Jews and Christians, now celebrating seasonal religious festivals, exchanged gifts recently: the priceless treasures of understanding and dialogue.
In Rome Pope John Paul II, meeting this month in a two-day conference with officials of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, endorsed a statement calling for repentance for past Catholic teaching that sanctioned antisemitism. That's about 20 centuries worth of hate faced up to, with a death toll of church-inspired and often church-blessed violence that history has no books large enough to count. What Adolf Hitler said in 1936 -- "By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord's work" -- has been a credo to which the church has routinely said Amen but is now condemning and trying to reverse.
The meeting in Rome between John Paul II and Jewish leaders ended with Rabbi Seymour D. Reich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, saying: "This is the beginning of a new chapter for us."
If only it were. By itself, a Vatican pronouncement can't end all the world's antisemitism. In Arab nations, it flourishes as a social disease immune to any cure from the pope. It will be achievement enough if Catholicism, a religion still Western-based, can begin eliminating its own institutional biases against Jews, biases that have been reappearing lately in Eastern Europe.
The problem of reversing patterns of thought was defined by St. Augustine in the fifth century: "I can tell my hand what to do, and it obeys. Why can't I do the same with my mind?" On current antisemitism, the answer is that the mind of the church isn't being sufficiently trained in such manual dexterities as considering the political sensibilities of Jews. The major handicap is the Vatican's refusal to recognize the State of Israel.
Without full diplomatic relations between Rome and Tel Aviv, ties to old biases remain. Not to have diplomatic relations isn't antisemitic, but the appearances of a double standard are there. The Vatican has relations with governments whose policies are anything but models of the Sermon on the Mount. Israel's denial of a Palestinian homeland, the unresolved status of Jerusalem and questions about disputed borders are advanced by church leaders as justifications for no diplomatic relations.
This narrowness is an example of church politics getting in the way of churchly vision. Israel has been recognized by the world community since 1948, when it was admitted to the United Nations. For a church that believes in miracles, recognition of Israel should be automatic: Israel's people brought off the miraculous by creating a fertile homeland out of a desert.
Why is the church high-minded and demanding of perfection when Israel is involved, while having diplomatic relations with a British government that is openly violating Catholics' human rights in Northern Ireland? If anyone has a right to be choosy in exchanging ambassadors, it is the Israelis. It is their country to which persecuted Jews have been seeking refuge from hatemongers in allegedly Christian countries.
One of the Jewish leaders who met with the pope is Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, the much-honored spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Great Neck, N.Y. Experienced in Vatican relations, he had four previous exchanges with John Paul II. Waxman praises the pope for his recent condemnation of antisemitism and believes he deserves large credit for "moving the issue forward."
Still, the rabbi believes, church officials are "making a fundamental mistake" by not establishing diplomatic relations, if only because "they will have no input in shaping Israeli policy on matters with which they are concerned."
Catholic theology teaches that the God of Abraham is the God of Jesus. It needs to progress to sound Catholic sociology, one that sees Israel fraternally, not adversarially. The church has a model in Pope John XXIII. In October of 1960, early in his pontificate, the warmhearted and saintly Italian met with 130 U.S. Jews and recalled the biblical story of Joseph recognizing his brothers.
"I am your brother," Pope John said. "Certainly there is a difference between those who admit only the Old Testament as their guide and those who add the New Testament as the supreme law and guide. We are all sons of the same father. We come from the Father and must return to the Father."
If Catholics were Christians like Pope John, the church would be rid of antisemitism.