A Rabbi’s Trip to the Vatican

by Rabbi Gideon Shloush

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Shloush recently attended a conference on anti-Semitism at the Vatican in Rome.

I dreaded returning to Rome. I remember being there a decade ago and I recall the unsettling feeling. After all, this is the place of our Galut (exile). Rome is the symbol of the crushing of Jerusalem and our people’s enslavement.

Nevertheless I was there to participate in a major international conference focused on anti-Semitism. How ironic. The Romans ransacked Israel, the Catholics were responsible for endless persecutions of our people, and here we were in Rome talking about anti-Semitism.

We were attending the International Conference on the Responsibility of States, Institutions and Individuals in the Fight against anti-Semitism organized by the world’s largest regional security organization – the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). There are 57 member countries in the OSCE and remarkably, foreign ministers from nearly every one of these countries were in attendance.

Last month the Italian government assumed the leadership of the OSCE and their government felt strongly that this year’s conference should address the alarming issue of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Fittingly, this conference took place in conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The day began with a visit to the Vatican. I prepared extensively for my visit. I have always been cognizant of the halacha of not entering into a church and I was not going to change that now. There I sat in Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace next to Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome and Daniel Mariaschian, the CEO of Bnai Brith. Of all places, it was in the Vatican where I met the Chief Rabbi!

Mariaschian commented to me how important it is – in this moment – to reflect on the words of Dayeinu (it would have been enough) as we visit with the Pope in the Vatican. He said: “Look how far we’ve come. Consider how much anxiety and persecution our people have endured due to edicts that emanated from these very walls. And here we are today, sitting in a meeting with the Pope. We can comfortably wear kippot on our heads. We are welcomed – as dignitaries – by a sitting Pope who discusses the Shoah and responsibility. For this reason alone, we should say Dayeinu. Yes, there is more to be done. But be mindful of how far we’ve come with this institution.”

In his remarks Pope Francis said, “The enemy against which we fight is not only hatred in all of its forms, but even more fundamentally, indifference.” He spoke about “responsibility” and he said, “We are responsible when we are able to respond.” He went on to quote text from the Nostra Aetate (In Our Day) saying that, “The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, and displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Upon conclusion of his words the Pope greeted each one of us personally.

The next morning the foreign ministers each gave three-minute statements condemning discrimination, intolerance and anti-Semitism. Countries such as Sweden, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Belarus, the Netherlands and many others each declared that “there is no justification for anti-Semitism.” Even the ambassador from the Vatican said “anti-Semitism is completely contrary to Catholic principles.”

Upon conclusion of nearly two hours of these prepared statements, Holocaust survivor and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was handed the microphone. He gave a stinging response that stilled the entire room. Rabbi Lau said:

Two years ago the Holy See came to Yad Vashem and made a comment that I’ll never forget. Quoting G-d in the story of Cain and Abel he asked Ayeka (Where are you)? Pope Francis said that this is the question that has to bother us always.

Where were you during the War? Kristllnacht? Baba Yaar? Look at the newspapers in each of those countries on the day after atrocities took place. Barely a comment let alone a condemnation! Where were you? Why did you keep silent? Yet time and time again we are told that the church is committed to our ‘older brother,’ the Jewish People. The United States sent back the ocean liner the Saint Louis. Ayeka? Where were you?

When WWII broke out I was just two years old. At the end of the war I was 7 1/2 years old. For those six years, the only language I knew was Polish. And all that time, there was one word which constantly rang in my ears. In the camps, in the ghetto, in the trains, in the snow, all I could think about was this one word. Lachergo (why)? Why is this happening to me? What did I do? What did my people do wrong? Did we threaten them? Did we have pistols?

I listen to all your speeches, representing your respective countries. You’ve each delivered passionate speeches about the dangers of anti-Semitism. But I lived through it!!! Tell me, what did we do wrong? What did I do wrong? A 7 1/2 year old boy?

Some told me ‘you are foreigners here. If you had a land of your own, you’d be fine and we’d leave you alone. Your contribution to mankind is amazing, but we oppose you because you are a “People without a Land.”‘

Today we have a land. Exactly seventy years ago the United Nations decided to finally give us a land. Do you love us now? We are intelligent people. We have much to offer the world. I hear all your speeches and this makes no sense. Europe is burning. Look what’s going on in your countries. Jews fear for their safety. European Jewry has decreased by more than 20% in the last ten years. Anti-Semitism is illogical. It’s irrational. It’s madness.

You didn’t like the Jews in Poland because they had beards and black coats. Some told me, ‘if you’d be like us and look like us, we’d appreciate you.’ Yet, look at Germany. We didn’t have beards. We spoke a beautiful German. Many of us were actually completely assimilated. Did you embrace us there? I ask you. Please. Decide. What do you want from us? Lachergo? Why? What did we do to you? Ask the people in your countries. Share the question with the Pope. Ayeka? Where are you? We Jews love everyone. We appreciate everyone. Please just let us live. See the fruits that we can contribute to society.

Rabbi Lau’s words were so intense and the moment was so powerful that it took several minutes for the complexion in everyone’s faces to be restored.
And while it was wonderful to hear countries like Austria, Hungary, France and Jordan articulate their opposition to any form of anti-Semitism in their countries, one couldn’t help but feel shaken by Rabbi Lau’s riveting words.

In reflecting on this visit some will say, “Why bother? Of what use are these conferences?” Personally, I feel that, thank G-d, at least the Europeans are having these conversations. The issue is being addressed.

Furthermore, when European anti-Semitism is being discussed, it is critical for the American Jewish community to be at the table. We need to stand with our brothers. And we need to be ready. America could very well be next.

There is no question that anti-Semitism is completely irrational. And the Torah tells us this out-right. Hen Am Levadad Yishkon (You are a nation that dwells alone). Nevertheless, Jacob prepared for his meeting with his brother Esau in three ways: with gifts, prayers to G-d and readiness for battle. Thus, clearly gifts and words of friendship should not be ignored. In Yaakov’s case, gifts and prayer were enough for that particular moment.

Throughout Jewish history we have seen rabbinic leadership meeting with authorities to build healthy relationships on behalf of the Jewish community. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would visit Rome. Abarbanel was close to the King of Spain. Maimonides was a physician to the Sultan in Egypt. Jewish leaders throughout history have been advocating for the Jewish People.

We look back at the painful history of hatred and we pray that through commitment and collaboration that a new chapter of inclusion and understanding will be written.

Rabbi Gideon Shloush is the President of the New York Board of Rabbis. He serves as the rabbi of Congregation Adereth El in Midtown Manhattan. He is an adjunct professor at Stern College for Women and trains rabbinical students at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).


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