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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, Ph.D.

Gordon: Where did you earn you doctorate in Religious Studies and what was your favorite course?

Rabbi David: I studied the History and Literature of Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure I could name a specific course but becoming familiar with the extra-canonical literature – for example, Josephus, Philo, the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels – all this highlighted the great diversity within the Jewish world and emerging Christianity in that period.

Gordon: What is the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations?

Rabbi David: IJCIC ( a consortium of 11 international Jewish organizations that formed in response to the changes in Christian thinking about Jews and Judaism following the Shoah. The specific impetus was the promulgation of Nostra Aetate and the realization that there was no international Jewish body that could engage the Vatican in a “peer to peer” relationship, or as close to “peer to peer” as possible given the structural differences between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. IJCIC includes Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox institutions, as well as the major communal organization and our board includes members from Israel, Europe and both North and South America. Though no one can speak for all the Jews, IJCIC is a broad coalition.

In the early 70s, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews (CRRJ) and IJCIC established the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC)which has met 24 times in different locations around the world. The next meeting is scheduled for Sao Paolo, Brazil in 2023. Over the past 10 year or so, we have cooperated with the CRRJ in convening Emerging Leaders Conferences, to introduce up and coming leaders in both communities to practice of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Finally, though our primary point of contact is with the CRRJ, IJCIC regularly visits the Vatican and maintains relations with several dicasteries and offices, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariat of State, the Dicastery for the Clergy and others.

In addition to the Vatican, IJCIC has relationships with the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Churches.

Gordon: There has been a marked increase in antisemitism in the United States. What are some of the contributing factors to this increase?

Rabbi David: Let’s begin with the fact that antisemitism is woven into the fabric of Western culture. Almost two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism laid the foundation for the emergence of racial antisemitism in the 19th century and both forms are now deeply embedded in global culture.

In terms of factors, in the immediate aftermath of the Shoah, expressions of antisemitism became unacceptable in mainstream society, especially in Europe and North America; antisemitism wasn’t eliminated, it was merely driven underground. As the years have passed, however, that sensitivity has diminished.

At the same time, we have seen significant social changes brought about by the influence of broadcast media, the internet, and, along with all that, the coarsening of our public discourse. Social media, which amplifies everything, is a cesspool of hatred (not just targeting Jews) on which Holocaust denial and the absurd but widespread notion of a Jewish conspiracy to rule to the world abound. Jews have been accused of developing the Corona Virus in order to enrich themselves by selling vaccines, or of fomenting the war in Ukraine in order to cash in on arms sales.

Add to this the debate around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some have spoken of the “new antisemitism” in which the State of Israel becomes an “acceptable” target for anti-Jewish bias. While explicit antisemitism may still be taboo in most places, criticizing Israel is not. Nor should it be; as a secular nation-state, Israel is no more immune to criticism than any other nation. But that criticism must be fact-based and fair. Much criticism of Israel is neither, and furthermore, is expressed using the vocabulary, rhetoric, or imagery of classic Christian antisemitism or modern racial antisemitism. And the conflation of the State of Israel with all Jews everywhere means that Jewish people and Jewish institutions outside Israel are, by the very fact of their Jewishness, targeted for abuse and violence. On some college campuses, Jewish students report a hostile atmosphere created by anti-Israel activists. For those who believe conspiracy theories, the support that Israel receives from the US and other allies is proof of Jewish control.

Another factor is the rise of right-wing nationalism, including in the United States, in reaction to the growing phenomenon of migration, mainly from the global south, often as a result of war or environmental degradation. Some of these nationalists subscribe to the great replacement theory, which holds that these nonwhite people are being brought into the United States and other Western countries to "replace" white voters and subvert Western, Christian culture. And, of course, the Jews are behind it. This is explicitly what motivated the man who killed 11 Jews during Sabbath worship in Pittsburg in 2017.

In the current environment in which society is deeply divided and many people feel threatened by change, the Jews are blamed from all sides for society’s problems. To quote the ADL: “Jews have been blamed by racists for promoting racial equality and by racial minorities for promoting slavery and racism. Jews have been blamed by capitalists for preaching socialism and by socialists for alleged capitalist exploitation. Jews have been targeted by social conservatives for empowering sexual minorities and by queer activists for patriarchal conservatism.” (

Gordon: What impact has the rise in antisemitism had on Jewish-Christian relations?

Rabbi David: The four Christian organizations I mentioned above are all opposed to antisemitism. The WCC in 1948 stated that “antisemitism is sin against God and man.” Nostra Aetate “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” And both the WEA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate reject antisemitism. This is an essential component of the revolution in Jewish-Christian relations in the last 75 years.

Acknowledging the history of antisemitism and repudiating it is essential, but that is only a first step; like any kind of bias, learning to recognize and avoid antisemitism is an ongoing process. We continue to see the recycling of anti-Jewish tropes in Christian teaching and preaching, including interpretation of both the TaNach and the New Testament. Many Christians today may reject antisemitism and have a generally positive views of their Jewish neighbors (due in part to the pronouncement of church leadership) but are unaware that referring to Pharisees as hypocrites or denigrating the “law” are, in fact, antisemitic. Eliminating this kind of antisemitism will take a long time, but I think a lot more could be done in this regard in the training of clergy and educators.

I think many Christians felt that antisemitism had been addressed and was no longer a major problem. And while there has been much progress, the resurgence that we are seeing now has forced some to recognize the depth and tenacity of the problem and that continued vigilance is required.

For Christians, learning to the read the New Testament in its proper historical context, as has become the standard in scholarship, can help increase aware of the negative biblical interpretation on which Christian anti-Judaism was historically based. Ideally, every Christian seminary in the world would insist that its students learn to recognize and avoid anti-Judaism, but unfortunately that is not realistic.

Gordon: What can we do to combat antisemitism?

Rabbi David: There are no easy solutions there. Insisting that social media platforms do a much better job of controlling hate speech of all kinds is one place to start. The Jewish community needs allies, both on the personal, local level and at the highest institutional level to stand in solidarity when Jews are attacked. And of course education, both specifically focused on learning, and when possible meeting, Jews and more broadly focused on appreciating and valuing diversity in all its forms.

Gordon: Thank you for a great and incisive interview.

Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, Ph.D. is chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations,, the consortium of Jewish organizations that is the official Jewish dialogue partner of the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox churches. From 2014-2022 he served as Director Interreligious Engagement at ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and he continues to represent ADL at IJCIC. He held the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (2002-2014). He was the Jewish Scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore (1998-2001) where he directed the publication of “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity." He lectures and publishes issues in Jewish-Christian relations, Jewish-Muslim relations, and the foundations of Judaism and Christianity in antiquity. His commentary on First Thessalonians appears in the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

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