Israel—their history, homeland, traditions, stories and sacred texts. It is imperative that this corrective path of understanding continue to be walked by present-day Christians. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism” (Mainz, 1980). The French Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger (1926-2007) once wrote that “Christ himself, the figure of Christ in its reality, can assume every face of humanity, but that can happen only because he is first of all the individual who was born in Bethlehem of Judea”.[1] It is when the historical and biblical particularities of the Jesus story are denied — or downplayed in such a way as to the obliterate Judaism from the Christian narrative — that ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ becomes counterproductive as a Christmas image. We are not suggesting this is the intention of the creators, but in a social media age there are myriad ways for it to be used and mis-used around the world. ‘Baby Jesus in the rubble’ is also problematic when accompanied by the words of a sermon or a social media post that lack compassion or, worse, express hatred, for Israelis and Jews. Here, the keffiyeh ‘swaddling clothes’ becomes a politicised symbol of support for Hamas and rejection of the state of Israel. Jesus is presented as identifying with suffering Palestinian children, but not with suffering Israeli or Jewish children attacked, tortured, kidnapped, murdered by Hamas. In effect, this denies God’s justice for and loving embrace of all Israeli and Jewish children at a time when they most need to feel it, for their lives too are deeply traumatised and affected by the conflict in ways overlooked in much of the public discourse about the war in Gaza. Further, there is an insidious religious problem that lurks when ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ is weaponised politically. If Jesus is identified with Palestinian children killed by the Israeli Defence Forces (comprised mainly of Jews) in fighting Hamas, then it can be a dangerously short slide for faith-based analogies to say that baby Jesus is killed by the IDF (mainly Jews), which would seem to echo the age-old deicide charge (“the Jews killed Jesus”), one of the most toxic distortions of the gospel message in church history.[2] This is the way of antisemitism. It is a virus that mutates. Defeated in one era, it re-emerges in another time and setting. It is the same poison in a different guise. It is violence towards Jews dressed up as something seemingly innocuous, or even noble — in this case, as a Christmas message about God’s love for Palestinian children. No one is doubting God’s love for and closeness to Palestinian children! It is the subtle distortion and manipulation of that message that is being probed here. To sum up, we recap the following points: Christians are called to be discerning in their use of Christmas symbols, truthful about the historical origins of Christianity, and awake to the Jewishness of their Saviour which leaps off the pages of their bible. Christians need to be theologically aware, knowing that the universal ‘Good News’ they proclaim is inseparable from the particularity of the Jew Jesus, born a son of Israel, of a people with an ancient tradition and a long-established bond with the land we call holy. Christians have a moral responsibility to inform themselves so as to better understand antisemitism, what it is and how it is manifested, and to be alert to its ever-mutating guises. If they do not, they run the risk of unwittingly buying into well-worn antisemitic tropes and dynamics. Jews end up being betrayed and harmed, yet again, by the Church. Historically, theologically and morally, the image of ‘baby Jesus in the rubble’ must be handled with care. It can be a beautiful, poignant and challenging image that speaks of God’s saving love and closeness to all people in their human fragility, including Palestinian children suffering in a war zone. Or it can become an antisemitic icon and a travesty of the Christmas message. **************** Teresa Pirola, ThD is a Sydney-based Catholic writer and faith educator. Julie McCrossin AM is an Australian radio broadcaster, journalist and speaker who lives in Adelaide and is a member of a Uniting Church community. Image: ‘Christ in the rubble’ nativity scene at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Notes: [1] J.M. Lustiger, Choosing God – Chosen by God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 64. Quoted in Achim Buckenmaier, ‘Not Just Any Child, But That Special Child’, Jewish-Christian Relations: Insights and Issues in the Ongoing Jewish-Christian Dialogue, 30 April 2016, accessed at the website of the International Council of Christians and Jews, https://www.jcrelations.net/articles/article/not-just-any-child-but-that-special-child.html [2] Massimo Faggioli also raises this concern in “The effects of the Israel-Hamas war on Jewish-Catholic relations”, La Croix International (4 January 2024), https://international.la-croix.com/news/signs-of-the-times/the-effects-of-the-israel-hamas-war-on-jewish-catholic-relations/18960. (c) Light of Torah, 2024. This article may be freely reproduced with for non-commercial use with acknowledgment.

