Symposium focuses on genocide phenomenon
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - The long history of Christian "anti-Judaism" helped the Nazis gain wide acceptance for the pagan-rooted "anti-Semitism" that created the Holocaust. But there is a sharp distinction between the two, the nation's leading Catholic expert on Catholic-Jewish relations said here on June 14, the first day of a three-day symposium focusing on the Holocaust.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Franciscan Brother Steven McMichael, left, speaks with Eugene Fisher during a three-day seminar on the Holocaust, held at Rockhurst College. The two were among the experts who lectured.
Eugene Fisher, national director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoed themes raised in the 1998 Vatican document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, in which the Church admitted that centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes within the Church contributed to a lack of spiritual resolve and resistance among Christians to the Nazi's systematic genocide of some 6 million European Jews during World War II.
But the document also stated that the Holocaust "was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside Christianity and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also."
Fisher was among 10 scholars who spoke at the June 14 to 16 seminar, "The Phenomenon of Genocide: Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust" which was designed to assist Catholic schools in teaching the history and the lessons of the Holocaust.
The seminar, conducted at Rockhurst College, is the first of three in an annual series entitled, "The Atrocity of Prejudice: Have We Learned Anything?" It is sponsored by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Sisters of Sion USA/Canada, the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison, Kan., the Sisters of St. Francis of Savannah, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Dubuque, Iowa, and Rockhurst College.
Fisher told his Kansas City audience that Christian "anti-Judaism" began to surface in the second century at the same time that Gentile Christians began to outnumber Jewish Christians and began misinterpreting the purpose of the New Testament.
"The New Testament was a book written by Jews for Jews about what Judaism is," Fisher said.
"They didn't think they were inventing anything new. They were simply pious Jews reacting to this experience.
"This group of Jews had to figure out a way of coping with the fact that Jesus died and rose from the dead, and if you are Jewish, you do that by going back to your sources," he said.
The New Testament, Fisher said, is filled with language of the "fulfillment" of the Hebrew Scripture.
"Jesus himself never once argues against the (Jewish) law," he said. "He interprets the law.
Matthew argues that he interprets the law better than the Pharisees. In fact, if we all observed the Gospel of Matthew, we would all be very highly observant Jews."
But in not placing the New Testament in full context of its authors or intended audience, early Gentile Christian scholars began to misinterpret the New Testament and subsequent historical events such as the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the scattering of the Jewish people as signs that God was punishing the Jews for the death of Jesus.
"That's not anywhere in Scripture," Fisher said, noting that the so-called "curse from one generation to the next" was not laid to rest until the 1965 Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate.
But the notion of Jews as a divinely cursed people were "the beginnings of the teachings of contempt," Fisher said, which continued to spread and take new forms. By the Middle Ages, it grew into the "blood libel" originating in Britain in which Jews were accused of murdering Christian children in order to use their blood in matzos for the Passover meal. That was followed by the accusation that Jews caused the Black Death plague by poisoning water wells.
"This is more than anti-Judaism. This demonizes and marginalizes Jews," Fisher said.
Following the Englightment in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of "racial anti-Semitism" - the notion of the Jewish people as a separate and inferior race - was born, Fisher said.
"The key is racial," Fisher said, noting that Christian anti-Judaism "tended to triumphalism" rather than racial superiority. "Every year, we prayed for the conversion of the Jews," he said.
The Nazis, he said, blended the idea of Jews as an inferior race with their own self-identification, rooted in pagan Teutonic mythology, of themselves as a "master race."
"They saw Jews as a virus that had to be stamped out," Fisher said. "This was about changing the course of human history, of getting rid of the 'pollution' of Judaism."
But Fisher noted that it wasn't just the Nazis who participated in the Holocaust.
"The people who ran the death camps were highly educated in what was considered to be the best universities in the world," he said.
"The whole of society was involved. It was not just a killing spree. It permeated all levels of society. It was terrifyingly easy for the Nazis to find hundreds of thousands of people" to carry out the Holocaust, he said.
Fisher said that the centuries of Christian anti-Judaism lessened Christian resistance to the Nazis in Germany, but he said it would be an over-simplification to lay blame for the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. Cultural factors unique to Germany were also at work.
He noted that more than 75 percent of the Jews living in Italy during the war survived.
"The Catholic culture of Italy is profoundly affected by Church teaching," he said. "Why didn't Italian Catholics buy into it (the Holocaust) at all? The Italiams saw their Jewish fellow citizens as fellow citizens. Their cultural construct was different."
But even the notion that Catholics in Germany should have resisted the Nazis opens a new series of moral issues.
"Certainly, not a lot of people did everything they could," he said.
But Fisher asked his audience to imagine that they were living in Germany during the Holocaust.
"What do you do when a Jewish family comes to your door for help? You know that if you let them in and you get caught, they (Nazis) will shoot not only you, but your children. That's the situation many Catholics found themselves in."