The 1991 Veech Memorial Lecture
Delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple
(Published in The Australasian Catholic Record, October 1992, vol. LXIX, no. 4.)
The Christian-Jewish encounter began on Australian soil on the day the First Fleet landed. Sixteen or so of the convicts were Jews, just under two per cent of the first convict complement. Probably hardly any of the Jews were conventionally religious, and it took another three decades or so for a Jewish congregation to emerge. But they more or less all knew each other from home and at times offered one another a helping hand. They were neither a congregation nor a community, but there was a sense of kinship and their banter was spiced with the London Jewish slang phrases they had brought with them, and indeed, at a later period in Australian history, one or two colloquial Jewish words entered the Australian vernacular.
They suffered little antisemitism. Officialdom made insulting comments about the Jews, but they addressed choice insults to everyone else too. Jews were compelled by the edicts of various governors to attend Sunday church parade, but compulsory Church of England worship was forced on all the Christians too. Fellow convicts probably felt a sense of tolerant amusement, or amused tolerance, towards the Jews, despite the remnants of antisemitic stereotypes that came with them from the old world. The Jews did not see themselves as pioneers of the ancient faith in a new land; it is highly doubtful whether any had any great wish to settle down and make a new home and carve out a new destiny in New South Wales. But in fact they turned out to be pioneers despite themselves, as did the early Christian arrivals. Between them they established the Australian pattern that does not go in for antisemitism and when it appears, generally rejects it as wrong, un-Christian and un-Australian.
WD Rubinstein of Deakin University, in a paper at a conference on antisemitism held in 1984, declared: “If an informed observer were asked… whether Australia, in comparison with other nations, has experienced a great deal of antisemitism or very little, he would be obliged to say that it has experienced very little.”
(We shall have to ask ourselves in a later section of this lecture why there has been a sharp, sudden upsurge in antisemitic incidents in the last couple of years, culminating in arson attacks on synagogues and Jewish buildings earlier in 1991.)
At the same conference, Lord Jakobovits, then Chief Rabbi of Britain, estimated that eighty to ninety-five per cent of citizens were basically decent and tolerant. Rubenstein made a suggestion: “We have at this conference been discussing antisemitism. Someone… ought to organise a conference on philosemitism, that is, admiration for the Jews… I am sure that one would find very much of it in Australia and throughout the Western world much more, I suspect, than the amount of antisemitism.”
Recently, his challenge has been taken up in literary form by Serge Liberman, who contributed a paper called “Gentile Champions of Jews in Australia” to a publication of the Council of Christians and Jews, Victoria. He writes impressively of such Christian friends of Jewry as the Rev. Adam Cairns, Governor Gawler, Bishop Charles Venn Pilcher, the Rev. Professor Robert Anderson and others. All deserve the accolade that Liberman bestows on them. But the question that emerges from his paper is quite clearly this: in a country that has known so little antisemitism, why has there been so little philosemitism?
For Jews, as members of a tiny minority group, the way they are viewed and treated by the majority is a matter of great significance (so much so that many imagine insults when none are intended). For Christians, the question of attitudes to Jews and Judaism – especially on Australian in Australia, the question of attitudes to Jews has largely been a non-event. The issue has hardly figured on the Christian agenda. It has been largely an irrelevancy. Christians have been neither antisemitic nor philosemitic but indifferent to the whole question.
Because of their small numbers, Jews have not impinged on the daily life of most Christians. Apart from those who live in certain suburbs or work in certain industries, Christians have tended to know of Jews, but not to know Jews. The Jew as a figure of evil in parts of Christian literature, as a figure of fun in certain types of cartoons and caricatures, has been a myth, not identifiable with present-day fellow Australians. The more pressing concern for Australian Christians has usually been the other Christians; the sectarian warfare in Australia has hardly ever involved Jews – but Christian and Christian, that has been the absorbing issue of mutual antagonism. Until recent years, only rarely has a Christian been told that you cannot understand Christianity without reference to its Jewish origins and context. Even now, in some circles, the Christian theology of supersessionism is so axiomatic that there is hardly a thought as to whether Jews, too, might be an authentic, valid, legitimate faith in the eyes of God.