  • A light of hope & humanity in dark times

    Amidst so much suffering in our world, the fact remains that there are people who continue to get up each day, every day, and apply themselves to the task of bringing hope and healing to the human family. People like these are light to the world. They are truly light to the world. We can look to them as beacons of hope and guidance in the way of peace. One impressive example, especially at this time, is Hand in Hand, a growing network of bilingual schools in Israel where students from both Jewish and Arab families are educated together in a vision of building communities of inclusion and equality. Learn more about Hand in Hand, and about how these teachers, parents and students are remaining steadfast in their commitment to their vision of peaceful solidarity, and to one another, amidst the tensions and trauma following October 7. Supporting Hand in Hand is one practical way to support and nurture the cause of peace. Teresa Pirola is a freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press/Stimulus, 2023)

  • May our Christmas remembrance be inclusive

    Homily prompts for remembering Israelis in our hearts and prayers this Christmas As Christian homilists finetune their Christmas messages for 2023, words and images highlighting the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, and in Bethlehem in the West Bank too, loom front and centre, along with prayers for peace in the troubled holy land. One poignant image circulating Christian networks is the figure of the Christ-child lying in a manger of concrete rubble. As a depiction of the Christmas crib, it is indeed a powerful image. There is no doubt that Palestinians, including our own Christian brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank, along with many more Palestinian Muslims suffering as casualties of the war in Gaza, deserve our heartfelt concern, love and prayers. At any time, and certainly at Christmas. At the same time, let not our well-intentioned messages be subtly twisted into subliminal messages of hatred or lack of empathy for Jews and Israelis. Let's not oversimplify the bloodied, anguished complexities of the war in Gaza by overlooking the goodness of ordinary Israelis and the brutalities they have suffered at the hand of Hamas. Among the Israelis murdered or kidnapped on October 7 there were those who had spent their lives trying to build the foundations for peace and had been actively involved in humanitarian outreaches to Palestinians in Gaza. Yes, let’s pray for peace. Let us grieve for the suffering of innocents in Gaza. Let us advocate for justice for Palestinians, for a safe and secure home for their children to grow and thrive in peace. And let us also be credible witnesses to the suffering of Israelis who are so often denied their right to live in their own State in peace and security. Let us be advocates for justice for Jewish people everywhere in the face of the worst outbreak of antisemitism since the days of Nazi propaganda and their accompanying atrocities. In what follows, I write from the premise that no Christian homilist needs reminding of the horrors of war that are being experienced by the Palestinian population in Gaza. We hear and see their terrible suffering detailed every day in the secular and religious press. However, Christian homilists may need reminding to speak words of compassion for Israelis and for Jews. They may need reminding that October 7 was not just a day; it was a massive act of terrorism that continues to unfold in the lives of countless innocent Israelis and in the lives of Jewish families around the world who have been profoundly affected. No Christian homilist needs reminding of the horrors of war that are being experienced by the Palestinian population in Gaza... However, Christian homilists may need reminding to speak words of compassion for Israelis and for Jews. Our remembrance of Israelis and Jews at Christmas time in 2023 could include any of the following facts: The child in the manger is a Jewish child, born in the homeland of the Jewish people, a people torn from their land by the Romans, exiled for 2,000 years, and persecuted through the centuries, including in Christian societies. The antisemitic and genocidal forces that, historically, have wreaked havoc in the lives of Jews and in the cause for peace, were at work again in unspeakable ways on 7 October 2023 in peaceful communities in southern Israel. What occurred on October 7 in Israel was a major pogrom (mob violence) of premeditated murder, torture, mutilation and abduction of civilians, including sexual violence against Israeli women and girls of extraordinary ferocity. The traumatic impact of these atrocities continues in the lives of those victims who survived and for the families of all victims. E.g., Homes are being found for Israeli children who lost both parents on October 7 and who witnessed their parents’ murder. Many more have lost one parent, through death or kidnapping. Psychological trauma is part of the unseen wounds carried by Israelis, children and adults alike, especially in light of the history of the Holocaust. The entire Israeli population directly affected by these events, in what were the townships and small communities bordering Gaza, have been displaced since October 7. They cannot return to their homes, even if they were to be rebuilt. While Hamas remains in power in Gaza, they can no longer live safely in their own homes. As well as the ongoing attacks from Gaza, Israelis elsewhere in their country are living under the threat of attacks from Hezbollah in the north and the aggression of Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in maritime settings in the south. Violent unrest in the West Bank is also part of the picture. On October 7, more than 240 men, women, children and a nine-month-old baby were taken hostage by Hamas. An estimated 129 remain in captivity, while the remainder are either recovering from their traumatic ordeal since their release, or they have been killed. Each of the hostages has a family and community that is gravely impacted by their abduction. Israelis have been attending funeral after funeral as they mourn the deaths of victims of October 7, the deaths of sons and daughters in the army and the deaths of hostages. They also mourn the devastating loss of Palestinian lives in war, and the death of dreams for peace. Vivian Silver was one of the 1200 murdered on October 7. She was an Israeli peace activist devoted to causes seeking justice for Palestinians. In her spare time, she drove Palestinians in Gaza to Israeli hospitals to obtain life-saving medical treatment. Since October 7, Jewish communities around the world have been subjected to unprecedented levels of antisemitic violence, harassment and hate speech. In Australia, antisemitic incidents have surged by 738 percent since October-November the previous year. Our Jewish friends and most Israelis won’t be celebrating Christmas — it is not their tradition. But it would be a terrible injustice and distortion of the gospel, to airbrush them out of our Christmas messages – or worse, to refer to them in negative ways - and to speak only of compassion for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. May our Christmas messages this year be inclusive, loving and wise. Photo: A different kind of image of 'mother and child': Terrified mother, Shiri Bibas, is seen being taken hostage, along with her baby Kfir and 4-year-old son Ariel. They have not returned from Gaza. Source: Set Them Free To participate in a prayer initiative for the hostages held by Hamas, go to change.org Teresa Pirola is a Catholic freelance writer, and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press/Stimulus, 2023).

