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Why on Earth do we have anti-Semitism?

Consider a series of names: Benjamin Disraeli and Golda Meir, Albert Einstein and Gerty Cori, Marc Chagall and Judy Chicago, Anne Frank and Chaim Potok, Beverly Sills and Itzhak Perlman. These are, respectively, noted political leaders, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, internationally known visual artists, best-selling authors, and world famous musicians. All are Jewish.

One of the things for which Pope Francis is noted is a book he published with a fellow Argentinian, Rabbi Abraham Skorka. In February, Rabbi Skorka visited the Vatican with a Jewish delegation and was greeted by the pope as his “brother and friend.” The list of names above offers a brief insight into the cultural contributions of Jewish people. The friendship of the pope and the lives of a number of his predecessors, particularly Popes St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII, show the debt of gratitude which Christians must acknowledge not only for cultural riches but also for the roots of our salvation history.

The Nazi holocaust was the most publicized and most gruesome episode of persecution of the Jewish people. But it stands in a long line of crimes against those who have spoken Aramaic, Hebrew, or Yiddish and professed the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Christians have been among the culprits who have dealt death, burned homes and businesses, fire-bombed schools, and driven millions into concentration camps and prisons. Jewish people were, for centuries, denounced for the crucifixion; and even the words of prayers in our former Good Friday liturgy could readily be seen as fomenting contempt.

What baffles us is that those who despise Jewish people seem to have forgotten that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were Jewish. The Twelve Apostles and at least three out of four writers of our gospels were, too.

The recent uptick in attacks on Jewish community centers, cemeteries, and synagogues indicates that anti-Semitism is far from dead. We like to think of ourselves as living in a more enlightened age, or at least a somewhat more enlightened country. There is ample evidence that this is not the case.

Any time we see violence directed against whole categories of people, we chalk up a victory for ignorance. It seems there is a deep-rooted human perversity that insists on branding racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities as somehow unworthy, inferior, and problematic. There is something in us as a species that far too easily resorts to scapegoating when the planet doesn’t turn as we think it should. And scapegoating readily deteriorates into genocide.

As Pope Francis says, the Devil is hell-bent on destroying God’s masterpiece, the human being. Rabbi Skorka observes that the spirit of evil fosters defiance against God and the good. Both note that human sin and crime feed on the delusion that we are superior to others. Only a healthy humility can comprehend that God’s people Israel offer us an example worth following. They show that prayer, scholarship, hard work, and perseverance do indeed bless us — and have for millennia.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at

Image, The Holy Family; Juan Simon Gutierrez, 1680

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