Christians might have been indifferent to Jews: Jews – especially in the age of emancipation, which began at about the same time as the European settlement of Australia – could never be indifferent to Christians. The emancipation of European Jewry brought the Jew into the mainstream of western culture. His relationship with the host society was sometimes fragile and tenuous. In places he was prepared to dilute, alter or abandon his Jewish heritage to secure acceptability and respectability in the eyes of the gentiles. He exerted himself to create a positive self-image and to demonstrate that, if no longer restrained and restricted by repressive measures that emanated from the Christian teaching of contempt, he could contribute mightily to the new ideas and opportunities of the nineteenth century.
Thus, from the earliest period of Australian history, Jews wanted Christians to think well of them. The history of Jewish contributions to Australia’s development has been told in the last few years by several writers, and it is clear that there is not an area of human endeavour on this continent in which Jews have not been prominent. Their motivation has been much more than building up social acceptability for themselves, however. It has been an expression of good citizenship, which in itself expresses the values of the Jewish tradition. Hence the disproportionately large numbers of Jews in the colonial legislatures and local government authorities. In turn, this brought respect from fellow citizens and ensured that antisemitism would not be allowed to grow.
The Jewish group as a group received a mixed response when it started to organise itself. In 1820 part of the Devonshire Street cemetery in Sydney was allocated to the Jews by the Rev. William Cowper, who wrote, “All the Jews are most respectful in their conduct towards me.”
Governor Darling, on the other hand, was not well-disposed. He believed there to have been “agitation and open criticism of the Government by the Jewish community”, though it was not the Jewish group as such but certain Jewish individuals who had, probably rightly, criticised his policies. He refused Abraham Polack’s application for a synagogue, observing, “It is hard if they cannot procure some other representative. Put away (the application).”
The fledgling congregation subsequently gained the credibility it desired with the appointment of Joseph Barrow Montefiore as president. At this stage the issue at stake appeared to have been the respectability of the congregation and the social standing of its leaders. No major ideological dimensions were involved. But the 1840s, with the application for State Aid for the Jewish community, inevitably raised the major conceptual question of whether Australia was a Christian nation and whether State Aid to the Jews would, as one ofthe protagonists in the debate put it, “unchristianise” the colony.
It was not only New South Wales in which the issue arose; in each colony the Jews launched their campaign, apparently independently of each other, and with somewhat varying results. Everywhere the Jewish congregations handled their case with remarkable maturity. There was none of the timidity that attached to the moves for emancipation in some other places; the debate was vigorous and unapologetic. It based itself on the religious equality and toleration that ought to prevail in a modern, liberal state. The colonial press supported the Jewish claim; the Australian, for instance, wrote that the Jews “are entitled to the same rights of civil, political and religious liberty which their fellow subjects of different religious opinions enjoy”. Various arguments were advanced in opposition to the Jewish petitions, which on a number of occasions were presented on behalf of the Jewish community by WC Wentworth. The claim that this was a Christian country based itself on the precedent of the mother country, though in response to this others said that Judaism was a special case since it was from Judaism that Christianity itself emanated. Some were fearful of creating precedents, and of being compelled to aid also the Moslems and pagans. An argument heard in England that the Jews were a nation apart, and an alien presence, was voiced only once; it was obvious to all that the Jews of Australia were part and parcel of colonial society and did not fit the hostile stereotypes.
It should be said that the Jews both benefited from and benefited the struggles of the non-Anglicans for religious equality. Because by now the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and others had long been challenging the hegemony of the Church of England, the principle that this was a Christian country with an established church had been weakened and it was thus more difficult to deny tolerance to Jews. In turn, the debates about equal rights for Jews strengthened the claims of the Catholics and others. If the argument against Jewish rights hinged on this being a Christian country, it became more difficult to deny the rights of non-Anglican Christians.
The specific results of the State Aid petitions are not as important as the principle involved, and in making their stand for that principle the Jewish communities confirmed their own position as an equal, if smaller and different, religious denomination, and established the right to be represented amongst religious communities in contexts and on occasions when the state accorded dignity to religion.
