Two years ago today, on October 27, 2018, Robert D. Bowers murdered 11 innocent Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States to date. The Catholic community stood in solidarity with the Jewish community following these events, sending prayers, sympathy, and a resounding message from Catholic leaders, including Pope Francis, denouncing the “inhuman act of violence.” However, denunciation is simply not enough. American Catholics cannot continue to sit idly by while antisemitism continues to rise around them. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League reported that more than 2,100 antisemitic incidents occurred in the US, a 12 percent jump from the previous year. The Catholic community has come a long way in its relationship with its Jewish brothers and sisters, but there is more to be done. American Catholics can no longer be passive in our fight against antisemitism; we must be active, and we can start in our Catholic schools.
Catholics and Jews have had a tumultuous relationship throughout history, with Catholic leaders spearheading several antisemitic escapades and discriminatory policies over the centuries. It was not until 1965, with the promulgation of Nostra Aetate,that the Catholic Church finally denounced antisemitism in all its forms and formally proclaimed that Jews should not be held accountable for the death of Jesus. Tomorrow marks the 55th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. Since then, Catholic-Jewish relations have improved drastically, especially following the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1993. Today, Pope Francis follows the lead of several of his predecessors and frequently speaks out against antisemitism. In 2017, the Vatican, in cooperation with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, hosted an Anti-Defamation League delegation to Rome to discuss ways to increase interfaith dialogue and educational efforts to combat antisemitism. These are all positive developments; however, to battle modern antisemitism, there needs to be more work on the ground, particularly with Catholic youth.
Around the mid-nineteenth century, America received an influx of both Irish Catholic and German Jewish immigrants. These Jews sought freedom from the discriminatory policies and taxes they faced in Germany, and the Catholics were fleeing severe famine in Ireland. Both populations faced discrimination when they arrived. Catholics were marked as “Papists” with no allegiance to the American flag, and Jews faced antisemitic tropes that labeled the Jewish people as manipulative and money-hungry. Around 1880, another wave of Jewish and Catholic immigrants came to America from Eastern Europe and Italy, respectively. Both of these communities faced internal strife when attempting to integrate within their respective religious communities, but most notably, the groups grappled with the American public school system.
The American public school system in the nineteenth century was rooted in Protestant teaching. Neither Catholics nor Jews wanted to subject their children to these teachings, so both groups developed their own solutions to this problem. Catholics developed a privately funded parochial school system staffed primarily by nuns that gained support from local Catholic parishes. Jews, on the other hand, continued to participate in the public school system but appealed to the Constitution to remove the religious bias that was present. Today, the Catholic school system in the United States remains an extensive network, with the total Catholic school enrollment for the 2019–20 school year reaching 1,737,297 students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). While a movement for the creation of more Jewish day schools began in 1944, according to a census of Jewish day schools conducted in the US between 2013 and 2014, “overwhelmingly among American Jews—perhaps for as many as 80%—yeshivas and day schools are, in a sense, foreign territory.” So while the majority of American Jews today attend secular schools, many Catholics remain committed to providing their children with a Catholic education from start to finish.
Catholic schools remain a fantastic resource for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. According to the NCEA’s findings, Catholic schools have a lower achievement gap, higher graduation rates, and consistently provide better outcomes for minority populations than many neighboring public schools. However, even though non-Catholic enrollment makes up 19 percent of Catholic schools’ total enrollment, this still leaves the schools with relatively homogeneous student bodies. In my own Catholic high school, there was little mention of the shared Hebraic roots between Judaism and Catholicism or of the similar challenges our communities faced when immigrating to the United States. There were also no Jewish students. A student-to-student group from the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis came to speak to our theology classes about Judaism, but our class’ dialogue about the modern-day Jewish experience and antisemitism ended there. For many of my classmates, this speaker engagement was the first interaction they ever had with a Jewish person. For those who continued on to Catholic colleges, it may be the only interaction they have had with a Jewish person in their lives so far. Catholic schools have an opportunity and responsibility to further educate their students about modern-day antisemitism. Education about the Holocaust is a good start, but modern antisemitism is a new beast, and to oppose it, Catholics must know how to identify it and call it out when they see it. Catholic school engagement with the Jewish community starts with speaker groups like the one I mentioned, but should go further to include ongoing educational programs, dialogue, and partnerships with neighboring Jewish communities.
Antisemitism is like a virus in that it lies dormant until situations of crisis or uncertainty arise, and populations without a proper “immune system” go looking for a scapegoat in the Jewish people. Given our nation’s current divisions, it is unsurprising that it has begun to rear its ugly head more frequently. With the rise of social media, many people feel emboldened to share their hateful beliefs behind a screen without fear of serious repercussions. This behavior is particularly troublesome, given that younger generations spend a great deal of time online and receive lots of information there without ever questioning its accuracy. However, many experts see building resistance amongst young people to this pervasive virus as a beacon of hope for the Jewish community’s future. According to Vanessa Hites of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress, “Young people have a real opportunity to shape the post-COVID world. Not in a cowardly way, hidden behind screens or disguised by large crowds, but by taking an active role, speaking up and engaging in dialogue with more senior decision-makers.” Graduates of Catholic schools go on to become legislators, presidents, and Supreme Court justices. Catholic schools have an opportunity to educate and encourage young Catholic leaders who may grow into influential figures in the American public sphere to spearhead the movement against antisemitism. It is time that they take action.