An Interview with Dr. Eugene Fisher

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: The purpose of this interview is to share with our readers your insights into what appears to be a growing incidence of antisemitism nationally and globally. When you were appointed the first lay Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and  Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a post that you held for thirty years. What were your primary responsibilities?


Dr. Fisher: Actually, my original title when I joined the Conference staff in 1977 was Director of the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.  I was the first layperson ever to become director of an NCCB secretariat.  When the Bishops' Conference was re-organized when we moved from downtown D. C. to the new building adjacent to the Catholic University of America, I became Associate Director of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Secretariat.  New title. Same job.  My esteemed predecessor, Father Edward Flannery, had done an excellent job of beginning the Catholic dialogue with the Jewish community in this country and done much to break down the ancient Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism which blamed Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and, tragically, much more.  He had drafted and the Bishops issued a landmark statement drawing out some of the implications of the document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, the fourth section of which officially rejected the theological basis of the teaching of contempt and launched, after two millennia, a dialogue between the People of God, the Catholic Church, and the People of God, the Jews, both invalid covenants with the same God, the One God of the Jews. 


My work was both institutional and theological.  To foster diocesan level dialogues between local Catholic and Jewish communities and to institutionalize an ongoing national dialogue with American Jews.  The latter meant encouraging the various national Jewish religious and secular agencies.  The former included the rabbinical associations of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist Judaism.  The latter included such agencies as the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). No historical precedents existed for this type of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, so we had to invent structures and formats as we went along.  Our first meetings were hosted by the University of Notre Dame and two volumes of the papers from these meetings, which I -co-edited with Rabbi Daniel Polish of the Synagogue Council of America, were published by the university press:  Formation of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (1980) and Liturgical Foundations of Social Policy in the Catholic and Jewish Traditions (1983).  The topic of social policy, which Jews and Christians share in common, given the teachings of the Hebrew prophets and the Jew, Jesus, was carefully worked out.  Given the centuries of Christian attempts to convert Jews away from their covenant with God and into Christianity, too often, sadly, by force, had/has rendered Jews understandably very cautious about engaging in “theological” discussions with Christians.  Rabbi Leon Klenicki, of blessed memory, of the ADL, coined the phrase, “from disputation to dialogue” to describe what we were attempting to do. 


Quite often in these meetings, and on numerous other occasions, I acted as a “translator” between American Catholics, especially the bishops, and Jews. Yes, both spoke in English, and, yes, Jews and Catholics in America were both discriminated against, especially in the years before World War II.  Catholics and Jews were kept out of the same White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) neighborhoods, universities, and professions.  This had resulted in areas of American Catholic-Jewish collaboration unknown in European history.  My own father, for example, was the first Catholic ever to join a “major” law firm in the history of Detroit, and he had a number of close Jewish friends.  And Jewish students were welcomed into Catholic universities around the country when they were not “acceptable” in major U.S. private universities.  So there is a shared history of discrimination against Catholics and Jews in this country, which can be a source of valuable dialogue between us today.  The racist KKK, for example, if you will excuse my use of derogatory language, was popularly understood as a group standing against Koons (African Americans), Kikes (Jews), and Catholics.  But the major Jewish agencies are centered in New York while the bishops come from across the country.  Jews tend to speak “New York English,” while Catholic bishops, who often went to seminaries in Rome, tend to speak in a more genteel fashion.  I received by a doctorate from the Institute of Hebrew Studies at New York University, where I was most often the only non-Jew (goy) in classes taught by Jewish professors with all other students being Jewish.  So I learned how to speak NewYork-ese and, as a former seminarian, could also speak “Vaticanese.” This was important in order to avoid misunderstandings that could have had serious consequences.


