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  • 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.

  • Remembering Kristallnacht, in the wake of October 7

    What was Kristallnacht? Kristallnacht is the name given to the night of 9 November 1938, when a Nazi-sponsored violent rampage in Germany destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues, sacred books and human lives. In the words of one eyewitness: “Until 1938 my parents never thought of leaving Germany. ‘There's no way the Germans we live with will continue to do these things. It's only an episode.’ That was the atmosphere. It was also the atmosphere on Kristallnacht. They couldn't comprehend it. It came as a blow. I remember my mother standing pale and crying… I remember her phoning her gentile friends – she had more gentile friends than Jewish friends – No answer. No one answered her.”[1] For most of my life as a Catholic, the anniversary of Kristallnacht came and went unnoticed. It took its place in my consciousness as one of many human tragedies with no direct relevance to me personally. After all, I am not Jewish, I was born in a time and place remote from the events of that fateful night, and there has been plenty of human suffering in the world of the 20th and 21st centuries to occupy my mind and heart. Over time, however, the memory of Kristallnacht came to strike a deep chord, and specifically as a Christian. Of course, all human suffering should be the concern of the Christian. What the specific memory of 9 November 1938 has helped me to understand is that Kristallnacht is regarded by historians as being a critical step on the path to the implementation of Hitler’s ‘final solution’. In the absence of international outrage, it was a moment when there was still time for good people to speak up, yet too many allowed it to pass in silence. Further, I learned that one of the factors that allowed the Nazi's ideology to flourish was the influence of anti-Jewish tropes, deeply buried in the social and cultural fabric of European societies. Most days, their poisonous presence could be overlooked; but in a time of crisis they came rushing to the surface, turning neighbours into enemies overnight. Such prejudice had a long history, and had infiltrated Christianity, leading to terrible humiliations and brutalities inflicted upon Jewish communities in Christianised societies over many centuries. From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, it took the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for this “teaching of contempt” towards Jews to be decisively and officially repudiated. Vatican II taught that the Church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other Churches took similar steps as they faced into the dark chapters of Christian history. In more recent years, many Christians have joined with Jewish communities around the world in their annual remembrance of the events of Kristallnacht, on 9 November. The victims are mourned, candles are lit, songs are sung, people stand in sombre silence. Jewish leaders are joined by civic leaders and representatives of other religious and ethnic groups. The words “Never again” are uttered as one voice. Shockingly, just a month ago, an event reminiscent of Kristallnacht occurred again. October 7th 2023, Israel On 7 October 2023, a pogrom took place in southern Israel, including the town of Sderot and the small agricultural communities bordering the Gaza strip. Hamas militants broke through the Israeli security barrier and rampaged throughout the day, pillaging and destroying homes while they murdered, tortured and raped unarmed civilians, and mutilated bodies. Over 200 people were abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages. Some 1400 Israelis - Jews and others among their communities - were murdered in these attacks, including whole families burnt to death in their homes and youth gunned down in the fields of a music festival. It is important to recount these two dates, as well as some of the details of these two periods of depravity, in order to call out the evil of antisemitism for what it is and to highlight the imperative for Catholics, and all people of faith and goodwill, to speak out against its violent goals and deathly consequences. We need to be very clear. Nothing justifies what occurred on 7 October. No political narrative or cause justifies premeditated murder, rape, mutilation and abduction. No appeal to the complexities of a geo-political dispute excuses the massacre which took place on 7 October. It was an act of terrorism on a massive scale and a crime against humanity, in the same barbaric vein as ISIS and conducted with the same antisemitic vehemence as Nazism. Nazi atrocities should have been denounced by the world then. Hamas’ atrocities must be denounced now. To allow excuses for such a massacre, would be to send a terrible message to the world over and to ignore the lessons learned from the Holocaust. It would sanction antisemitic sentiment and embolden extremists and their sympathisers elsewhere. It would be a betrayal of the Jewish people. Here in Australia, we have already seen a sharp increase in antisemitic discourse and incidents since the events of 7 October. Following the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, public antisemitic outbursts occurred on the streets of Sydney, with chants such as “Gas the Jews” - voices we thought belonged to the days of Nazi Germany. Before 7 October, many of us would have considered such a scenario unthinkable. Yet these outbursts do not come out of nowhere. They remind us that antisemitism has been on the rise, in Australia and globally, emanating from both the right and the left of the political divide, for some time. Of course, there is no suggestion here that our Australian society is anything like Nazi Germany. However, we are reminded that antisemitism has a way of reemerging even in peace-loving societies like our own, in new and insidious guises. The strength of our usually harmonious multicultural community should never be taken for granted. Vigilance against antisemitism must be an ongoing commitment. A call to action: What can we do? In view of our history, we Christians have a particular responsibility to speak, act and pray. We are not powerless. Each of us can do something within our sphere of influence. For example: We can condemn in the strongest terms the unspeakable actions of terror unleashed by Hamas on innocent civilians in Israeli communities in the quiet of a Jewish religious holy day on 7 October 2023. As one voice we can call for the safe and immediate return of the hostages, and make this our urgent prayer intention. Catholic social justice organisations can take antisemitism as seriously as other causes for justice. In view of the antisemitic violence unleashed against women on 7 October 2023, we urge Christians to speak up in support of their Jewish sisters. We can educate our children and others about antisemitism, including its history within Christianity. Education about antisemitism is critical in a world where the term is becoming less rather than better understood, where Holocaust-denial thrives on social media and where the memory of the Holocaust is dimming with time. We can also commemorate Kristallnacht each year. The legacy of William Cooper In closing, we can recall the story of William Cooper, a proud Yorta Yorta man and a committed Christian, who lived in Melbourne in the 1930s. When the news of Kristallnacht reached him, he responded by organising a peaceful march to the German Consulate to deliver a petition protesting the treatment of Jewish citizens in Germany. His petition, of course, was ignored. Yet, he did the right thing. And his action for justice has provided inspiration for generations to come. Cooper is among the “righteous gentiles” honoured by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. May his legacy, his commitment to a just and peaceful society, where Jews can live without fear of antisemitism, inspire us all and guide our words and actions. Unite in Prayer Now: View: A Call to Prayer October 7 Hostages With Julie McCrossin AM and Teresa Pirola Visit: Pray for the 247 Hostages Held by Hamas at change.org [1] Historian and Holocaust survivor Zvi Bacharach; quoted at the webpage of Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Text: Teresa Pirola Photo: Wikimedia commons (c) Teresa Pirola | Light of Torah, 2023 This article may be freely shared for non-commercial use, with appropriate acknowledgement.

