50 Years of Nostra Aetate

jacobsBy Allan Jacobs*

It is my great privilege, as President of B’nai B’rith International, to thank you sincerely for your generous hospitality today. Like our interactions with your esteemed predecessors, our visit – as a delegation of B’nai B’rith representatives from cities across multiple continents – is meant to celebrate and affirm our organization’s profound investment in inter-communal relations, and particularly in the Catholic-Jewish friendship, at all levels in the more than 50 countries where B’nai B’rith maintains a grassroots presence.

B’nai B’rith, founded nearly 172 years ago by German Jewish immigrants to the United States, is the oldest Jewish communal, humanitarian and human rights advocacy organization. Our heritage is one, rooted in the millennia of Jewish history, of dynamic civil-society engagement in promoting service and fraternity both within the Jewish community and in relations between diverse communities.

The contemporary blossoming of an exceptional Christian-Jewish bond, enabled in substantial part by the contributions of the Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate” fifty years ago, is thus a source of immense satisfaction and hope for us. No less, this continuing, extraordinary transformation in the relationship between our faith communities can serve as a source of inspiration and optimism for so many others around the world, not least at a time of tensions and conflicts too often informed by religion. In order to make this possible, we must make the deepening Christian-Jewish kinship further known among our own adherents around the world – from clergy to educators to young people – and we must progress from dialogue to concrete partnership in tackling the array of challenges that confront our constituencies and all members of the human family. Among these are the protection of our shared environment, care for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the advancement of quality education for all, the encouragement of international peace, and the combating of all forms of extremism and bigotry.

In this vein, we thank you for the important contributions that you have already made during your pontificate. And as representatives of the Jewish community – and of an organization whose branch in Argentina was honored to consider you a beloved partner during your tenure in Buenos Aires – we specifically acknowledge you for advancing the path of your predecessors in signaling the Church’s commitment to the Jewish people, its respect for Judaism, its denunciation of persisting antisemitism, and its due recognition of the State of Israel. In turn, B’nai B’rith and the broad spectrum of the Jewish community extend love and support to our Christian friends worldwide – and we specifically offer our immense concern, and abiding solidarity, as Christians in so many parts of the Middle East are now faced with discrimination, threats and outright persecution. We have them in our thoughts and our prayers.

This acute mindfulness, however, is not merely a reflection of the Jewish duty to love our fellows as ourselves, and of the genuine severity of too many Christians’ circumstances. After all, particularly in the Middle East, Jews’ and Christians’ status as vulnerable minorities makes it imperative to recognize the common difficulties that our co-religionists bear in the very region where our faiths were born. The region’s complexity is self-evident. One thing, though, is clear: A violent fanaticism, rooted in theological convictions but manifested in political forms, poses a grave, persistent threat to the very lives of those whose existence it opposes. The international community is rightly aghast at the brutal path of the so-called Islamic State. At the same time, we continue to contend with the policies of the Iranian regime, the Islamic Republic. If it weren’t enough that Iran openly pledges Israel’s destruction and lethally empowers foremost terrorist groups – responsible for carnage as far away as Buenos Aires, whose unresolved 1994 AMIA bombing you have consistently highlighted – this most dangerous of governments has aggressively pursued the ability to acquire the most dangerous of weaponry. With the latest deadline in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program approaching, more attention needs to be paid to the telling fact that Iran’s actions have broadly united its neighbors – Arabs and Israelis alike – in urgent, and unprecedented, alarm.

An Iranian ability to obtain nuclear weaponry would prove an unparalleled impediment to international security, and it certainly would make regional peace all the more elusive. Accordingly, it remains so vital – and a matter of simple honesty – to recognize that addressing violent extremists is key to enabling greater stability and coexistence in the Middle East. Not least, tragically, no enduring Palestinian-Israeli peace can be possible as long as powerful forces deny the right of a Jewish state to live within any boundaries in Jews’ only ancestral homeland. It is in light of this that it is so important that Palestinians not be afforded incentives to pursue political aims outside of meaningful and direct negotiations, compromise and comprehensive bilateral agreement with Israel. Moreover, it is in light of Israel’s perseverance as a remarkable democracy in singularly trying conditions that we discern a perversion of ethics in a United Nations record condemning Israel more than all other countries, and in an economic warfare movement, present even in some religious denominations, that singles out the Jewish state for punitive campaigns. After all, Israel is the rare site in the Middle East of minority populations, Muslims and Christians alike, continuously growing. Devastatingly, far more life has been lost in only four years of strife in Syria than in almost seven decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Your Holiness, the delicacy of these issues is not lost on us, while their gravity weighs heavily indeed. The suffering of so many in our world is immense, and the potential for despondency very real. However, as a people that has faced innumerable challenges – and survived them all, by the grace of God – we know that the course of history cannot be reduced to the product of one moment’s set of circumstances; history unfolds in unexpected ways. As people of faith, we are confident that better times await, and we are committed to helping realize that future for all. And as a people blessed with true friends, not least among the world’s Catholics, we thank God that we are not alone in seeking harmony, justice and peace.

* Allan Jacobs is the B’nai B’rith International President. A multinational delegation of B’nai B’rith leaders met privately with Pope Francis on June 25 at the Vatican.