Another major area of my responsibilities at the USCCB was dealing with the various national and international crises that so often arose between Catholics and Jews.  One example was the Auschwitz convent incident, in which a group of well-meaning nuns set up a cloistered convent near the concentration camp to pray for the souls of the victims (Jews primarily, but also Gypsies/Romani, Poles, Slavs and other “undesirables” that the Nazis exterminated there.  Catholics understood this to be a worthy goal to pursue.  Jews noted that the nuns had put up a cross on their grounds and came to the understandable, from their point of view, conclusion that the nuns were trying to “Christianize” Auschwitz and therefore to deny what Christians (and the perpetrators of the Holocaust/Shoah, including Adolf Hitler, were virtually all baptized Christians) had done there to “exterminate” the Jews.  It took literally hundreds of phone calls with Jewish and Catholic leaders, including the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to work out a solution in which the nuns moved their convent farther away from the death camp and, to their credit, set up a center in it for Catholic-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation.  One needs to recall, for example, the difference in the symbolic significance of the cross for Jews and Christians.  For Christians, it symbolizes the sacrificial death of Jesus the Jew (at the order of the Roman, Pontius Pilate as our Creed makes clear).  For Jews, the cross evokes the First Crusade when, in 1096, Crusaders proudly wearing the cross over their armor, murdered and raped thousands of Jews in the Rhineland valley of what was to become modern Germany as they marched to free the Holy Land from the Muslims who had conquered it.  Our military to this day uses the Crusader chant:  HEP, which stood for Herushalem Est Perdita (Jerusalem Is Lost).  Christians, of course, do not have any such collective, negative symbolic understanding of the cross, while it is paramount in Jewish historical memory.  So I needed to “translate” what the cross meant for Jews to Christians, and vice-versa, both in official meetings and, in greater depth, one at a time with those involved on both sides.  Many other examples could be given of inadvertent crises threatening the slowly growing and deepening relations between Jews and Catholics in which I was involved as the intermediary since I knew both Catholic and Jewish history over the centuries and in this country.  But this should suffice to give readers some idea of what was involved in my job for the bishops.  I also drafted several official statements for the bishops to debate among themselves and issue to condemn antisemitism and further Catholic-Jewish relations.  One final point.  The reader may note that I spell the word “antisemitism” not as “anti-Semitism.”  The word was coined by a racial antisemite and used by the Nazis.  But “Semitism” was not a reality.  It was an invention.  Linguistically, “Semitic” refers to a group of related languages, such as Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.  It has nothing to do with “race,” which is how the Nazis used it.  So I do not want to give Nazism a posthumous victory by accepting their false terminology. 


Gordon: The Times of Israel published a report with the header Anti-Semitism now ‘fashionable’ in the US, warn experts which included a powerful statement by the Anti-Defamation League.

Dr. Fisher: There is also a rise in Islamophobia and hate crimes against mosques as well as synagogues.  Our current political divisiveness may be a factor.  Religious and racial hatred does exist in our society, and can and does rise up in differing circumstances.  Catholics, because of the massive immigration of Irish, Poles, Eastern, and Southern Europeans, became the victims of church burnings and other violence and discrimination at one point in our history.  Now there is the fear of Hispanic immigrants “taking away” the jobs of white Americans, though there is really no evidence that such is actually the case.  But in a situation of internal divisiveness, Jews (as they have been over the centuries) and now Muslims can and are being scapegoated for anything that some Americans feel is going wrong.  Even though the economy has bounced back from the Great Recession, much of the fear of those who were economically harmed by it is still present.  One good thing is that Jews have rallied to help Muslims repair and rebuild mosques and Muslims are raising money and helping to repair the Jewish cemeteries that have been vandalized.  The Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders have also raised their voices in defense of Jews and Muslims, and this is important in the long run. 

Gordon: The has been an explosion in antisemitic acts in the United States and Europe. What are some of the factors that contribute to this hatred?


Dr. Fisher: Yes. There has been a dramatic escalation of antisemitic rhetoric and attacks on individual Jews and synagogues in New York and around our country. This is also tragically true in Great Britain and throughout Europe, and even Australia. There have also been violent attacks on Churches, Mosques and other religious sites in this country and around the world. So one factor is a rise in racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and violence in general, of which antisemitism is, sadly, a key element.


One factor is the rise of extremism, on both the right and the left, partly in response to the migration of large numbers of people seeking sanctuary and a better life, both in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., the largest immigrant group is from Central America. Hence the controversies over our border with Mexico. Some Americans also fear immigrants from other places, such as Muslim countries and even China. In Europe, the immigrants are largely Muslims from Africa. In both the U.S. and Europe some people believe that these refugees will weaken the White nature of their countries.


In the U.S., these people forget the very nature of our country as a nation of immigrants, as the famous statement (written by an immigrant American Jew, Emma Lazarus) on the Statue of Liberty (given to us by France in honor of the French refugees our country admitted). This inscription, part of a larger poem, rightly defines our country as one welcoming all those in need and those looking for a better life, many, as is the case of Central Americans today, fleeing from violence and oppression in their own countries.