  • Open Letter from Jewish scholars and practitioners in dialogue is essential reading for Catholics

    On 12 November 2023, a significant voice — indeed, a ‘cry of the heart’ — went out from the Jewish community, specifically directed to Catholics. Entitled “An open letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis, and to the Faithful of the Catholic Church”, the letter is signed by Jewish scholars, religious leaders, and practitioners in Jewish-Christian dialogue, in Israel, America and Europe. Reaching out “in a time of distress and anguish for Jews all over the world”, the signatories of the letter begin by reminding us Catholics that, according to our own testimony, there is a bond that spiritually connects Christians to “Abraham’s stock” (see Nostra Aetate, 4). Pointing to the events and impact of October 7, they ask us to understand that Jews everywhere have been profoundly affected "in ways we haven't even begun to fathom". October 7 “will be forever marked in Jewish memory”. On that day, in “the most horrific attack on Jews since the Holocaust”, Hamas and their collaborators “abused bodies, burned entire families, brutally raped women, and committed other atrocities which the hand hesitates to write”. It was a “full-fledged pogrom of the kind we all hoped was no longer possible”. Further, it has led to a global surge in killings, assaults, threats and harassment of Jews – “the worst wave of antisemitism since 1945”. Their plea is that our listening transcend politics in order to grasp the depths of the fear and sense of abandonment of Jews in the face of existential threats. “The heavy grief for the lives that were taken is joined by a sense of deep loneliness, and a loss of confidence in the possibility of a life of safety and freedom in the sovereign state of Israel and elsewhere.” They summon us to honour our long-held commitments flowing from the Second Vatican Council which assured Jews that they could put their trust in the “strong bond of friendship between Jews and Catholics” (CRRJ, 2015). Calling upon that trust, our Jewish friends ask Catholics to be a beacon of moral clarity, to unequivocally condemn Hamas’ terrorist massacre, and to make critical distinctions such as the difference between legitimate political criticism of Israeli policy and the hateful negation of Jews and Israel. In accordance with our own principles of justice, they appeal to us to join them in “the memory of the victims of October 7th massacre, to advocate for the release of the…hostages, and to acknowledge the vulnerability of the Jewish community at this moment”. Please take five minutes to read the Letter.* Share it, talk about it with your family, friends, students, staff or parish community. Then, consider your next step as Catholics, especially in view of the appalling antisemitic expressions that have spilled into our own Australian streets in these past two months. Taking this Letter seriously is just one thing we can do to show care for our Jewish sisters and brothers, at a time when they most need to know that we hear them and that we are there for them. And that we "walk with" them, as we said we would. **************************************************** Teresa Pirola, ThD, is Sydney-based freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). This article may be reproduced with acknowledgement. *Open Letter accessed at the Jewish-Christian Relations website of the International Council of Christians and Jews. To participate in a prayer initiative for the hostages who are still being held by Hamas, click here at change.org. All welcome.

