Life’s paradoxes are nowhere less striking than in the popular views of the Jesuits and the Jews; on the one hand, a Christian claim that the Jesuits are too pro-Jewish; on the other, a Jewish allegation that they are too antisemitic.
The Society of Jesus (their critics called “Jesuits” in a derogatory sense, arguing that the Society misappropriated the name of Jesus) was created in Paris in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola and his supporters.
One aim was “hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem”, although Jerusalem was difficult to reach and they concentrated on work in Europe. Ignatius established in 1543 a home for the converted Jews in Rome and early the Society was wracked by the question as to whether former Jews could become members.
A Jewish connection
There was probably a Jewish connection with the formation of the Society of Jesus. Diego (Jaime) Laynez, Loyolo’s successor was from a family that was probably originally Jewish, as was Juan Alonso de Polanco, Loyola’s secretary. He was prepared to allow “new Christians” into the order and in 1552 admitted Giovann Baptista Eliano, a grandson of the Hebraist, Elijah Levita. By the end of the 16th century the order ruled against accepting “new Christians” and a later ruling in 1608 required at least five generations of Christian identity, which restriction was removed in 1946.
The 16th century was a difficult time for both Christians and Jews. Martin Luther gravely challenged conventional Christianity; the Inquisition and the expulsion of Spanish Jewry left many Jews in a state of religious fragility. These events combined to suggest to a German general, Erich Ludendorff that the Society of Jesus was created by Jews with the pope’s support in order to undermine Luther and eventually rule the world.
The Nazis added Freemasonry to the list of those making common cause with the Jews and the Jesuits, reflecting another paradox — the argument in some circles that freemasons were too pro-Jewish and in other quarters that they were too anti-Jewish.
Jesuit antagonism toward Jews in Poland
The claim that the Society of Jesus was anti-Jewish usually cites Jesuit antagonism toward Jews in Poland in the 18th century, although the Society had earlier attacked the excesses of the Portuguese Inquisition and Jesuit opposition to Alfred Dreyfus in France in the late 19th century (there were Jesuits in the pro-Dreyfus camp also).
More significant is the antisemitism of some Jesuit publications prior to 1946 although the Society repudiated Nazi racist doctrine and suffered under the Nazis. One of its leading members, Cardinal Bea was in the forefront of rapprochement with the Jews.
Both Jesuits and Jews have long been accused by their enemies as seeking world domination. Both would reply that they stand for spiritual and ethical doctrines which they believe are essential for civilisation to survive. Jesuits continue to hear (even from within the Church) that they are a mysterious force to be feared.
For more of Rabbi Apple’s articles on Jewish-Christian interfaith themes, visit his interfaith page.