To this day, of course, it is often said that Australia is a Christian nation. It is true that certain formal occasions appear to have a Christian character; the Bicentennial celebrations on 26 January, 1988, for instance, included a Christian prayer from the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Parliament and the courts likewise employ certain vestiges of Christianity. These Christian manifestations have generally been condoned by Jews, but not without embarrassment. Their preference would be for the non-denominational format followed in public Anzac commemorations, which allow non-Christians and non-believers to participate without problems of conscience. The argument would be that Australia has no established church, which in any case would contravene the Commonwealth constitution, and should not even inadvertently give the impression of having one.
When reference is made to a Christian country, however, most people would see this as morse code for the statement that the mores, institutions, and social and ethical principles of Australia rely on Biblical assumptions which came to Australia as part of the British heritage. In this sense the assertion is no embarrassment to Jews in any way. Perhaps they would prefer a phrase such as Judeo-Christian, which is in fact sometimes heard for all its linguistic inelegance and ideological inexactitude. But they would clearly prefer an Australia deriving moral stability from the Bible to any godless alternative.
Collaboration in the service of Biblical principles was a feature of the Christian-Jewish encounter in Australia from colonial times. When, after years in temporary premises, the Jews of Sydney built the York Street Synagogue in 1844, gentiles contributed to the costs and attended the dedication ceremony, a precedent often followed when Jewish houses of worship were erected. In turn, Jews contributed towards Christian institutions, starting with Solomon Levey who, in the 1820s, gave to the Scots Church building fund, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, St Mary’s Church and the Sydney Benevolent Society. Charitable and philanthropic causes, including the hospitals and asylums, attracted cooperation between Jews and Christians. Leading churchmen spearheaded campaigns to assist the various Palestine appeals in the mid-nineteenth century, and, from the 1880s on, the appeals to assist suffering Jews in Russia. Often the appeal meetings were attended and addressed by the most influential clergymen of the city. Outbreaks of antisemitism usually led to a certain degree of Christian protest – though probably at no stage could it be said that the churches and their leaders and congregations mounted a demonstrative, massive protest movement. lan Gillman writes, “While antisemitism was not strong, it was not entirely absent by any means, if to judge only from the work of the cartoonists, and again Christian protest was, at most, muted. It would seem that on the whole the churches did nothing, probably in the hope that the issue would die away if ignored.”
We have to ask two questions. One, how could these Christians who assisted Jewish causes and objected to antisemitism square this with a theology that had a negative view of Judaism? And two, why was Christian protest at antisemitism not more decisive? To the first question the answer is that no theological implications were drawn by most from essentially moral and humanitarian deeds; to the second, either Gillman is right that the churches waited for the issue to go away, or, simply, as we have suggested earlier, the Jews and their problems were simply irrelevant to many Christians.
This is not to say that Christian sermons, homilies, publications and theological courses did not frequently mention the Jews. But they were not the living Jews who were part of the contemporary Australian society. They were the bogeymen of the time of Christian beginnings. With rare exceptions, so rare as to be insignificant, the churchmen of the nineteenth century (and those of the first part of the twentieth, and still some today) had no theological space for Jews. Conventional christology required the belief that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, Judaism had been superseded and replaced by Christianity, the Old Testament was inferior to the New, and the task of Christians was to bring Jews to the true faith.
There was little interest in checking the Gospel accounts against the background of history, in viewing the Hebrew Scriptures on their own merits, in discovering the truth about rabbinic writings and teachings, in hearing what the Jews themselves had to say, or in according Judaism independent legitimacy and validity.
Australian Christians were no different from those in other lands in their assessment of Judaism. Like Anglo-American Christians, they were less extreme in their condemnation of Judaism than were German theologians. Australia produced no major theological writing on the subject from either the Christian or the Jewish side, though no-one has yet properly examined what there is in leaflet form or in the Christian or Jewish newspapers of the time. At times, Jews objected vigorously when derogatory references to their faith were made by leading churchmen. Generally the answer came that no offence was intended and the author was only quoting what emanated from his theology. There was, however, no feeling that in the interests of good relations or, more important still, historical accuracy or religious tolerance, that theology could be re-examined.
Missions to the Jews continued but never achieved very much. In many cases the missionaries were themselves former Jews. They mounted missionary campaigns and wrote tracts and claimed successes, but the results were infinitesimal. The few Jews who did succumb were, one churchman told a Jewish colleague, the Rev. Elias Blaubaum, generally motivated by material considerations. “They are no credit to you, and they are no credit to us,” he concluded.
