(RNS) The recent emergence of murderous anti-Semitism in “enlightened” Europe, and even the public refusal of a defeated Egyptian judo athlete at the Rio Olympics to shake the hand of his victorious Israeli opponent — a seemingly minor act — set me thinking about how two remarkable leaders in the struggle against anti-Semitism would react to such news.
The answer is easy. They would not be shocked.
Nor would Edward Flannery (1912-1998), an American Roman Catholic priest, and Jules Isaac (1887-1963), a French Jewish historian, be surprised about the constant barrage of religious, political, economic, and cultural hatred fired at Israel, the world’s only Jewish state.
Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, many people believed that virulent anti-Semitism — hatred of Jews and Judaism — had been relegated to the dustbin of human history. But Flannery and Isaac were not convinced because their systematic research and study led them to a far different conclusion.
Both Flannery and Isaac recognized that early anti-Judaism and its evil modern offspring, “racial” anti-Semitism, remained a destructive cancer lurking just beneath the thin veneer of our so-called “civilization.”
Fifty years ago Flannery published “The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism,” an outstanding book that permanently changed relations between Christians and Jews. His pioneering efforts exposed a pervasive animus towards Judaism within Christianity.
A gifted theologian and historian, Flannery was the first director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that role, he challenged his fellow Christians to confront and root out the pernicious anti-Judaism embedded in their religious teaching and preaching.
Flannery asserted that hatred of Jews and Judaism pre-dated the rise of Christianity, and he labeled anti-Judaism “the world’s oldest pathology.” A prime example of this pre-Christian bigotry is Cicero(106-43 B.C.), a Roman statesman and philosopher. Cicero wrote: “Justice demands that the barbaric superstition (Judaism) should be opposed . . . the gods showed how little they cared for this people, suffering it to be conquered and made a tributary (of the Roman Empire).”
Of course, during Cicero’s lifetime there were few successful armed uprisings by any subjugated people against the vaunted military might of Rome, the superpower of its day. This early hater of Jews believed the pagan “gods” had turned against the “superstitious” followers of the God of Israel. I once asked Flannery about Cicero. The Rhode Island-born priest laughed and said: “Jim, the Jewish people has survived. But the same cannot be said for Cicero’s Roman Empire.”
Isaac, a French Jew whose wife and daughter were murdered at Auschwitz, influenced Flannery. Isaac survived the Holocaust and devoted the rest of his life to exposing the roots of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Incredibly, he conducted his superb historical research during World War II while he was in hiding or on the run during the German occupation of France.
After the war, Isaac met with Pope Pius XII and then with Pope John XXIII. With both he emphasized the false accusation that has fueled hatred of Jews and Judaism for thousands of years: That the dispersion of the Jewish people from their biblical homeland — the land of Israel — was God’s just punishment for the Jewish “rejection” of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
Although the Romans militarily occupied ancient Jerusalem and used capital punishment repeatedly as a weapon of terror against the subjugated Jewish population, including Jesus, the Jews were depicted as culpable villains, directly responsible for the death of Jesus — the odious “Christ killer” canard.
The Jewish religion was highly corrupt, spiritually empty and unfaithful during Jesus’ time; a view completely contrary to the historic reality of a religiously dynamic and pluralistic Jewish community.
Isaac, the inspector general of France’s public educational system in the 1930s, termed the church’s long record of anti-Judaism the “teaching of contempt,” a phrase that has entered into the permanent lexicon of interreligious relations.
Unfortunately, Isaac’s meeting with Pius XII in 1949 yielded few positive results, but his conversation with John XXIII in 1960 motivated the pope to seek a fundamental transformation in the church’s teachings about the Jewish people and their religion, a reordering that began in 1965 with the Second Vatican Council’s “Nostra Aetate,” the declaration on the Catholic Church’s need to build a positive relationship with the Jewish people.
Today, years after their deaths and before the clouds of forgetfulness and historical amnesia envelop them, it is important to remember and honor Edward Flannery and Jules Isaac for their extraordinary insights and achievements.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com)