How much has the Christian world really changed in its attitude to the Jews and Israel?
That was the title of a riveting talk given by Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and its Heilbrunn Institute for International Interreligious Understanding.
What an incredible evening it turned out to be. As we streamed into the Yad Lebanim Hall we heard the strains of beautiful piano music and for one moment we thought we had arrived on the wrong night. We were coming to hear a lecture, not a concert! Imagine our surprise when on entering the hall, we saw our guest speaker seated at the piano entertaining the early arrivals with familiar Israeli tunes as well as classical compositions.
Rabbi Rosen commenced his address by saying that his heavy work schedule does not normally allow him to accept speaking engagements. However, he could not refuse ESRA as the invitation had come from Richard Stein (ESRA's Fundraising Chair) whom he holds in high esteem as well as there being a family connection.
Rabbi Rosen held his audience spellbound with his mass of information and dynamic manner of presentation. He chose to speak on the Catholic segment of Christianity, of which he is considered an expert. He is, after all, the recipient of a Papal Knighthood – an award presented to him in 2005 for his contribution to Jewish-Catholic reconciliation.
His knowledge of the various Popes through the ages is phenomenal. It was fascinating to learn that on January 6, 1904 Theodor Herzl was granted an audience with Pope Pius X in the Vatican. Herzl was hoping to persuade the Pope to support the Zionist endeavor to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. His request was met with a stark refusal. In Herzl's own recording of the audience he quotes the Pope as saying: "We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem – but we will never sanction it. The soil of Jerusalem, if it was not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As the head of the Church, I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people."
Pius XII - some call him "Hitler's Pope" - was also referred to but there is considerable controversy as to whether he could have spoken out more strongly against the Nazis. Critics accuse him of remaining silent over the Holocaust, an accusation that has been intensified by the Vatican's refusal to give scholars access to the archives of his Papacy. However, there is also evidence that Pius was responsible for the exodus of some 200,000 Jews from Germany in the 1930s.
On October 28, 1965, under Pope Paul VI, the Catholic Church published the "Nostra Aetate" which included the statement that Catholicism "Decries the hatred, persecution and display of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time by anyone". This was a milestone breakthrough in the relationship between the Church and the Jews.
Pope Francis, today's leader of the Catholic faith, wishes to build strong, warm relations with the Jewish community. He is outspoken against all forms of anti-Semitism and has praised the current state of Jewish-Catholic relations and expressed regret for past and continuing anti-Jewish actions. In November, he commemorated Kristalnacht (the night of 9/10 November, 1938 when most of the synagogues in Germany were set alight) at a Mass in front of thousands in St. Peter's Square.
Rabbi Rosen believes that relations between Jews and the Catholic Church are today better than ever before and remains optimistic that this will continue.
It was a memorable ESRA evening chaired with dignity and warmth by Richard Stein.