The tone of the Christian-Jewish encounter became relatively quieter and more diplomatic with the advent of the early decades of the twentieth century. On the Jewish side, the vigorous controversialists such as Blaubaum, who wielded an influential pen as editor of the Jewish Herald, were followed by ecclesiastical diplomats such as Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen of Sydney and Rabbi Jacob Danglow of Melbourne. They were the ideological leaders of a philosophy of non-distinctiveness or non-conspicuousness, which dominated Australian Jewry until the 1930s. That does not mean that they failed to speak out when they found it necessary. Danglow, for instance, made frequent representations on behalf of his community to his Christian friends in high places, but it was always as the English gentleman that he was. Cohen used his pulpit for dignified but forthright answers to Christian claims that might have misled Jews into accepting christological interpretations of scripture. Since his sermons were reported verbatim on the front page of the weekly Hebrew Standard they became public knowledge. The Jewish Herald attacked him, declaring that “public criticism of matters that do not concern us will benefit nobody”. The Australian Jewish Chronicle, which disagreed with him on most other subjects, responded in Cohen’s defence: “The fear of possible offence should not deprive Jews of the courage to stand for the soundness of the doctrines to which they cling.” Cohen, Danglow and other rabbis were respected public figures, on good terms with the leading churchmen of all denominations, and regularly addressed Christian audiences, though this did not prevent outbreaks of controversy in which, let it be said, Christian leaders generally applauded the rabbis for their skill in handling potentially explosive situations.
With the gathering of the clouds over Europe in the 1930s the agenda of the Christian-Jewish encounter changed. Australia was no longer a small, dependent dominion which sought and had no voice in the counsels of the nations. Protest at Nazi policies, the task of countering Nazi-style propaganda in Australia, support for continental Jews dislodged after centuries of participation in European culture, and help for the refugees – all became major priorities for attention and action. Australian Jewry mobilised itself as never before. For the first time, the churches played a vital, visible cooperative role in issues which had Jewish as well as wider humanitarian ramifications. The unique tower of strength was Charles Venn Pilcher, assistant Anglican bishop of Sydney. If anyone was a philosemite, it was Pilcher. Stephen Judd and Kenneth Cable write of him in Sydney Anglicans: “Pilcher made more of a mark in the Jewish community than in Anglican circles. An ardent Zionist, he championed many Jewish causes. He was in the forefront of the fight to have Jewish refugees admitted to Australia during World War II, and to ensure that those interned were fairly treated. He worked hard to re-unite Jewish refugee families. Pilcher, strongly in favour of a Palestinian homeland for the Jews, was Chairman of the Australian Palestine Committee. By comparison the impact of his twenty years as Assistant Bishop was slight.”
The authors could have added that Pilcher also warmly supported Dr IN Steinberg in his efforts to secure a Jewish homeland in the Kimberleys, and presided over a conference of Protestant leaders to enlist their support. In a moving chapter about Bishop Pilcher, Steinberg writes in his book, Australia – the Unpromised Land: “He believed that the appalling disaster that had befallen the Jews of Europe was also in part the guilt of the Christian world. The time had now come for the Christian world to purge itself of the stain, and to rehabilitate itself in the regard of those who were persecuted and hunted. This the Church could achieve not by saving the souls of others, but first of all by saving her own soul.”
But not every Australian shared the nobility of such sentiments. The refugees confronted hostility, partly as the results of the spread in Australia of the racist Nazi propaganda that had caused them such harm and havoc in Europe. Smith’s Weekly carried antisemitic cartoons and articles at precisely the time when intolerance was doing its worst on the continent. Church leaders made their disapproval of such racism quite clear, but the problem was too big to be handled piecemeal. Early in 1942, therefore, Rabbi Israel Porush of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, suggested an interdenominational council which would collectively combat the evils of racism and intolerance. Eventually, in November of that year a mass protest meeting at Sydney Town Hall addressed the issue of the growing Holocaust and the rescue of the victims of Nazism. A resolution supported by the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches and the Jewish community was carried. It read in part: “We repudiate any suggestion of race superiority, and insist that antisemitism is contrary to the spirit and commands of the Christian religion, and equally remote from the ideals of the United Nations. We trust that all people will yet unite to eliminate these corrupting influences from national life, and will assist in any effort towards the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine in conformity with the just claims of equal rights for all peoples.”