  • A plea from the relatives of hostages: Unite in prayer to bring them home

    The six people seated before us are Israeli Jews, a small delegation visiting Australia – not dignitaries or VIPs but ordinary family members. Each has an anguished story to share, and they do so, one by one, to a gathering of hundreds of members of Sydney’s Jewish community. One is the uncle of 19-year-old Roni, killed by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel on October 7, as she and other young female soldiers heroically defended the communications room near the border of the Gaza strip. Some made it out alive, some were taken hostage. Sadly, Roni perished. “Mum, I love you, don't worry for me” was her final text. Another speaker is the mother of Yotam, 28, a young man with a love for music, a drummer who was looking forward to playing at a concert later that day on October 7. Instead, he was taken into Gaza by Hamas as a hostage. His final message, as terrorists entered his home and set it alight and smoke filled his lungs: “I don't know if I can survive this. I love you.” His family has had no word from him since, but he is believed to be alive. Another in this little delegation is a close friend of Noa, the 26-year-old Israeli woman with Japanese heritage whose kidnapping was filmed as she was taken screaming on a Hamas militant’s motorbike. Her boyfriend, Avinatan, was also abducted. Earlier that day, as the pair fled the music festival with hundreds of others — amidst 360 corpses, stench, confusion and the barrage of bullets — she sent a desperate text: Praying that someone will save us. Each speaker represents an individual family. Yet they all belong to one great family – the Jewish people – united in this room and throughout the world as they confront the devastating aftermath of October 7. The terror of that day continues to torment families, their lives held hostage by ‘not knowing’ the fate of their loved ones still held captive. “It’s like being on Schindler’s list,” says one, with reference to the recent hostage negotiations. “Who will live, and who will die?” “All of you, with your thoughts and prayers, give me and Yotam strength,” says Yotam’s mother. “He is not just my son, he is yours too; he is truly a son of the Jewish people.” Her words capture the message of this hour: there is a unity, solace and extraordinary strength that comes from being Jewish, from knowing that Jews everywhere – whatever their differences in culture, spoken language, political or religious opinions – share a common sense of family, of peoplehood. “He is not just my son, he is yours too; Yotam is truly a son of the Jewish people." Historically, the Jewish people have defied the odds. Powerful ancient empires have come and gone, yet this numerically tiny people has survived and thrived over millennia; and this despite the repeated and most heinous attempts to destroy them. Sitting here amidst Sydney’s Jewish community, it is abundantly obvious why they don’t take to the streets with hate-slogans to define themselves. Their resilience is manifest in the dignity of their united stance that positively affirms their identity, their relationships, their faith. They have their love for each other and their ever-practical willingness to ‘pitch in’ to assist in a crisis. “I don't need to tell you how to help us,” says one relative to the gathering. “Because the Jewish community already knows how, and does it.” During this hour of storytelling, I notice that, despite the grief, this courageous little delegation of Israeli Jews impart no words of hatred. They could, with complete justification, brand their enemies with the hate-labels of genocide, rape, torture, mutilation and kidnapping. But they don’t. Incredibly, their words are focused on gratitude: gratitude for those who have come to hear them and for their worldwide Jewish family supporting them. I am aware, too, that each speaker asks for prayers. “We need to show the world who we are in our prayer and in our belief that they are coming back. We believe in our country, in our love and unity as a Jewish family. This is our strength.” “Love has no geography,” says another. “Am Yisrael chai”, rings out through the room. “The people of Israel live.” Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). You are invited to join in a prayer initiative for the safe return of the estimated 135 hostages still held in captivity by Hamas. Go to: change.org/Pray for the Release of the Hostages held by Hamas. See too: www.setthemfree.com.au And we pray for all in Israel and Gaza who are suffering so terribly at this time. We grieve the loss of all innocent human life and pray for a swift conclusion to the war in Gaza and a credible path to peace. We pray that all parties on the international stage, as well as ordinary people on the ground, will play a responsible role in bringing about security, stability and just solutions in the region. Photo: Family members and friends of the hostages and victims of October 7 address a gathering at a Sydney synagogue, 4 December 2023. (c) Teresa Pirola, 2023. This article may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement.

