Sion News

Developments in Jewish/Christian Relations

Article in The Tablet, 26.3.2015

Pope St John Paul II once said that Jews are the elder brothers of Christians but this was not always as well understood as it is now. Since this journal’s foundation 175 years ago, there has been a profound shift in relations between the faiths CATHOLIC-JEWISH relations’ transformation in the twentieth century was a sign of hope in an age dominated by war and unprecedented violence. Jewish memories of the twentieth century are still overshadowed by the catastrophe of the Holocaust, but Jews also remember with immense gratitude the achievement of the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent papal leadership in the decades that followed, which transformed their relationship with the Catholic community.

Catholic-Jewish relations in England were initially distant and quite unpromising. Catholics and Jews in nineteenth and twentieth century English society followed trajectories that were surprisingly similar. Both were minority communities largely made up of immigrants and both were gradually transformed by their integration into English society. Both communities were “emancipated” in the nineteenth century and it took several generations for them to come to feel at home in a country were both had experienced being seen as strangers and outsiders.

However, despite their common experience Catholics and Jews were not close in the decades prior to the Second World War. Ulrike Ehret, one of the few historians who have researched Catholic-Jewish relations in England in this period, notes that while many Catholics and Jews lived side by side in working-class districts in the 1930s, this was usually a mixed blessing. Anti-Jewish feeling was particularly prevalent in the East End of London, where it was exacerbated by poverty and the impact of economic depression on both communities. Some Jews were drawn to left-wing politics, while there was initially considerable Catholic support for the far right. In Manchester, in the interwar years, skirmishes and street battles between Catholics – and Protestants – and Jews were quite common. In everyday life the communities did not mix and memoirs of the time reveal both prejudice and considerable inter-communal tensions.

The period still requires more research and it appears that in the East End the anti-immigrant and anti-Irish sentiments of the British Union of Fascists alienated their Catholic supporters quite rapidly. In 1936 Jews of all persuasions combined with Irish dock labourers to combat the Mosleyites in what is famously known as the Battle of Cable Street. Bill Fishman, the historian of East End Jewry, who sadly died last year, recalled how tears came to his eyes when as a young man he had witnessed this unexpected act of inter-communal solidarity.

Most of the Catholic press in the Twenties and Thirties was tinged with anti-Jewish sentiment, but caution is called for in assessing this. The press reflected the politics and prejudices of its owners, some of whom were not at all uncomfortable with the development of European Fascism. They were part of a particular Catholic milieu and reflected sentiments that were quite common in certain circles that fused anti-Jewish feeling and stereotypes with the grand peur of Soviet Russia. Some highly secularised Jews were prominent Communists and notions of a Judeo-Bolshevik threat were duly touted all over Europe, finding a particularly portentous and tragic resonance in Nazi Germany.

The largely middle-class and highly respectable Board of Deputies of British Jews tried in vain to remonstrate with the newspapers and occasionally enlisted the assistance of the Chief Rabbi, all to no avail. It has to be said, however, that none of the Catholic press actually supported anti-Jewish violence, although they did not usually go as far in their opposition as G.K. Chesterton, who was not known for his affection for the Jewish community. In 1933 he wrote that whatever his views on the “Jewish Spirit” he was “appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities in Germany” and was quite ready to believe that “[Hilaire] Belloc and myself will die defending the last Jew in Europe”.

The Catholic Worker, founded in 1935, is an interesting exception in that it was notably free of anti-Jewish prejudice and addressed Jewish issues on a purely humanitarian basis. This indicates that even before the Second World War one has to be careful about unduly homogenising Catholic opinions and responses. There is also evidence that middle- and working-class Catholics in northern England were strongly opposed to Fascism and apparently supported the republican cause in Spain in what the Church still regards as an age of Catholic martyrdom.

There was a further strand of Catholic response which was important. As early as 1881 Cardinal Manning spoke out forcibly in support of Jewish victims of the pogroms in Russia – his main thrust was humanitarian, although he also referred to the shared heritage of the Old Testament. In the 1930s Catholic bishops spoke out about Nazi persecution of Jews and Cardinal Hinsley made his views on Naziism and persecution very clear, particularly after Kristallnacht in 1938 and throughout the war years. He attended the protest meeting held in London’s Albert Hall in December 1938 and took part in projects to help Jewish refugees from Germany.

Cardinal Manning’s humanitarianism was an approach to interreligious relations that allowed Catholics to be supportive of their non-Christian neighbours without compromising their theological commitments. It enabled religious leaders to offer public support for afflicted minorities and advocate their cause at the highest level, while also serving to counter popular prejudice by offering an alternative perspective.

Humanitarianism had undoubted strengths and as a mode of religious leadership it remains very important indeed, but there were also limitations. Humanitarian intervention was deployed only in times of crisis and did not seek to nurture normative community relations. Christians and Jews did not know each other as such and met only in places of religious anonymity – the market place and the public realm. This meant that they tended to interpret each other in terms of tropes and prejudices that were never qualified or challenged by personal experience or mutuality and were likely to be exacerbated in time of depression and economic crisis.

There is one other approach to Catholic-Jewish relations that was present in England prior to the war, but which remained quite unobtrusive until Vatican II, when it unexpectedly inspired Nostra Aetate and became formative for the Church as a whole in its relations with different faith communities.

In 1860 Cardinal Manning invited sisters from a recently founded religious community to develop their educational work in England. The Sisters of Sion’s vision of Jewish-Christian reconciliation was inspired by Romans 11, the Pauline text that has been fundamental for modern Jewish-Christian relations. It assumed from the outset that there was a specific relationship between Jews and Christians that was both particular and God given and which could not be subsumed by a purely humanitarian generalisation. Jews and Christians had to meet each other in their full particularity, rather than as examples of anonymous human concern and generosity. Sion’s relationship with the Jewish community evolved gradually in the twentieth century and was especially influenced by the experiences of the sisters during the war, when their convents in occupied Europe were involved in sheltering Jews in flight from Nazi persecution. It found theological expression in Nostra Aetate and its post-conciliar development and particularly in the work and writings of Pope John Paul II.

Vatican II was crucially important for the development of Catholic-Jewish relations in England and elsewhere, because it provided them with a clear and authoritative foundation. Nostra Aetate rejected notions of collective Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion, condemned anti-Semitic prejudice and sought to promote fraternal dialogue as a basis for the future of Catholic-Jewish relations. It established a relationship between the Church and different faith communities and offered a framework for Catholics to treat them with respect and concern without in any way compromising Catholic theological commitment. All of this created a new and positive landscape for Catholic-Jewish relations in our time and it is surely a sign of hope and faith for the twenty-first century.

Jonathan Gorsky lectures in Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations at Heythrop College, University of London.

Developments in Jewish/Christian Relations