Finally, the spirit of interreligious cooperation resulted in the establishment in 1943 of a Council of Christians and Jews, with the initial meeting chaired by Archbishop Mowll. As well as countering intolerance and arousing the public to the appalling plight of the Jewish people, the Council worked to build cooperation and friendship between Jews and Christians. While the Catholic Church made clear its support of the general principles of the Council, it was hesitant to extend its full support because of the question of Palestine. Archbishop Gilroy asked that the question of Palestine not be discussed, but the Council could not agree to omit it and the Archbishop’s representative withdrew at one stage, returning only after the Council gave appropriate assurances.
In a reminiscence of events at the time, Dr JM Machover recalled that the Roman Catholic authorities in Australia seemed to be no more than lukewarm in their response to the suffering of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Rabbi Porush and Machover went to see the Apostolic Delegate to ask for the Pope’s intervention on behalf of European Jews faced with annihilation at the hands of Hitler. They were told that their request would be transmitted to Rome. They were also given the impression that church concern was primarily for Roman Catholic priests and teachers in Poland, and were asked if the Jews, who were said to control the press, could do something about this problem. Machover adds that the Catholic Herald advised the Jews to accept baptism and so save their lives. What he does not add is that this indicates how out of touch with reality one had to be to advocate such a simplistic solution. Catholic views on the Palestinian question were likewise insular. Apart from the theological problems that a resurgent Jewish people would represent, returning to rebuild its homeland on the ancient soil, there was apprehension that the holy places in Jerusalem would be under threat if the Jews were in charge.
A major achievement of the Council of Christians and Jews was a great Brotherhood Rally at the Sydney Town Hall, at which the following Brotherhood Pledge was adopted:
I will judge each man as I find him, NOT according to his race or religion.
I will never condemn a whole people because of a few black sheep.
I will have no share in spreading rumour and scandal about any section of the community.
I will at all times work for friendship and understanding among all people, without which lasting peace is impossible.
All told, the Council lasted five years. Now the war was over, the religious coalition could not maintain the momentum, though individual churchmen continued to be involved in the search for solutions to the critical problems that beset the Jewish world. Bishop Pilcher did not flag in his energy or efforts and continued to promote Jewish interests including the movement for a Jewish state in Palestine. But in a private letter he admitted,”The battle which I am trying to fight on behalf of the Jews is, on the whole, a rather lonely one, as the majority of Church leaders seem so terribly indifferent.”
However, whether they supported his efforts or not, Australian Christians could not keep the Jewish people off, or low down on, their agendas. Never again would Jews be irrelevant. For a whole gamut of reasons, the churches had to address the issues. The Holocaust left Christians with guilt feelings. Something had to be done to help Jews to find stability, new homes and new hopes. New ideas were afoot within the churches themselves and in the intellectual world, and many conventional concepts and ways came under scrutiny. Goodwill was building up towards other Christian groups; and there was a groundswell of desire for rapprochement with the Jews.
Had the churches been able to set the agenda, the areas of relationship with the Jews which they would have chosen to deal with first may have been different. Had they been able to choose their own partner in dialogue, they would have preferred a Judaism that was different from the reality – a Judaism that had much less peoplehood and ethnicity about it. But it was neither the churches nor the Jews who set the postwar agenda, but the forces of history. Three issues in particular had to be addressed, all intertwined.
There was antisemitism. On the international level, all mainstream churches made statements condemning antisemitism in theory and practice. The most dramatic statements on the subject emanated from the Roman Catholic Church, whose mea culpa reflected its own special role in Jew-hatred over the centuries. In Australia, as elsewhere, the Catholics took the lead in examining writings and textbooks in order to present Jews in a positive light, and embarked upon a planned series of educational programmes to help clergy and teachers understand and explain the Jewish tradition. Other denominations made their contribution to the effort, and it must be said that the much maligned multicultural society is increasingly helping towards the goal. Because so many faiths and cultures today share this land, mutual understanding has become a priority of the education system, and knowledge of Judaism is being spread in countless areas of Australia which have never seen a Jew. There is much more that needs to be done. The recent literary controversy between Mr Mark Leibler and the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, whilst it may have become too big an issue and inflamed sensibilities unnecessarily, indicates that no longer is it enough to teach traditional texts without awareness of the need for care and delicacy. One of the commentators on the controversy has wisely suggested that the texts should be presented with an accompanying midrash that will give students a contextual background and modulate and mediate the classical words.