  • Nine points about antisemitism for parents to discuss with their school-age children.

    In pro-Palestinian protests by school students in Melbourne and Sydney, some students were quoted as saying “Hamas is doing a good job”. Others posted images depicting themselves dumping the Israeli flag bearing the Star of David symbol into a rubbish bin so as to “clean the world”. Young and impressionable, these students know little, if anything, about the history and contemporary reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are easily manipulated and oblivious to the fact that there are sinister forces in the world today that are reactivating latent antisemitism and giving it social license, as a tool to pursue a political agenda. What follows is a set of “talking points” for parents who are concerned about young minds being unable to distinguish between a legitimate social justice cause for the rights of Palestinians and the violent antisemitic goals of a terrorist organisation like Hamas. My hope is that parents will teach and discuss these points with their children at an appropriate age. What is antisemitism? It is hatred of Jews. Antisemitism is expressed through thoughts, words and deeds. In every case, antisemitic prejudice is harmful and unjust to Jewish people. It also diminishes the humanity of the antisemite and of the societies in which antisemitism is tolerated. Prejudice towards Jews has existed for more than two millennia, which is why antisemitism has been called “the world’s oldest hatred”. It is a prejudice that has a habit of reappearing, especially in a crisis, whenever people are looking for someone or a group to blame. Antisemitism is a poisonous attitude that twists human thinking and even infects causes that seek human progress. For example, over the centuries we have seen toxic distortions of Christianity (Jews depicted as “Christ killers”), science (Jews described as a distinct, and inferior, biological “race”), and socio-political causes (Jews blamed for “global dominance”). These generalisations are designed to dehumanise Jews: to conceptualise Jews as a collective abstract “other”, instead of seeing each person in their uniquely human individuality. In the 21st century, antisemitic ideas are increasingly infecting social justice movements in their attitudes towards the State of Israel (75% of whose citizens are Jews). Of course, all governments can and should be subject to robust critique. Not all criticism of Israeli governments is antisemitic. However, to call into question the right of Israel to even exist is seen by almost all Jews as quintessentially antisemitic. If it is racist to deny the peoplehood and right of collective self-determination of the Palestinian people, it is equally racist to deny the peoplehood and right of collective self-determination of the Jewish people. Further, some forms of political criticism of the State of Israel draw upon a contemporary rehash of very old, deeply ingrained ideas, images and memories that signal hatred of Jews. For example, when some pro-Palestinian protestors chant “Gas the Jews”, they imply agreement with what Hitler’s regime did in the 1940s to murder millions of Jewish men, women and children using a lethal chemical. We must be awake to these poisonous slogans, identify them and reject their influence. Hamas is not all Palestinians. Hamas is one Palestinian organisation which since 2007 has governed the territory of Gaza, which borders Israel. Hamas has a founding covenant based in an extremist Islamist ideology that calls for Israel and its majority Jewish population to be “obliterated”. In Australia and in other western countries, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation. Supporting Hamas is not a smart way to seek peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis. To support Hamas is to support violence against Jews – including Hamas’ brutal and premeditated crimes of murder, rape, torture and abduction of civilians on October 7 in southern Israel. Within any national, ethnic or religious community, one can find people who do bad things. However, generalising the judgement about the bad actions of one person or subgroup to a whole nation, ethnic group or religious community is a form of prejudice, racism, bigotry. We should never judge all Palestinians by the actions of Hamas. Neither should all Jews be judged by the particular actions of any individual Jew or group of Jews or any Israeli government. Antisemitism is no joke; it is a very serious matter. It is the mindset that led the Nazis to murder six million Jews. Antisemitic thoughts and words lead to violence. This is why our politicians and all responsible citizens are so concerned about the Jew-hatred expressed on Australian streets and on social media in recent weeks. In Australia, some expressions of antisemitism can be prosecuted as a crime. The Catholic Church firmly condemns all forms of antisemitism. It “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other Churches have made similar statements. Antisemitism is diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. We each have a responsibility to ensure that our Australian society is a safe place for all, whatever one’s race, ethnicity or religion. If we don’t want the hatreds and violence of overseas conflicts to be imported into our peaceful, multicultural society, we should speak up and challenge antisemitic and other prejudicial behaviour. This is not always easy. It takes the courage of our convictions, especially in the face of peer group pressure. Remember: “The standard you pass by is the standard you accept.” Be an ‘upstander’, don’t be a ‘bystander’ to antisemitic prejudice. Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). (c) Teresa Pirola, 2023. This article may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement. Photos: placards in recent Melbourne protests; graffiti in a Melbourne suburb. Photos courtesy Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

