Q. What is the mission and role of the IJCIC?
A. We were founded 40 years ago, after the Second Vatican Council, when the importance for increased dialogue between the Vatican and the Jewish community grew. Change was in the air along with the widespread recognition that past actions and attitudes in the Church contributed to the tragic past, which so many Jews had endured in countries with a Catholic majority. Today, there is strong determination to maintain the dialogue and the increasingly positive relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. Presently, 11 large Jewish organizations comprise IJCIC. Most have international reach, including the World Jewish Congress, which I represent; Bnai Brith International; all the rabbinic organizations, whose member rabbis live all over the world including Israel. We represent the Jewish community in global dialogue as well as with other churches and with the Christian Orthodox community. We have also begun engaging with other international groups such as the Muslim community. That has been a slower development and we are still working on it.
Q. Can you describe your activities?
A. So far, during my tenure, we have had an important meeting with the Vatican called the International Liaison Committee, which takes place every two years. We convened in Madrid, where we talked about issues concerning religious freedom that affect both communities and radical extremism and the proliferation of this alarming phenomenon in the world. We talked about the challenges that modernity presents to religion and about religious and ethical problems in the religious community. The new political developments and realities in the world such as the Arab Spring and its impact on the Catholic community, what changes in the Mideast mean for the Jewish community.
Q. Where was the emphasis, on the past or present?
A. Both, in a unique way. We studied the current persecution of Christians in the world, yet we also traveled to Toledo where the Jewish community had a rich history but no longer exists. We wanted to understand why that was so. We talked about Maimonides and the Jewish community’s zenith during Spain’s Golden Age. Our partner in organizing this meeting was the Bishops Conference in Spain. In the course of 40 years, having this particular discussion every two years produces results even as it has demanded much patience. We have made friends, cultivated relationships and built trust.
Q. Pope Francis will soon be visiting Israel. What will make this trip special?
A. The pope’s geographical origin. We must be realistic. The influence of the Catholic Church is not what it was in the past in Europe as people on that continent become more secular. We are witnessing the rise of Islam in Europe, which is worrisome, making it all the more imperative for IJCIC to find inroads in that community, although that is easier said than done. On the other hand, the influence of the Church in Latin America and Africa is still great and growing. Don’t forget that, today, Iran is trying to make inroads into Latin America and, to a degree, succeeding. They have built more mosques than ever before and are also radicalizing a segment of the [local] populace.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. The Palestinian population in Chile, which has traditionally gotten along very well with the Jewish community there, is being radicalized. We recently saw the national Chilean soccer team enter the field wearing T-shirts showing Palestine that contained all of Israel—that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The Jewish community in Latin America found it exceedingly important that there is now a pope with whom they are close. His visit to Israel is a part of this unfolding challenge.
Q. There are about a billion Roman Catholics and a billion Muslims in the world. How does that impact Israel?
A. Israel needs every friend it can get. It is vital for Israel to find common ground with the Christian community around the world, which includes the mighty Roman Catholic Church. Let’s be honest: Vatican II’s huge turnaround is well known in the United States and also in key places in Europe. In Latin America and certainly in Africa, it most certainly is not well known. We must continuously ask the Church, ‘How are people in the pews being educated to understand about the Second Vatican Council, how are the student priests in your seminaries being educated to this policy?’ It is very important to us that the old canards and myths still perpetrated in some areas of the Catholic world be counteracted by effective education.
Q. What was Vatican II’s most compelling outcome?
A. The Church officially announced that the Jewish people were not guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Once they know you are not guilty of killing their deity they might not accuse you of blood libels. Yet, we still are fighting blood libels. The Church…should stop teaching contempt. Several recent popes have proclaimed that anti-Semitism is a sin. It should not be taught in the Church.
Q. Very disturbing laws are popping up all over Europe that adversely affect the practice of Jewish traditional life. What can the Church do?
A. We work hard to ensure the Catholic Church condemns legislative measures to stop brit mila, to encourage them to issue statements against preventing kosher slaughter. We have helped generate a positive statement from the Polish Bishops Conference that sided with us on these issues. We have found sympathy, for example, and a willing ear in Cardinal Koch, who is the Vatican’s appointee in charge of its relationship with the Jews. We ask the same from the World Council of Churches. [However] statements sympathetic to our causes regarding religious freedoms are more readily obtainable from the Protestants than statements regarding Israel. Some of what they say about Israel is still problematic; changing that is one of our uppermost agenda items. We convened with the Protestant Church last year as well.
Q. The Catholic Church has long been viewed as ‘cool’ toward the State of Israel. Is this true?
A. Many Israelis need to be brought up-to-date on the state of our relationship with the Vatican. All Jews should be more educated on [the progress]—but particularly the Israeli Jewish community. Certainly attacks on churches, the defacement or shouting of insults or similar actions on the part of a small number of Israelis toward Christians in Israel is deplorable and hurts our cause. I hope the visit of this pope to Israel will contribute to a more positive appreciation by Israelis as to where this relationship is heading. I myself have witnessed Catholic groups coming to the Western Wall where they reflexively cross themselves. I see Jews standing nearby appalled. This is not an insult, this is what King Solomon talked about in his prayer that ‘also the non-Jew’ will come to the Holy Temple, because this is the fulfillment of what we see later in the Tanakh on the part of the Prophet Zechariah: ‘All the peoples of the world will really understand the majesty of [God] and they will come and express that in their own way in the Land of Israel.’ This is something beautiful to witness.
Q. What is the next Catholic-Jewish electoral challenge?
A. The American Jewish community’s relationship with Hispanic Americans, the fastest growing demographic in the United States, is one focus. It is important to strengthen our relationship with this group because we are interested in the American electorate [and] supporting candidates who back a strong Israel. Support for Israel is good for America. We are already in serious dialogue with the Latino community, trying to find common concerns. Almost all Hispanic Americans are Catholics, some are Evangelical Protestants, and their religious beliefs as they pertain to Israel should be defined and encouraged.