Rabbis drew their swords, or rather their pens, by writing an open letter on March 10 accusing the Italian bishops’ conference of sanctioning a symposium using anti-Judaism rhetoric. In ultra-Catholic Italy, that alone would have been enough to raise eyebrows.
The main target of their letter, however, was not the bishops but Pope Francis himself, who, according to the former rabbi of Milan, carelessly employs anti-Semitic language in his daily Masses, angering the Jewish community.
The complaints illustrate the complex relationship that’s always existed between the Catholic Church in Rome and the city’s small but important Jewish community.
An intricate web of small alleys, one-way streets and ancient ruins has been the home of the Jewish ghetto in Rome for centuries. The welcoming smell of kosher food and fresh pastry emanating from the neighborhood is offset by the armed police patrolling the main access points.
The Great Synagogue of Rome looms over the ghetto. Its large aluminum dome looks like a shining helmet giving the impression that the synagogue, like a soldier, is ready to protect its people.
Across the Tiber river, St. Peter’s Basilica can be seen, a sight that was once menacing and hostile to the Jewish community but now generally promises friendship.
So it came as a surprise when the Italian Biblical Association, whose statutes are approved by the Italian episcopal conference, decided to plan a meeting titled “Israel, People of a jealous God. Consistencies and Ambiguities of an Elitist religion.”
The Jewish community responded by pulling out the big guns. Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, emeritus president of Italy’s Rabbinical Assembly and former chief rabbi of Milan, published a fiery open letter in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.
“This program is substantially a defeat for the presuppositions and contents of Jewish-Christian dialogue, which for some time now have been reduced, sadly, to fluff and hot air,” Laras wrote.
Laras accused the conference of ‘Marcionism’, referring to the Greek theologian Marcion who juxtaposed the loving God of the New Testament to the wrathful and vengeful God of the Old Testament.
The rabbi also criticized the Biblical association for undermining the Jewish Biblical roots of Christianity while embracing Islam. “I am, and this is a euphemism, very indignant and embittered!” Laras wrote.
But Laras’s strongest criticism goes to Pope Francis. He recognized that official documents in the Church, such as Nostra Aetate, show that steps have been made to secure relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community, but, he adds, it is “a shame that they should be contradicted on a daily basis by the homilies of the pontiff, who employs precisely the old, inveterate structure and its expressions.”
Wait a minute. Pope Francis? The champion of interfaith dialogue, who has called the Torah “a manifestation of God’s love for man,” who launched the Vatican’s first joint exhibit with the Jewish museum, and who visited the Rome Synagogue in January 2016?
Apparently, yes. Laras charges that Pope Francis “carelessly and mistakenly” referenced the eye-for-an-eye law, which “for centuries has been the warhorse of anti-Judaism.”
The pope has gotten in trouble with the Jewish community before, for example when he spoke of Pharisees and criticized those who in their rigorous abiding to the law “sit in the chair of Moses and judge.”
None of these terms can be clearly marked as derogatory, and need an appropriate contextualization. Yet, in times where anti-Semitic sentiments are on the rise and populist political parties, which so easily slip into xenophobic rhetoric, multiply in Europe, it is no surprise that the Jewish community resents the pope’s choice of words.
Riccardo Di Segni, head Rabbi of the Roman Jewish Community, has also spoken in reference to the pope’s comments after a meeting in 2015. He “did not appreciate at all” the pope’s homilies at Domus Santa Marta, Di Segni said, in which Pharisees were portrayed as “symbols of hypocrisy.”
But the head rabbi added that though he is critical of the Abi conference, he admires Francis and “can truly say that this is a pope who listens.”
In an interview with Crux, Di Segni expressed his surprise at the theological ideology that underlies the Biblical association conference.
“We must understand if what happened at Abi is accidental, only showing that there are pockets of resistance or unresolved issues, or if it is the beginning of a change,” he said.
The labyrinth that is the Jewish ghetto is reflected within its majestic synagogue, with hallways, stairways and elevators leading everywhere. Conversations regarding the necessary number of police cars for security (“two, three?”) echo through the corridors only occasionally interrupted by the word “Shalom.”
“In Rome, or anywhere in Europe, you can recognize if there is a synagogue or a Hebrew school by whether the police are there. You only need to look at how protected the Jewish Ghetto is!” Di Segni said.