  • What just happened?? Over a thousand Jews were massacred and the Catholic Church was silent

    One would think that a massive act of terror involving murder, rape, mutilation and the abduction of civilians would constitute a clear case for moral condemnation by Catholics. One shouldn’t need to consult Catholic social teaching in order to ascertain that the beheading of babies, the torture of children, or the gang rape of women are heinous crimes. However, in those initial days, as the carnage of Hamas’ attacks upon Israeli communities on October 7, 2023 began to come to light, an uncomfortable silence descended upon my church, the Catholic Church in Australia, and it has been deafening ever since. What made the silence particularly disturbing was that that these attacks were directed at Jewish communities, with a brutality and sadism that mirrored that of the Nazis’ attacks on Jews during the Holocaust. They were carried out by a listed terrorist organisation whose founding charter is openly and violently antisemitic. October 7 had all the hallmarks of a 21st century pogrom, in the same vein of pogroms carried out against Jews many times before in history. Further, the distressing silence of too many Catholic leaders in Australia was magnified by the fact that Christianity has been a carrier of antisemitism over much of its history, a tragic fact that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had the courage to face, setting the Church on a sincere path of repentance and reconciliation with the Jewish people which has been pursued for nearly 60 years. How is it, then, that a 21st century pogrom, unleashed upon Jewish communities in the quiet of a Jewish holy day and sparking waves of antisemitic outbursts around the world, could be met with overwhelming public silence by Catholic leaders in Australia? Has the Church learned nothing from the lessons of the Holocaust? To its credit, within two days after the October 7 bloodbath, Catholic Religious Australia, the representative body for leaders of 150 Catholic religious institutes in Australia, issued a brief statement condemning the attacks and calling for the release of the hostages. A national interfaith body, the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, which includes Catholics, also promptly publicly condemned Hamas’ atrocities. However, it took another two weeks for one lone Australian Bishop, in the Diocese of Parramatta, to come out with a public statement expressing concern for Israeli lives. Encouragingly, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne just released (11 November) offers clarity regarding an appropriate Catholic response in light of the sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents that we are witnessing in our own Australian streets and neighbourhoods. Still, the public silence of other Australian Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders is a disturbing. Of course, public statements are but one means of exercising leadership. Were there other ways by which bishops, clerics, religious and lay Catholic leaders shifted gear and responded to what happened on October 7 in those initial days and weeks? Did they speak up with important words in quiet, unpublicised ways? I know of some that did and I like to presume that many more did. Obviously, I can’t speak for what our leaders say and do in their private communications. But what I can offer is a perspective from the grassroots experience of what things look and sound like among the general Catholic population, at least in Sydney and with an ear to the rest of the country. With the exceptions mentioned, we did not hear our leaders speak up. In the days following October 7 there was no clear, audible, united voice to constitute any kind of robust collective Catholic ‘front’ in response to a gross manifestation of the evil of antisemitic terror and its global after-effects. Further, this silence has only been compounded by the recently released statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (10 November) addressing the current crisis in the Holy Land. Amidst motherhood statements calling for “peace”, the bishops’ collective voice offers not a word about the October 7 attacks, nor about the hostages held by Hamas or the flare-up in antisemitic incidents. This silence from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is bewildering in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era. The Catholic silence is shocking in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era. Certainly, in these past weeks, there were those who promoted and embodied the ‘prayer and fasting’ called for by Pope Francis and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Such calls have their place. However, in terms of what happened on October 7, these generalised gestures for ‘world peace’ did not cut through as a clear act of compassion for and solidarity with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Buried within comments