America was created by and has prospered because of immigrants. Its original sin was and is racial: the near extermination of native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans. Our society has still not fully repented for and resolved the after-effects of this great American sin.


Historically, during the period of voluminous immigration in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, Jews were classified by most Americans (i.e. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – WASPs) not as a separate “race” but as a lower and different ethnic/religious group to be kept out of the “best” neighborhoods, schools, jobs, etc., along their fellow second-class citizens, Catholics, which is why dialogue between Jews and Catholics began earlier in our country than in Europe. It was only in World War II when our country was fighting a war both across the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, that WASP Americans began, reluctantly, to realize that we Catholics and Jews were needed to win, and so, gradually, came to be accepted.


Now, however, the anti-immigrant rhetoric, which began as a fear of the immigration of “colored” people from Central America, has whipped up rhetoric, and hatred of minorities such as Jews, Muslims, and others. Concerning Jews, the hate-mongers have fallen back on the ancient and sadly contemporary anti-Jewish and antisemitic tropes that have been condemned by the Catholic Church (if not all Catholics) beginning with the historic declaration issued by the world's bishops during the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate in 1965.


Over the centuries in Europe Jews were convenient scapegoats for the powers that be to “explain” problems facing society. This reached extreme levels at times. If the water from a well went bad, for example, Jews were blamed for poisoning it, even though it was their only source of water. As Europe today faces difficulties assimilating immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, Jews again are used as a convenient scapegoat, and so antisemitism is on the rise there. Similarly, Jews are an all too convenient scapegoat for Americans who fear that African-Americans and colored folks may in the not too distant future become the majority of the citizens of this country.


As I noted above, antisemitism can be found in the extremes of both the right and the left. On the right, a resurgence of “traditional” antisemitism can be seen in such groups as the KKK, which hates, as it did traditionally, “Koons” (African Americans), Kikes (Jews) and K(C)atholics (Central Americans). On the left, sympathy for the Palestinians (who do deserve sympathy and support, as many American Jews will strongly attest) has morphed into anti-Israel hate. One can see this in the comparisons of Israel with the now-abandoned apartheid of South Africa. Israel is seen as the sole cause of the troubles of the Palestinians, despite the fact that the overall Arab/Muslim refusal to accept even the existence of a tiny Jewish state in the Middle East is a core part of the difficulty of Palestinians have had in accepting a reasonable two-state solution.

The Holy See, since the establishment of the State of Israel, has been both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel and has called, again and again, for a resolution of the conflict that will meet the core needs of both peoples. But all too many on the extreme left in this country, have joined the chorus of voices blaming only Israel and, indeed, calling for a “solution” that would end the very existence of the State of Israel from the antisemitism that rationalized Nazi Germany's attempt to annihilate the entire Jewish people.


A great irony of antisemitism is that it calls the Jews a “race.” But the Jewish people are a people, originally composed of 12 differing “tribes.” And one can become, as many have over the centuries, fully Jewish by converting to Judaism. “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”


Central to antisemitism is a rejection of Christianity. The bible of the Jews, the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, was inspired by God and written by Jews, for Jews. The authors of the New Testament were also Jews, writing about the Jew, Jesus/Yeshua, primarily for their fellow Jews, but through Paul open to gentile converts (as Judaism was and is, of course). To hate Jews as a “race” is to hate Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and their faith, first-century Judaism. So a rejection of Christian as well as Jewish faith is a central factor in antisemitism, both in Europe and in the US.


Gordon: Do you have any recommendations on what Christian churches and all Christians can do to respond to and help reduce these hate crimes?

Dr. Fisher: As I have noted, Christians need to speak out, as they have been, to condemn in no uncertain terms antisemitism and Islamophobia, as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions.  We need to live up to the words on the Statue of Liberty which were, it should be noted, written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish woman.  Also, Christians should raise funds to assist the repair and rebuilding of mosques, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries, and personally go to the affected communities to help in that work.


Gordon: What was your reaction to the protest over the recent Mass celebrated in Sarajevo by the Bosnian Cardinal for Nazi-allied 'victims'

Dr. Fisher: Obviously, this is a complex situation. Toward the end of World War II the Ustasha militia,which was in cooperation with the Nazis went on a killing spree in Sarajevo. The Ustasha publicly hanged over 50 people, with over 10,000 people killed during the German occupation. When the city was freed at the end of the war, many of the Ustasha killers were rounded up by the citizens and killed. The Ustasha also rounded up thousands of Jews, handing them over to the Nazis to be sent to the death

camps.

