The year was 1938, and the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain delivered a powerful radio address against antisemitism, as relevant today as it was then. His words, spoken in the shadow of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazi Germany, were a voice of reason and compassion springing from the heart of the Catholic faith.
Just weeks prior to his address, Kristallnacht had erupted. That fateful night saw 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed, 900 synagogues burned and 30,000 Jewish men deported to concentration camps.
The savagery of the antisemitic excesses in the fall of 1938 had reached unprecedented levels. Only would time reveal the full extent of the horrific evils then at work in Nazi Germany.
To our shame, not every Catholic responded with Maritain’s courage. Then the best-known Catholic priest in America, the famous Detroit radio star Father Charles Coughlin defended the Nazi’s violence. Father Coughlin argued that Kristallnacht was simply retaliation for Jewish oppression of Christians.
It’s the last thought that haunts me. Kristallnacht was defended by Catholics as retribution. Today the same argument is being made by activists defending Hamas terrorism. “After years of oppression, how else could Palestinians have responded?” the argument goes. Decrying the conditions in Gaza, pro-Hamas advocates blame Israel and justify terrorism.
But this line cloaked as an argument for justice is no such thing. Demonstrators at the University of Wisconsin chanted “Glory to the martyrs!” in praise of Hamas terrorists. The university described the demonstration as a “respectful dialogue.”
One young demonstrator held a sign during a Washington, D.C., demonstration that read “Keep the world clean.” The sign depicted putting Israeli flags in a trash can. This mentality is not merely about Zionism or the state of Israel. We are seeing radical, inflammatory and evil expressions of contempt for the entire Jewish race.
After offering his sympathy for the October 7 attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas Pope Francis told a delegation of rabbis, “The spread of anti-Semitic demonstrations, which I strongly condemn, is also of great concern.”
It is hateful. It is antisemitic. And it must be denounced.
—Spiritually we are semites
Maritain rightly underscored that Jews and Christians must stand together. “It is no little matter, however, for a Christian to hate or to despise or to wish to treat degradingly the race from which sprang his God and the Immaculate Mother of his God,” says Maritain. “That is why the bitter zeal of anti-Semitism always turns in the end into a bitter zeal against Christianity.” He implored Christians to view the suffering of Jews with a brotherly eye, invoking the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped a wounded stranger on the road.
Maritain concluded his address by denouncing racism as a “brutish” materialistic mockery of humanity. “From a social and cultural viewpoint, racism degrades and humiliates to an unimaginable degree reason, thought, science, and art,” argued Maritain. He rightly described racism as the most inhuman and desperate form of barbarism, chaining humanity to biological categories and fatalism.
Though one may express opposition to and even condemnation of specific Israeli policies or actions concerning Palestinians or Israel’s Arab citizens, it remains an indisputable fact that Israel has not taken any action with the intent of exterminating the Palestinian people, either wholly or partially.
Will we learn the lessons of history? As the death toll from the Israel-Hamas war continues to climb, we Christians must be brave enough to pursue the truth.
Then as now, antisemitism is a deadly diversion, pulling our attention away from the true causes of our woes: the unbalanced materialistic structures and spirit of the modern world. These beget unequal economic and social systems that need transformation. We must address these root causes of perpetual unrest rather than ever again permitting an existential prejudice to feel like an actual “solution.”
For my part, I’ll denounce evil when I can, study the facts as best I’m able and entrust the rest to God’s mercy.
Father Patrick Briscoe, O.P., is editor of Our Sunday Visitor.