deploring ‘the cycle of violence’, they exuded a wearied sense of ‘more of the same’ in the Holy Land. October 7 was different But October 7 wasn’t the same. Over decades, Israelis have suffered intifadas, war, small scale massacres, and day-to-day isolated terror incidents of knifing, shootings and car ramming by those who will their disappearance. But October 7 took this deplorable violence to another level. Such was the scale and sadistic brutality of what occurred, that it rivalled many of the antisemitic atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Within hours of what was meant to be a relaxed Jewish holy day, Jews everywhere were plunged back into their greatest collective trauma in living memory. October 7 should have been a ‘red alert’ call-to-action for Christians. Those traumatic Jewish memories just mentioned include the recall of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and the centuries-long history of anti-Jewish sentiment, including its violent consequences against Jews in Christian societies. One might have expected the events of 7 October to cut like a razor to the conscience of the Catholic Church. One might have expected to see inspirational scenes of Catholic bishops and religious and lay leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with rabbis and their congregations at synagogues, leading their Catholic people in laying wreaths outside Jewish properties, and issuing public letters of condolence and condemnation of the attacks by Hamas. Instead, in the aftermath of more Jews being murdered in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, it appears that most Catholic leaders in Australia did not consider it to be their priority to speak out in solidarity with Jewish communities, nor publicly stand with Israel in its national mourning for its murdered citizens. Did they not view it as significant enough? Were they (clergy and laity) too busy with the Synod of Bishops being held in Rome? Just eight months earlier, on 22 March 2023, Australian Catholics Bishops had signed a statement called “Walking Together: Catholic with Jews in the Australian Context” in which they pledged their commitment to the teaching of Nostra Aetate which includes a clear condemnation of antisemitism. Yet by October, as reports of Hamas’ crimes came to light, it appeared to be ‘business as usual’ for most episcopal diaries. Did they not understand this moment as a critical test for their leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism? “Palestinians plead for peace” was the recurring messaging headlining one archdiocesan newspaper, with barely a mention of Hamas’ atrocities in its Sunday editions following the attacks. As the body count mounted in Israel, and then in Gaza, “all lives matter” quickly became the catch cry in Catholic circles (and who can argue with that?). It seemed that Catholics couldn’t pause, even for one Sunday, to say “Jewish lives matter.” Did they not understand this moment as a critical test of leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism? My heartfelt hope is that many private messages of condolence would have been delivered to Jewish friends, neighbours and communities by Catholics of all walks of life. And I am not suggesting that good people have been callously unconcerned. To be sure, many prayers would have been privately and publicly said for peace in the Holy Land. However, for all the work of interfaith relations over years and decades, the public face of the Catholic Church was largely missing in action at that precise moment when the Jewish community needed us most, and when ordinary Catholics needed a firm and unequivocal response to antisemitism modelled by their leaders. Over time, remedial efforts by Catholics to regroup and recover will likely be graciously received by Australian Jewish communities, given their admirable commitment to seeking societal cohesion. Again, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne sets a much-needed example for other Catholic leaders to follow. However, much damage has been done and it difficult to see how things will ever be the same again. Where people in high positions of church leadership have faltered, it is all the more incumbent on grassroots leaders and everyday Catholics to lead from the strength of their baptismal commissioning. This includes parents and teachers, pastoral and business leaders, academics and community animators – whatever our sphere of influence, we must all put shoulder to the plough to rewrite the next chapters of the Australian Catholic response. After October 7, Catholic-Jewish relations surely cannot be ‘business as usual.’ Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and Catholic faith formator, and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). (c) Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023 This article may be reproduced, in full, with appropriate acknowledgement.

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