The mass commemorates only the Ustasha “victims,” who were in fact murderers. I agree with the Austrian and Croatian bishops who have rightly declared that "a mass is a spiritual act which must not be instrumentalized or misused by politics or ideology." Perhaps a Mass praying for the souls of all those who died might have been in order, but not one which can be understood as giving a blessing to the perpetrators of mass killings of innocent people.

I agree with Zvonimir Nikolic, a Catholic, who described the mass as a “disaster for Sarajevo,” since it misrepresents the actual facts of what occurred there, thus distorting history and, in fact, basic Catholic moral teaching. And I agree with Bosniak Sead Sahovic, who called the mass a “horrifying farce.” Sahovic was born in an Ustasha concentration camp.


Gordon: What do antisemitism and anti--Muslimism/Islamophobia share in common?


Dr. Fisher: Jews and Muslims are the religious “others” in a country in which, despite the fact that since its founding all religions are equal before the law, is seen by many Americans to be a “Christian” country.  George Washington as our first president personally sent letters to two Jewish synagogues whose members had written to congratulate him on his election, assuring them of the protection of their faith by our Constitution.  But those who think that, despite the Constitution, this should be a “Christian” country can see Jews and Muslims as threatening this fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our republic.  Sadly, they cannot see how fundamentally un-Christian fomenting hatred of other faiths really is.


Gordon: Please provide our readers with an overview of the vision of Nostra Aetate and the Church.


Dr. Fisher: Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) has as its background the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe, the Holocaust.  Pope John XXIII, while a Vatican representative in Turkey during World War II, helped and got to know many Jewish refugees who fled from the Nazis.  He was aware of the ancient Christian teaching of contempt against Jews and Judaism, which blamed Jews collectively for the death of Jesus, and which made it all too easy for the Nazi's racial antisemitism to be accepted by European Christians so that they remained bystanders or even participated the genocide of Europe's Jews.  He wanted this teaching, which was never the official teaching of the Church but rather a common presumption over the centuries, to be ended once and for all.  The document was steered through the Second Vatican Council by Cardinal Augustin Bea, a biblical scholar, and cites only the Bible, in effect starting a new Tradition of Catholic teaching about Jews and Judaism.  Nostra Aetate states clearly that while some Jewish leaders (the chief priests, the Synoptic gospels agree) may have been involved in Jesus' death the decision was that of Pontius Pilate alone, as our Creed states.  Thus, one “cannot blame all Jews then or now” for the death of Jesus.  Another important statement is that of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Roman 9-11 in the only place where he directly takes up the issue that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls He issues”.  While many Christians before Vatican II tended to downplay the fact that Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the original followers of the Jesus movement, including the authors of the New Testament, were all Jews, Nostra Aetate states clearly that “the Apostles…as well as most of the early disciples…sprang from the Jewish people” Jews were called ‘the People of God,” the same term as that which the Council used to describe the Catholic Church itself


Gordon: You have also been active in the theater and films in portrayals of Jews.  What impact does the film have on antisemitism?  Please comment on what films in your opinion may have contributed to antiSemitism.


Dr. Fisher: One can see anti-Jewish stereotypes throughout Western literature.  Shakespeare plays on the stereotype of Jews as lending money at usurious interest levels in his The Merchant of Venice, to take just one example.  In America, many Jews denied jobs in many professions, moved to California, and became deeply involved in the development of American movies.  The classic movie, Casablanca, for example, tones down the Jewishness of the characters, refugees from Europe during World War II, but in fact tells a very Jewish story of flight from Nazi racial genocide.  So, many films can be said to have had a positive influence on American pluralism and acceptance of those of different faiths and cultures than one's own.  One controversial film which might have contributed to antisemitism in America was The Passion of the Christ since it was basically a revival of the medieval passion plays.  These plays were put on in cities, towns, and villages, usually during Holy Week on Good Friday.  The passion plays perpetuated the anti-Jewish teaching that Jews were/are responsible for the death of Jesus despite, as the Catechism of the Council of Trent pointed out, our Christian guilt is vastly greater than that of the Jews since what the few Jews involved did was done in ignorance, while what we Christians do when we sin, is knowingly crucify Jesus since Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. 