Further questions need to be asked about the antisemitism of recent years. It has been said that the postwar honeymoon with the Jews is over. No longer will antisemitism remain at a low ebb because of sympathy for Jewish suffering. But in Australia, something more than receding guilt feelings has created the conditions that lie behind a frightening series of recent incidents. Can the churches do more to contain antisemitic tendencies, especially among newer ethnic groups that may have forgotten to leave their antipathies behind when they came to Australia? Why do the churches not mount a major campaign against antisemitism and all kinds of group hatreds? Surely they need no reminder that if my synagogue is threatened, no-one’s house of worship is safe. The antisemitic upsurge in Sydney early this year remains a puzzle: but why did every church leader in Australia not loudly condemn acts which were clearly un- and anti-Australian? Why did every church congregation not come forward to help the Jews to rebuild their synagogues? Why did church groups not volunteer to mount security patrols around all the synagogues and Jewish schools until the danger was past? That, after all, is brotherhood: when you hurt, I feel the pain. I recognise, of course, with much gratitude and appreciation, the not insignificant support the Jewish community did receive at a testing time, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that overall, moral courage seems in short supply.
The Holocaust is the second issue which the churches are compelled by history to place on the agenda. Here the focus of the problem has shifted. Much was done to assist Jewish survivors. Much was done to indicate the shock with which Christians realised that they had contributed towards the tragedy by the centuries of teaching the theology of antipathy to Jews and Judaism. Now deeper questions are beginning to be asked. The Jews ask, Where was God at Auschwitz. The question for Christians should be, Where was man? How could so many Nazis, and so many other gentiles in Poland and elsewhere, carry out atrocities without apparent conscience, when they had been brought up in the churches and Christian schools and classes to know what is right and wrong? How could so many Christian pastors and priests not only condone but actively support the Nazi programme, and how could so many others remain silent?
Australia is no different to other countries when it comes to issues that the Holocaust forces us to face, but it is different all the same, because we have proportionately more Holocaust survivors than anywhere outside Israel. They are living remembrancers, witnesses, admonishers in our midst. We cannot brush the questions aside and deny or relativise the Holocaust events, because the eye-witnesses are there to bring us back to reality. Nor can we allow ourselves unworthy comments that suggest how tired we are of the Jews protesting overmuch. For the Holocaust happened to mankind, not just to Jews: its implications are universal, not just for the Jewish people. I offer at this point an extract from a recent article of my own.
The Very Rev. James Parks Morton of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in the New York said, “Auschwitz was the single most important event of the twentieth century, a paradigm of the advanced, intellectual, industrial, technological society gone to hell.”
Never was there such a confrontation between two diametrically opposed world views: as Jacob Talmon expresses it, “between the morality and paganism; between the sanctity of life and the cult of warfare; between the quality of all men and the supremacy of the selected few; between the search for truth and the discharge of instinctive impulses; between the vision of a genuine society of equals and the prospect of a society of masters lording it over slaves.”
A reviewer of Walter Laqueur’s book, “The Terrible Secret”, poses this question: “From where, if not from the Holocaust, a premonition ofthe death rattle of the thermonuclear age, can come the testimony and the warning that man is capable of the worst as he is capable of the best, that through madness or blindness, he may transform the planet into a crematorium?”
The Holocaust starkly confronts our generation with the paradigm of what can happen if man does not see in his fellow the face of a brother man; if, instead of using the new means of communication as media for dialogue, man blatantly or subliminally peddles lies and distorts the truth; if man prefers to see the whole world destroyed rather than rejoice to see other people peacefully inhabit their own little corner in the sun…
The Holocaust is not just one more chapter of Jewish suffering: it is a message to the world. In a world in which Jews can be ground down by the jackboots of inhumanity; no-one is safe anywhere. In a world in which the glass of the synagogues can be wantonly shattered, nobody’s sanctuary or identity or ideology is safe any more.
