At an event at the U.S. embassy to the Holy See responding to a rising tide of anti-Semitism in various parts of the world, the Vatican’s current Cardinal Secretary of State revealed that one of his predecessors, a full 25 years before the Holocaust erupted in Nazi Germany, vowed solidarity with the “children of Israel” in a letter to an influential American Jewish group on the basis of defending human dignity.
Speaking to participants in the online event, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin quoted what he said was a recently discovered correspondence between the American Jewish Committee of New York and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri from 1915-1916 in the Vatican’s archives.
After receiving a letter in December 1915 from the committee asking for the Vatican to intervene on behalf of “the ardor, cruelties and hardship visited upon the Jews in the belligerent countries since the outbreak of the First World War,” Gasparri penned a response offering the Catholic Church’s support.
In his letter, dated Feb. 9, 1916, according to Parolin, Gasparri wrote that “The Supreme Pontiff […], head of the Catholic Church, which – faithful to its divine doctrine and to its most glorious traditions – considers all men as brethren and teaches to love one another, he will not cease to inculcate the observance among individuals, as among nations, of the principles of natural right, and to reprove any violation of them.”
“This right,” the letter goes on, “should be observed and respected in relation to the children of Israel as it should be as for all men, for it would not conform to justice and to religion itself to derogate them solely because of a difference of religious faith.”
In a response published in the weekly Jewish Magazine, The American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger, the committee praised Gasparri’s words, saying his letter was “virtually an encyclical” and that “Among all the papal bulls ever issued with regard to Jews throughout the history of the Vatican, there is no statement that equals this direct, unmistakable plea for equality for the Jews, and against prejudice upon religious grounds.”
“It is gratifying,” they said, “that so powerful a voice, so influential a force, particularly in the regions where the Jewish tragedy is now being enacted, has been raised, calling for equality and for the law of love. It is bound to have a far-reaching, beneficent effect.”
These documents, Parolin said, are “but a small drop into an ocean of murky waters, showing how there is no basis for discriminating against one because of his faith.”
Titled “Never Again: Confronting the Global Rise of Anti-Semitism,” the Nov. 19 panel was organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and featured prominent voices on Jewish matters, including Vatican and U.S. officials., including U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, Elan Carr.
It was held to shed light on increasing anti-Semitic incidents throughout the United States and Europe, including a 2019 shooting in Jersey City at a kosher grocery store and an Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In opening remarks, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich noted that while the memory of the Holocaust is still fresh nearly 80 years on, throughout the world Jews are still “vilified, demonized and physically attacked.”
Calling the phenomenon “unconscionable,” she highlighted efforts being made by the U.S. government to combat antisemitism and insisted that faith communities and faith-based organizations have a key role to play in fight against discrimination.
Similarly, Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the American Jewish Committee Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See, noted that some six million Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust, which she argued made the Second World War different than other conflicts because “they were selected based on their religion and dragged out of their homes.”
“Now, eight decades later, upmost extremes of violence and hatred” are still visible, despite public apologies and condemnations from the world’s top leaders, she said.
Palmieri-Billig argued that the reason Jews are targeted is, in part, because people on both “the far right” and “far left” are looking for a “scapegoat” for economic and other crises.
Islam is also another main aggressor, she said, but insisted that Christianity’s initial condemnation of the Jews led to their “demonization” in Europe. However, she praised efforts made by Catholic figures such as Pope John Paul II to support the Jews.
The world now, she said, is “similar to the situation before World War II, but we are very different today. We have the support and consciousness of rulers of democratic countries and the Catholic Church. We are extremely grateful for this cooperation.”
“The positive way to fight antisemitism is interreligious dialogue and interreligious cooperation and solidarity,” she said.
Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director of International Academic Programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke of the importance of remembering the horrors of the past, saying the atrocities of the Holocaust must be “rigorously, vigorously documented.”
She stressed the importance of teaching about the Holocaust, saying facts must be gathered, preserved and passed on so that “the gap between the ‘them’ and the ‘us’” can be closed.
“If we learn the facts and ask, what does this have to do with me, change becomes possible,” she said adding, “we can work toward a common goal and for human dignity.”
Rabbi David Meyer, a lecturer at the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies Pontifical Gregorian University, also addressed participants, making the case for hope.
Quoting a verse from the Torah, he said that “The thoughts of the heart of man are evil continually,” and that antisemitic attacks are “a mirror of the darkest part of the human heart.”
However, he argued that the fight against antisemitism itself is cause for hope, and praised efforts from popes since St. John XXIII for their efforts to support and protect Jews.
“Today we should carry lessons from the past,” he said. “If we are armed with passion, with a vision higher than hope, and armed with practical audacity, than the tolls of the past can continue to guide us through this crisis.”
Parolin in his closing speech said “any form of antisemitism is a rejection of one’s own Christian origins and thus a complete contradiction. Jews are our brothers and sisters, and we are proud to call them as such.”
He echoed the call of Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti to build universal brotherhood, at the social, political and institutional level, and spoke of the importance of silent remembrance of those whose lives were lost.
Recalling Pope Francis sitting in silence at Auschwitz in 2016, “Let us too remember the past and have compassion on those who suffered and in this way till the soil of fraternity,” he said.
To fight antisemitism, it is necessary not only to remember and study the past, but “living and faithful common memory” is also needed, as well as interreligious dialogue, he said, calling the latter an “indispensable tool to combat antisemitism.”
“Different religions based on their respect for each human person as a creature called to be a child of God, contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society,” he said, adding that dialogue among different religions “does not take place simply for the sake of diplomacy, consideration or tolerance.”
“It is my hope,” he said, “that the more Christians and Jews grow in fraternity, social friendships and dialogue, the less antisemitism will be possible because deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy.”