We Need More Words of Fraternity From the Church, Says European Rabbi

David Meyer, a leading figure in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Europe and a co-signer of a recent open letter to Pope Francis, discusses the controversies surrounding the Church’s stance in the ongoing Israeli-Hamas conflict.

Rabbi David Meyer
Rabbi David Meyer (photo: Courtesy photo)

The Vatican has been criticized by the Jewish world in recent weeks, for its handling of the conflict in Gaza triggered by the massacres committed by Hamas against the Israeli population on Oct. 7. A Nov. 17 open letter to the Pope, co-signed by some 400 Jewish rabbis and scholars, including leading figures in Jewish-Christian dialogue, suggested that the Holy See’s approach was too diplomatic and political. 

The audience granted Nov. 22 by Pope Francis to both Israeli and Palestinian delegations to discuss the conflict in the Middle East prompted additional strong reaction from members of the Council of the Assembly of Rabbis in Italy, who accused the Church authorities of equating the aggressor and the aggressed. While the Pope has not responded formally to these statements, the secretary of state of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, rejected the accusations, stating on Nov. 23 that “the Holy See tries in every way to be fair, to take into account the suffering of everyone.” These words echoed those of the president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who told the Italian press the same day that “Oct. 7 was a tragedy, period.” 

While he understands the Catholic hierarchy’s deep concern for the plight of the Palestinians — several thousand of whom were killed since the start of the Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza, where Christian communities also live — Rabbi David Meyer believes that its representatives should more explicitly express their fraternity toward the Jewish people, who are in a situation of existential threat. 

Rabbi Meyer is one of the five main signatories of the open letter initiated by Karma ben Johanan, professor of modern Christianity and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, along with other prominent Jewish personalities such as American Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a well-known voice in Jewish-Christian dialogue. 

A French-Israeli national, Rabbi Meyer is a writer and professor of rabbinic literature and contemporary Jewish thought at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In this interview with the Register, he advocates for a more open dialogue between Jews and Christians that does not overlook ethical differences and discusses related issues such as the religious analyses of the ongoing conflict and the upsurge in hostile acts by extremist Jews against Christians in the Holy Land in recent years.


What prompted you to sign this open letter to the Pope? 

What motivated me is the conviction that we are living in unique times. The Church has accustomed us to the reality of a wonderful dialogue that also allows frankness in the face of certain situations. The letter spread quite quickly within the Jewish community, with over 400 Jewish scholars and rabbis signing. It reflects a certain malaise regarding the Church’s attitude and response to the current crisis. 

I understand that the Israeli response in Gaza raises very serious ethical questions. This is perfectly legitimate, and the Church has every right to take an extremely critical view of what is being done on the ground. But that doesn’t take away the need for words of fraternity, not just words of diplomatic balance. 

What is very difficult for us is that we feel that the Church as an institution is not fully able to hear the cry of pain, of existential anguish of the Jewish people, which tends to be overshadowed by the apparent strength and power of the Israeli soldiers on the battlefield, with super-powerful weapons. I think we have to be very careful with images. These weapons exist, but we have to understand that, without them, we wouldn’t be here. The massacres of Oct. 7 attested to this. We’re surrounded by people, radical Islamist movements and all of their sympathizers and followers, who scream their hatred of Israel, who want nothing more than to slit our throats. We are plunged back into a historical reality that we thought was over. 

As a practitioner of dialogue, I believe it is legitimate to speak to Church leaders, or directly to the Pope, to express our feelings. Dialogue goes beyond a theological program where every word is weighed up. I’ve been teaching at the Pontifical University for years, in fabulous conditions of trust, friendship and closeness that were unthinkable 60 years ago. But while fraternity has been at the heart of all our mutual documents in recent years, in this crisis we sometimes wonder where our Catholic brothers are, as an institutional voice. It’s quite different with individuals of the Catholic faith, who are often very fraternal. 


Why do you think that a position of circumspection is problematic for a spiritual institution that also has a large number of faithful in Palestine? 

Through our interreligious dialogue, we see in the Church a kind of beacon of ethical discernment that can establish the difference between a massacre — that of Oct. 7, the largest since the Shoah — and a military operation that obviously causes countless deaths. This collateral damage is intolerable, unbearable, but there is a moral and ethical distinction to be made between these two actions, which the Church hierarchy in general fails to make. The content of the article that appeared on Vatican News following our letter, entitled “Saying ‘No’ to war, staying close to victims,” seems to reaffirm this position of the Church, which is turned exclusively towards the victims of all sides, whoever they may be.