That is why people everywhere should develop an obsession with the Holocaust if they value their future.
Christian leaders and teachers in Australia have generally acquitted themselves worthily when it comes to commemorating and considering the Holocaust. In New South Wales the lead amongst churchpeople in this area has been taken by Major Gerben Stelstra of the Salvation Army, whose personal testimony of suffering in the terrible years ensures that hearts are moved and minds aroused. Christian teachers have begun to find ways of teaching the Holocaust. Groups of Christians have also inaugurated Christian liturgies of commemoration; a notable example is a Christian service on Holocaust Day this year at the Martyr’s Memorial at Rookwood Cemetery in western Sydney.
The third, and in many ways most surprisingly difficult issue on the Christian-Jewish agenda, is Israel. Not until a full history of Australian Zionism has been written will it be possible to trace fully the changing attitudes of the churches to pre-1948 moves for a Jewish state, and subsequent events in and affecting Israel over the nearly forty-four years of its existence. For our purpose, let us separate the question into two: the conceptual question of the theological status of Israel, and the ethical question of the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians since the Six Day War in 1967.
It came as a shock, Father John Pawlikowski has written, to hear a Jewish speaker tell Christians, “For us Jews, Israel is our Jesus”. The assertion is of course inaccurate, insensitive and unhelpful. But what is Israel to the Jew, and what does it say to the Christian?
Israel matters so much to Jews that Christians ask to be told why. Is Israel simply a political entity? If so, the observer has an emaciated view of Judaism, separating faith from land, and seeing the land without the perspective of faith history. Is Israel to be viewed in terms of its moral value (i.e. Jews are entitled to a place of refuge and survival)? But that ignores the question of the mystique Israel has for Jews which makes them adamant that it must be this land and no other. Is Israel a stage in the messianic fulfilment? Most Jews say yes and insist that it is God at work in history that has brought the people back to the land, made green the waste places and renewed Jewish creativity and spiritual purpose.
There is debate amongst Jews on the precise ideological assessment of Israel, and the debate will certainly continue. No Jew, though, would deny that there is ideological significance to Israel, and some would take their ideological commitment to passionate extremes.
For Christians the ideological problem is more difficult. A range of theologies of the Land of Israel is found within the churches. An important presentation of the spectrum of ideas occupied a special 1989 issue of Immanuel, published by the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel. Three basic Christian theological attitudes are discerned. One says the State of Israel is of virtually no theological significance. A second, at the opposite extreme, perceives the hand of God in Israel, and says, “The message which God told the prophet to declare to all nations is that the gathering of Israel is the purpose and achievement of God… An anti-Zionist… does not only oppose the Zionist movement, but also the impelling power of the return of Israel: the Almighty God Himself” (U Jaervilehto in Christian Zionism and its Biblical Basis, 1985). A third view stands between the other two and says that the return of the Jewish people to their land testifies to God’s faithfulness to His promise, but does not necessarily require, in terms of Christian theology, a sovereign Jewish state. This third view seems to represent the approach of the churches with whom there is dialogue with the Jews. It appears also to cover the churches which the Jewish community encounters in Australia.
The issue of Israel is, however, not a merely theological question. Here too history has set the agenda. The Jewish State of Israel exists, and whilst the theological assessment will and must continue, the Christian-Jewish encounter raises urgent practical questions such as the Vatican’s long delay in officially recognising Israel’s existence. The Pope has made it clear that it is not doctrine but politics which stands in the way of recognition, and Australian Catholic leaders have repeatedly expressed their surprise that recognition has taken so long. After all, states (including the Vatican) officially recognise other states of whose policies they do not entirely approve. And in this case, official Vatican statements continuously refer to the State of Israel in respectful terms and the Vatican maintains quite a high level presence there.
