Nearly 50 Catholic school teachers from two dozen states gathered last week in Washington, D.C., for the Bearing Witness program, spending five days learning from experts about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust while training and discussing ways to teach their students about the subjects.
This kind of education serves the mutual goal of strengthening and improving the relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities.
“We take for granted the good relations that exist,” said Donald Wuerl, cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., in an address to participants last Thursday.
It was only in 1965 that the Catholic Church officially denounced the long-standing accusation that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since then, there has been an enormous upswing in how the two communities interact, especially in the United States.
“We have seen so much progress,” Wuerl said but added, “We should be mindful that it’s complex.”
The program has encouraged this since it first premiered in 1996 with a small group of 16 area Catholic educators in D.C. Put together by the Anti-Defamation League along with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this year’s program reflected the expansion of the program, which has since taken place all around the country. More than 1,700 Catholic educators have now had the chance to speak with and hear from experts in the history and current realities of anti-Semitism and Holocaust studies in a unique way thanks to Bearing Witness.
“It’s been such a great chance to learn,” said one participant addressing his comments to the archbishop.
The week’s programs covered a number of topics including the Catholic Church’s role in the persecution of Jews throughout history and its role in the Holocaust. It covered Catholic Scripture in a Jewish context, along with other areas where the two religions intersect. There were also practical workshops on how to teach about the subject in Catholic settings where students may have little or no knowledge or experience of Judaism from their own lives. The teachers involved in the program since it first began have been responsible for sharing what they’ve learned with over a quarter of a million students.
One of the more significant lectures covered modern anti-Semitism after World War II and what it looks like today.
“Anti-Semitism remains dangerous and is spreading,” said David Friedman, Washington, D.C., regional director of the ADL who led the discussion. “How you measure it is a complex phenomenon.”
Friedman used a slideshow to illustrate examples and varieties of anti-Semitism today, including quotes from celebrities like Marlon Brando and Oliver Stone, politicians covering the spectrum from Richard Nixon to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, along with present-day politicians from around the world. He explained the three main categories of anti-Semitism, divided by religious, ethnic and anti-Zionist roots, although he made sure to define the latter as different from legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. And despite a sometimes popular perception that anti-Semitism is less prevalent than it once was, Friedman said the evidence points to the exact opposite.
“Jews are not seen as vulnerable therefore anti-Semitism is not seen as a threat,” he said. “Those who say it has vanished have yet to say where it went.”
The attendees asked questions covering issues like comparisons made of Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa and how to find the line where criticism becomes a kind of prejudice, and made it clear how keen they were to learn how to talk about such sensitive subjects in the best manner they could.
The kind of impact the program can ultimately have is huge, conference leaders said, since the kind of personal level of understanding between the Catholic and Jewish communities it encourages is often the longest lasting. Wuerl spoke of his own long connections to the Jewish community and some of its leaders and how it has enhanced his life personally and professionally, something he urged all of the attendees to do with what they got out of the conference.
“Take back with you the fruits of all these discussions,” Wuerl said.