Interfaith Relations and the Holocaust

Topic 9


How do you think the Holocaust can have an impact on interfaith relations today?

One of the effects of the Holocaust has been to bring faiths much closer together. It’s been an extraordinary and transformative experience. Probably the most important moment happened in 1960, when a very fine Pope, Pope John XXIII met the French Jewish historian Jules Isaac, who had written the history of what he called de adversus judaeos literature, the antisemitic literature of the early church, of the church fathers. And the Pope, having read Jules Isaac’s work, took it profoundly to heart and met him in 1960 and almost certainly it was that that set in motion a what became known as Vatican II in 1965 and the declaration Nostra Aetate. Neither man actually lived to see that happen. John XIII died in 1963, and it was Paul VI who was actually Pope at the time, but that transformed the relations between Jews and the Catholic Church; having for 17 centuries or so, met as deeply estranged faiths, today they meet as friends.

And that of course has had a spillover effect among other faiths. In 2008, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or close to it, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and I took a group of representatives of all the major faiths in Britain, not just Christian but Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahá’í to Auschwitz. I can’t remember a bonding experience like it. It was profoundly moving. Not only profoundly moving while we were there, but it was profoundly moving when we sat together in Krakow airport and talked through our feelings. So we became very, very bonded together. We’d been friends before, but this really transformed it and gave it greater depth. And I think that has to happen. It really has to happen. The truth is that we need to stand together because, as I’ve often said, Jews cannot fight antisemitism alone. The victim cannot cure the crime. The hated cannot cure the hate. We need other people to be there fighting that battle alongside us.

And the corollary is that we have to be there for other faiths when they face their difficulties, just as Christians have been facing in the Middle East and in parts of Africa today, and that’s a battle I tried to fight as hard as I could. We need to be there for one another. The Holocaust should be able to unite the world faiths around three fundamental principles. Firstly, the dignity and sanctity of every human life as the image of God. Secondly, the covenant of human solidarity, which we call the covenant with Noah in Genesis, chapter nine, although it doesn’t matter what theological basis you give. The truth is we are all responsible for one another. The covenant of human solidarity. And then, thirdly, the most difficult but poignant remark of Martin Luther King, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. When our friends are in trouble, we must not be silent.

And therefore I think that in, human terms, possibly the worst crime of man against man in recorded history might just lead us to a meeting of minds and faiths and peoples that will ensure that such things never happen again.

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Discussion Question

  1. Can learning about the Holocaust lead to a greater understanding of more recent acts and events of intolerance?
  2. How should society respond to the challenge of the three principles outlined by Rabbi Sacks (acknowledging the value of every single life, the covenant of solidarity, and speaking up for others)?
  3. What can we do to create a society where such things as the Holocaust do not happen again?

The event commonly known as ‘Kristallnacht’ might be more accurately termed the November Pogrom. On the nights of 9th and 10th November 1938, Germans were encouraged to go out into the streets and vandalise Jewish property, burn down synagogues and ransack Jewish schools, hospitals and homes. Over the course of the first evening, thousands of Jewish men were arrested and hundreds were killed. The propaganda Ministry labelled this event “a people’s uprising against the Jews”, who collectively were held responsible for the assassination of a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath in Paris, France by a disillusioned Polish Jew, Herschel Grynszpan who had failed in an attempt to gain permission for his parents to join him in Paris. However, Kristallnacht was in fact a carefully orchestrated event in which SS men were ordered to go out in plain clothes and rabble-rouse the wider population. It was a turning point in the persecution of Jews in Germany as, for the first time, open violence was encouraged.

Nostra Aetate is Latin for “in our time”. These are the first two words in the piece. Nostra Aetate is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council. It was passed by a vote of 2,221 to 88 assembled bishops, and it was put into place on 28 October 1965 by Pope Paul VI. The entire declaration is little more than a page long. In the fourth of its five sections, it focuses in on the relationship between Jews and Catholics. Passing this declaration was a powerful and extremely important moment for modern Jewish-Christian relations. Since Nostra Aetate was signed, all Popes have taken seriously its charge to improve Jewish-Catholic relations.

In 2011, when he was serving his 20th year as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks spoke out on behalf of Christians in the Middle East during a debate in the House of Lords. He said:

“As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear. Shall we not therefore as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?

And fear is what many Christians in the Middle East feel today. We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation. In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt. I believe that we must all protest this series of assaults-some physical, others psychological -on Christian communities in the Middle East, many of which, as the most reverend Primate has reminded us, have long, long histories. I, and I hope all other Jews in Britain, stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we do with all those who suffer because of their faith.”

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.