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Why the Jews?
A reflection on three weeks at Yad Vashem.

By William M. Shea
William M. Shea, Dir. CRECDirector of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture

Rabbi Norman Cohen, a 1972 graduate of the College and student of Fr. Brooks, told a group of about 75 students and faculty in Rehm Library recently that Fr. Brooks wanted him to become a better Jew as a result of his attending Holy Cross. We know the real joy of having our own Rabbi. The Holy Cross community should be awake to that vision, which John Brooks laid out for us over 30 years ago—namely, that Holy Cross is to be distinctively Christian, Catholic and Jesuit, the foundational principles of which lead to constructive and practical unity of many religious voices.

Fr. Brooks understood at the time what many of us barely grasped. We at Holy Cross are participating in a very important experiment taking place in Catholic higher education across this country and the world, namely an attempt to join distinct religious peoples who have been at odds for millennia into a practical and intellectual unity in the service of truth and humanity, with no wish for assimilation or conversion. In line with the second Vatican Council and the popes since the Council, we recognize the covenant between God and the people of Israel as a living and valid covenant. Holy Cross stands as a community of educators dedicated to the same goal, educating our students to participate intelligently in the world around them and doing so in continuity with the faith of their fathers and mothers.   


This past summer, from July 2 to July 23, while the Israeli Defense Force was engaging Hamas to the south and Hizbullah to the north, I was in Jerusalem for a three-week seminar for educators at Yad Vashem (which means a name/memorial) on the murder of six million Jews between 1933 and 1945. Yad Vashem is a national and international memorial to the victims of the Shoah, containing a museum, a library, an education center, two art galleries, an administration building, a publishing house, a striking tree-lined avenue dedicated to the righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Shoah, and a research center, all on a hill that overlooks the city of Jerusalem. So important is this place that Pope John Paul II made it part of his pilgrimage to the Christian Holy Sites in Israel.

Yad Vashem is an affecting place, indeed a haunting place, unlike any other site in Israel. Its only competition in my mind is the Wall of Herod’s Temple, a place where this world meets another and one can stand in both at the same time. I worked in Yad Vashem every day except Shabbat, listening to professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and from Tel Aviv University. On my own, I visited the Wall in the Old City three times: the first time to stand in awe, the second to pray for the people of Israel and the land, and the third to pray for my family and for Holy Cross. I visited several other Jewish and Christian holy sites, but none of them affected me as did Yad Vashem and the Wall.

Why was I there? I could not afford to be there as a tourist or a pilgrim. I wanted to learn more about the Shoah, its causes and its effects. My hope was to learn enough to inform my planning of a program of Jewish-Christian understanding funded by two families, Kraft and Hiatt, who donated money to Holy Cross and to Brandeis University for that purpose. I was trying to discover ways to use that money each year that would best benefit the College.  I have certainly been motivated, and I hope that I am wiser about planning as a result. We had in September a public dialogue between Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the Jewish Life Network and Dr. Eugene Fisher of the U. S. Bishops’ Conference reviewing the past 50 years of discourse between Catholics and Jews. We recently had Rev. James Bernauer, S.J., of Boston College speaking on the Jesuit contribution to anti-Judaism and Professor Michael Berenbaum of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles speaking on the implications of imminent deaths of the last of the survivors of the camps. I hope to follow this up next year by inviting to the Center several of the Israeli historians and social scientists who spoke to the Yad Vashem seminar.


Why the Jews? That’s what I thought about as a 10 year old watching the films of the camps in Movietone News in the darkened theatre on Westchester Square in the Bronx in 1945.  That’s what I asked myself some weeks ago as I viewed a film about the Nuremberg trial and the suicide of Field Marshal Hermann Goering. That is the question, more than any other, that I have carried for 60 years—and that brought me, finally, to Yad Vashem.

Why the Jews? What did the Yad Vashem scholars have to say? Was there anti-Judaism in the Roman Empire? Yes—a hundred years before the birth of Christianity in the empire and two hundred years before that in Egypt. The Romans’ attitude toward Jews was markedly ambiguous. On one side, there was fascination and admiration. For many Roman seekers, Judaism’s ethical monotheism represented a particularly attractive religious and ethical practice.  Jews were a strong and clear witness to the One who decrees justice for all. But, at the same time, Jews were thought to be arrogant, greedy, treacherous, exclusive and misanthropic, aliens in every town and in the empire itself, whose loyalty was always suspect. Above all, they were against the gods and would only worship one, “the Holy One.”
In addition, according to the Christians, Jews killed the God Incarnate. Christians added to the stock xenophobia a religious hatred perhaps born in the very moment of Christian origin. Medieval Catholicism’s suspicion and rejection of Jews on religious grounds carried with it, in different times and places, varying legal measures meant to fix Jews in the status of a social underclass, to determine where and how they could live, to restrict the sorts of jobs they could do, to mark them as marginal to the history of salvation; in effect, to leave them at the mercy of the mob. The massacres of the first Crusade (1097-98 CE) left no doubt as to the helplessness of the Jews and the murderous intent of a Christian army.  

Why the Jews? continued>>>

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