In medieval times, indeed until the Second Vatican Council, the performances of passion plays often precipitated Christian mobs to go into the Jewish ghettos, raping women, pillaging, burning down homes, and committing numerous murders. In anticipation of the release of the movie, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the USCCB put out a short book that I edited:  The Bible, The Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents (2004), with texts ranging from those of the Second Vatican Council, the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Pope St. John Paul II, and four statements of the USCCB, culminating in Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.  Fortunately, bishops around the country spread the word, even if they hesitated to criticize the movie itself.  Perhaps for this reason there was not a significant rise in antisemitic incidents after the movie was shown. But the movie likely influenced many people to continue in their misguided belief in the falsehood that the Jews, collectively, were and are responsible for Jesus' death.


Gordon: Did you meet with Pope St. John Paul II or other popes during your time with the bishops in national and international dialogues?


Dr. Fisher: I certainly did, Gordon. I met with him seven times, over the years, most often on the occasion of meetings of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, at times with my wife, Catherine Ambrosiano Fisher, who frequently accompanied me to these meetings.


Quite often some of the issues discussed in the dialogues were presented to the pope in these audiences, for which he was grateful since the dialogue with the Jews was of major importance to him. Growing up in Poland, he had close friends as a boy who was Jewish. Most of his Jewish friends were rounded up and murdered by the Nazis, so remembering them and doing what he could to make sure that the underlying race hatred of antisemitism, which he clearly identified as a grave sin, could be countered and regaled to the dustbin of history.


Often, we would learn that he had incorporated the views expressed to him in such meetings with representatives of the Jewish people in subsequent speeches and addresses of his own. With my good friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Leon Klenicki of the Anti-Defamation League, I collected and co-edited, with commentary, all of Pope St. John Paul II's many statements on how Catholics should understand Judaism and revere the Jewish People as the People of God. An early version of the book won a National Jewish Book Award, surely the first time that any pope had been so honored by Jews. We anticipated his canonization in the title of the final and completer version of our book: The Saint for Shalom: How Pope John Paul II Transformed Christian-Jewish Relations. The Complete Texts and Addresses of Pope John Paul II on Jews and Judaism (New York: Crossroad/ADL, 2011). As I have said before, I drafted some of the pope's talks, especially the one given to representatives of the American Jewish community when the pope came to Miami. My good friend, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, and I sat together in the second row at that event. He drafted the statement by the Jewish leader welcoming the pope to America. Afterward, we exchanged notes on the changes made by the speakers in our drafts.


I also met with Pope Benedict. He did not exude the warmth of St. John Paul II, but he did listen keenly to what those meeting him had to say and responded often in some depth to questions asked of him. He, too, has a special reason for promoting Catholic-Jewish relations, since he was born in Germany and has candidly acknowledged the complicity of Germany and German Catholics in perpetrating the Holocaust.

Finally, I met the current pope, Francis, when he was Archbishop Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. We had a meeting of the International Catholic Jewish Liaison Committee there and he spent a good deal of time with us. He and Rabbi Skorka gave excellent presentations to us and mingled freely with us during the breaks.


Gordon: In closing, could you comment on which parish you attend and what you appreciate most about your parish.


Dr. Fisher: We consider the Holy Cross Monastery of the Trappists, which is in Berryville, VA, where we live, to be our parish. It is a wonderful community of service to all in need, spiritually, or physically.  They also have a gift store where we often shop for presents for others.  I also appreciate the fact that since the Trappists are a religious order the Monastery does not get embroiled in internal Church politics, but welcomes all people of all faiths, or none, who seek help. 


It is a wonderful community of service to all in need, spiritually, or physically.  They also have a gift store where we often shop for presents for others.  I also appreciate the fact that since the Trappists are a religious order the Monastery does not get embroiled in internal Church politics, but welcomes all people of all faiths, or none, who seek help. 


Gordon: In closing, I congratulate you for being awarded the ADL’s Dr. Joseph L. Lichten Award in Catholic-Jewish relations and for your insight into and leadership to combat the hatred that is becoming endemic in our world.

Profiles in Catholicism relies on its readers for financial support. Please help us with

a $10.00 donation

© 2020 Profiles in Catholicism

site  design/development petitetaway