  • Memories of Israel, near Gaza

    Four years ago, I visited Sderot and other small communities in Israel which lie close to the northern border of the Gaza strip. The woman who showed us around had lived in a moshav (small agricultural community) of 900 people for over 20 years. Her children, the eldest turning 18, had slept in bomb shelters for the entirety of their young lives. Such was life, with the routine experience of sirens, Hamas rocket attacks launched from Gaza, as well as catapulted fire-bombs that would set fire to the fields of Israelis, destroying their crops. Bomb shelters were placed throughout these communities. Residents had 15 seconds to reach one when the siren sounded. These shelters were to be found in homes, bus stops, schools and children’s playgrounds, including one that was cleverly disguised as a giant smiling caterpillar (pictured). From time to time there were casualties, and the stress and psychological trauma, especially among children, was a constant to be carefully managed and treated. Still, life went on. Remarkably, despite these extraordinary daily pressures, our guide spoke without malice towards the Palestinian population of Gaza. She expressed resilience and the determination not to be driven from her home, but not a hint of hatred. In fact, she took us to the 'Path to Peace’ wall where residents had created a huge mosaic on a portion of the security barrier facing Gaza, decorating it with messages of peace. It was their way of communicating that, while they opposed the destructive agenda of Hamas who governed Gaza, they had no desire for enmity with the Palestinian people of Gaza and maintained their hope for peace. It is worth mentioning that Sderot and its surrounding communities are not situated in the “disputed territory” of the West Bank but are on land that has always been considered by the United Nations to be part of the modern state of Israel proper since its establishment in 1948. Our guide’s moshav was one of the small Israeli communities overrun by Hamas militants on 7 October 2023, where residents were brutally tortured, murdered, mutilated and abducted. We still have no news as to whether or not she and her family survived the massacre. Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based writer, faith educator and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). This article may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement. © Teresa Pirola, 2023 | www.lightoftorah.net Photos (T. Pirola): Bomb shelter in children’s playground in Sderot; ‘Path to Peace’ wall at Moshav HaAsara, Israel, near the Gaza border. Lend a hand in the crisis: Donate to Hadassah Australia and Caritas Australia.

  • Sabbath of Return

    In the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva - the Sabbath of Return. One thing I like to do during the Jewish High Holy Days is to read from the treasury of traditional Jewish wisdom compiled and edited by S.Y. Agnon for this festival period. [1] As I reflect on Shabbat Shuva, with the help of Agnon, I am touched by Judaism's sensitivity to both the just judgment and gentle mercy of our Creator-Redeemer God. These holy days, that will soon culminate in Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), are serious indeed, filled with the insistent call to repentance, eschewing lame excuses and half-hearted effort. At the same time, this call to "Return!" is filled with the mercy and compassion of the God who has no desire for crushing judgment or to force his people into a loveless submission. Rather, the God of love and gentleness speaks tenderly to his people, and is ready to walk with us all in our human woundedness and fears, hopes and dreams. Thus do the Jewish sages tell the story of a king's son who was unable to make the 100 days journey back to his father. The king replied to his son: "Go as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you." [2] We hear, too, in the voice of Rabbi Alexandri: If a person uses a broken vessel, it is considered a disgrace. But not the Holy One, blessed be he. All his vessels are broken. “The Lord is close to those that are of a broken heart” (Ps 34:19).” [3] Our return to God is often impeded by the shame and paralysis of our own sinfulness. Our inner critic admonishes us: You are not worthy of God’s forgiveness! Yet the Jewish sages remind us otherwise: God knows and understanding our wounds and blemishes better than we know ourselves, and still regards us as precious and loved, longing to be close again. How comforting to know that we don’t have to be 'perfect' or to 'have it all together' in order to turn, and to begin the return, to God. Further, teshuva (repentance) is not a 'quick fix', it is a journey into deeper relationship. Here again, the tradition speaks with nuanced insights: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” The meaning is, return until the Lord, that is, the Creator, becomes “your” that is, your own God. [4] Food for thought… as we grow in solidarity and interfaith awareness of Jewish communities moving through their High Holy Days, and as we ponder afresh our own religious tradition. Notes 1. Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887-1970) was a great Hebrew writer of the 20th century and a winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work referred to here is Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days (New York: Schocken Books, 1965, 1975). 2. Pesikta Rabbati, Shuvah Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 139. 3. Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Shuva. See Days of Awe, 140. Verse numbering may differ: see Ps 34:18. 4. Avodat Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 141. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to grow in appreciation of the Jewish tradition and to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... © Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023. This article can be reproduced for non-commercial use, with acknowledgment of website.

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