In 2014, there was a 40 percent rise in violence against Jews worldwide, according to a report by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. In 2015, the attacks dropped by 46 percent.
Following recent terrorism acts, especially the January attacks in Paris, which targeted the Jewish community, states deployed a massive amount of security to prevent further tragedies.
According to the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, four percent of the Jewish population in Belgium and France packed their bags for Israel between 2014 and 2015.
The prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, called Jews living in France to move to Israel where they could be protected, forcing the French president, François Hollande, faced with an Exodus to remind the country that “Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France.”
Since 2015, a period of uncertainty for European Jews, things have calmed down a bit. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that views toward Jews have never been more positive. Interestingly, France leads the way with 92 percent of respondents viewing Jews favorably, followed by the English (86 percent), Germans (80 percent), Spaniards (75 percent) and Italians (71 percent).
Positive sentiments have also crossed the Atlantic to the United States, where Jews have been having a tough go of things in recent months. In January, Jewish community centers received 48 bomb threats and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Yet a Pew Research Center poll found that 67 percent of Americans have “warm” feelings toward Jews, the highest percentage compared to other religions.
Anti-semitism is like “an underwater river, always flowing, that sometimes emerges in a violent or more placated way. One needs to look for the reasons behind why it emerges,” Di Segni said.
He seemed fairly sanguine about reports of rising anti-Semitism. Asked about a 2015 piece in the U.S.-based Atlantic asking if it’s time for Jews to leave Europe, for instance, he responded, “My opinion is that Americans should mind their own business!
“They should be more concerned with what is happening over there with the profanation of cemeteries and anti-Semitism there,” Di Segni said.
In terms of the situation today with regard to anti-Semitism in Europe, Di Segni said “There are many phenomena that are monitored, but I don’t know if it is growing.
“I know that it is always there,” he said. “We must be vigilant to make sure that it does not surpass a certain tolerability line.”
Which brings us back to the Biblical association. To what degree can the embarrassing choice of words and theme for the conference be attributed to a resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Vatican?
Vatican-Jewish relations were difficult until the Second Vatican Council, but Di Segni clearly acknowledged that the changes since then have been profound.
“We are living in a time following the deep transformation of the Church at the council,” he said. “This transformation changed the relationship with Jews completely. It started out timidly, but, with time, communication and dialogue structures were put in place … Until 1960 the Catholic Church did not show a lot of sympathy toward the Jewish community, now things have changed and the relationship is one of friendship.”
He also said each of the last three popes has put a distinctive stamp on the relationship.
“John Paul II did extraordinary gestures because he was the ‘media man,’ [and] Benedict intervened in his own way regarding theology,” Di Segni said. “This pope shows empathy and sympathy.”
No doubt, Pope Francis’s pastoral and off-the-cuff approach to his pontificate is one of his signature strengths, but it can also be his weakness. In an essay in the book “Pope, One of Us,” Di Segni writes of “the widespread awe inspired by the new style and the unexpected words.” But the Roman rabbi also admitted that “problems arose when he (the pope) touched on sensitive issues for the Jewish public.”
For Di Segni, the biggest surprise following the Biblical association conference backlash was the emotional response on behalf of the conference organizers.
“Their answer was, ‘But we love you!’” Di Segni said. “They did not realize the gravity of what had happened.”
On the path to an open and forward-looking dialogue between the Catholic Church and Jews, words matter. The Biblical association has definitely learned the lesson, having tweaked the title of its Conference to “People of a ‘Jealous God’: Consistencies and Ambivalences of the Religion of Ancient Israel.”
The likelihood that this small change will be enough to better Vatican-Jewish relations remains uncertain – and, frankly, unlikely – but Pope Francis’s attempts to demonstrate openness and collaboration to the Jewish community suggests that, occasional controversies aside, this might actually be “a pope who listens.”
He may have another chance to do some listening soon, given news that Steven Spielberg is casting a movie tentatively called “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” based on the true story of an Italian child removed from his Jewish home in Rome and raised in the household of Pope Pius IX, who refused to return the child even after the affair became a cause célèbre in the 1850s and 1860s.
For his part, Di Segni seems skeptical the film will do much to change perceptions of the case.
“We are happy that there will be a film by Spielberg on this issue,” he said. “We will need to see if he will be good enough to convince people that this was an act of violence against our community, of intolerable violence, and if people will understand it … Because,” he added, “I doubt they will.”