The problem of the Palestinians is the major aspect of the Middle East situation to cause repeated controversy between Australian Jews and Christians. Christian missions to the Middle East come back with unbalanced reports, the religious press carries material that is heavily slanted against Israel, and Christian-Jewish meetings on the subject characteristically see more evenhandedness on the Jewish than on the Christian side. In this respect the Australian Council of Churches frequently jeopardises the whole Christian-Jewish dialogue, and the World Council of Churches Assembly in Canberra in 1991 failed to handle the issues with fairmindedness or responsibility.
The whole question of Israel throws into sharp focus the dilemma created for Christian theology in the fact of a healthy, resurgent, independent Jewish people in its own land. The Jews seem to be more in God’s favour than was expected. Professor Robert Anderson, the courageous scholar and thinker whose work in Christian-Jewish dialogue in Victoria is unique, has said:
“Supersessionism, aided as it was by canonical texts and persuasive interpretation, is the chief source of the attitude and stance that have poisoned relationships between Judaism and Christianity over the long centuries. It is supersessionism that wrote the agenda for the past; it is supersessionism that must be the central agenda item for the present… Only its removal from Christian theological formulation, root and branch, can offer the possibility of genuine and lasting relationships between the two faiths. Its removal has to be carried out without equivocation.”
The allied question of Christian mission to the Jews is also an agenda item of high priority. Opening Catholic-Jewish discussions in Sydney some years ago, Father John Scullion categorically stated that the Roman Catholic commitment to proselytism amongst Jews has irreversibly changed. Other Australian churches have not yet all reached the point at which they can accept that the Jew, like believers in any other faith, should not be demeaned, but his genuine conviction and commitment as a Jew respected and left untouched. The Leibler-Archbishop Rayner correspondence to which I have referred seems to indicate that much more thinking on this question will now proceed amongst Australian Anglicans. Without the abandonment of the open or hidden conversionist agenda, Christians disqualify themselves from dialogue with Jews.
The last decade or two have seen much encouraging development in the Christian-Jewish encounter in Australia. Apart from the growing network of friendly contacts between Jewish and Christian leaders and their communities, several official bodies have come into existence to formalise and articulate the spirit of cordiality. In 1973 a group of Christian and Jewish clergy sought to set up a Council of Christians and Jews in New South Wales, but when they saw that there would be problems with the Anglican authorities they founded instead a Christian-Jewish Study Centre that has continued to function very successfully ever since. A formal Council was achieved in Victoria in the 1980s, followed by a similar body in New South Wales three years ago. Both owe their stability to the devotion and a vision of small groups of stalwarts, amongst whom the Sisters of Sion have played a crucial role. Both have the official blessing and active involvement of the heads of all the mainstream Christian and Jewish communities. A national body is now in process of formation.
Not all is plain sailing by any means. Apart from the fact that grassroots Jews and Christians are not yet widely involved, numbers of clergy on both sides are antagonistic or at best suspicious. Within the actual active participants, there are occasions when unexpected misunderstandings create agonies of conscience. One moment we say, “How well we understand each other!” The next moment we remark, “How little we understand each other!” But the real achievement is that we are at ease in each other’s company and can talk frankly but lovingly about our mutual concerns. We are sensitive and mutually respectful, and are determined to give the lead in these attitudes to our own communities and to our respective organs of the religious press, so that aggressiveness and arrogance do not imperil the encounter at any level.
Over and above the creation of greater understanding between us, we must, Christians and Jews, continuously explore ways of bringing our collective wisdom to bear on all the moral and social issues of our society. Now that we have a voice, we will need to learn to speak. We will not always say the same thing as each other; each tradition has its own emphases, its own insights, its own idiom. But society must come to look to us for a serious joint attempt to explore the moral and spiritual dimensions of its problems and possibilities.
Let the last word be with Rabbi Norman Solomon, the great academic leader of the Christian-Jewish cause in Britain. “A Kingdom of God is within our grasp,” he writes, “but only if we cast aside doctrinal strife, whether religious or political, and see clearly our common mission. Adam was set in the Garden ‘to till it and to look after it’. This is the mission God has entrusted to us – to look after the planet in which He has set us, to build His kingdom on earth. Let us walk together with our one God the path of conciliation and redemption. Else, we shall lose our tenuous grasp on the Kingdom and plunge the world into a new barbarism…”
Peace itself, and the future of mankind, hang on the success of the interfaith enterprise.
Is this too bold a claim?