What worries me in this respect is not the compassionate approach, which I think is in itself praiseworthy and just. It’s rather that by evoking only this dimension, it’s as if the Church was withdrawing from unfolding history, positioning itself in retreat of the dynamics of history; and this at the very moment when Judaism, through the state of Israel, is seeking not to remain on the sidelines of history and is seeking through its actions — which may be entirely questionable — to prevent the Jewish people from becoming victims once again. 

I see here two opposing movements, in opposite directions. I fear the dynamic of the Church withdrawing from history, for the Church has an essential part to play in the dynamics of history and the world. When it is in retreat, it leaves a void, and who knows who will fill that void?

There are many issues on which Judaism and Christianity do not share the same ethical vision, and this is perhaps reflected in this conflict. But we need to acknowledge this, which requires an extra effort of dialogue, not necessarily to convince the other but to explain, to understand why there is a distinct Jewish and Christian ethic in relation to conflicts in history. In fact, dialogue is needed precisely where and when we witness a difference in ethical perceptions; to demonstrate, by dialogue, that while ethics may differ, we are still in a brotherly relationship.


This need for dialogue has become more evident in recent years in the Holy Land, which has also been marked by an upsurge in hostile acts by Jewish extremists against Christians, causing some concern among local communities. Do you think these phenomena are merely episodic, or are we witnessing a Jewish-based fundamentalism taking root in the region? 

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s episodic, I think it’s very serious, and I’ve been worried about it for a long time. Irrespective of any conflict in Israel, I believe that there is currently a radicalization of a certain fringe of Judaism. The events you mention have been going on for a number of years in Israel, striking Christian communities or individuals. We can also see it in the Jewish community itself, between the different factions and also in relation to women in Israel. Whatever the crisis we are experiencing today, and whatever the need for unity, these phenomena must not just be condemned with empty words, but must generate deep reflection. Judaism needs to ask itself why, when we didn’t really have these phenomena in our tradition, radicalism is now part of a fringe of our religion. There is a real work of study and introspection to be done at [the] religious and community level, which will be painful, but which is absolutely necessary. We need to understand the mechanism by which these movements have gained ground, just when we thought we were immune to them. 

In this process, the least we can do is to express to our Christian friends the profound disgust that any sensitive person in Judaism must feel at the hostile acts they have been subjected to; and to let them know that we’re thinking about it, that we’re working to dismantle the mechanisms behind it. If we don’t tackle this phenomenon head-on, it will eventually destroy Judaism. 


This conflict also contains a strong religious and eschatological dynamic that goes beyond the territorial and civilizational dimension and divides Christians themselves. Some recognize in it the mark of prophecies given by Scripture about Israel before the return of Christ, while others view these parallels with much skepticism. As you are a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, how do you approach these questions with your students and Christian counterparts? 

I tend to be very wary of the eschatological interpretation of historical conflict. The rabbinic tradition tends to consider that eschatology — the world to come — will resemble the same world as this one, except that we’ll no longer be under the domination of nations. There will still be war, disease and injustice. There is a certain reluctance on the part of Judaism to engage in such an interpretation of conflict, while Christianity has a natural tendency to apply an eschatological reading. 

Because of the Shoah, the Jewish people tend to live essentially in the present, in the here and now, without always reflecting on what events mean in the more distant future. The problem with the eschatological approach, in my view, is that it can make us look away from history as it unfolds before our eyes and prevent us from seeing our enemies as they present themselves. 


You’re considered one of the leading figures of the liberal Jewish movement in Europe. How would you describe this current of thought, and what influence does it have in Israel? 

While I have no official ties with the liberal Jewish milieu, I do share, on an intellectual level, the same roots as a number of colleagues in the non-Orthodox Judaic tradition around the world — namely, the search for openness and new thinking that would enable us to break out of the confines and dead ends of the past and revive a certain dynamic. 

My self-critical approach to Judaism and Israel is not self-flagellation, but encourages the ability to look ourselves in the face and see where we’ve made mistakes, which is also a way of helping others to do the same. 

In Israel, this kind of Judaism has no echo at the moment, but the current context isn’t really conducive to it. This time of deep doubts about our ability to survive, as Israel, as Jews, must lead us to strike a balance between self-criticism and the search for unity. 


What short- or long-term solutions do you see as a way out of this conflict? 

It has to be said that many Jews feel a real sense of despair right now, which will have to be overcome and which is twofold. The first is that various polls have revealed that a large number of Palestinians approved of the massacres committed by Hamas on Oct. 7. The other is the absence of a viable political perspective that would offer independence and security to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Paradoxically, what could unite the two peoples today is the shared feeling of having been abandoned by those who were supposed to look after them; for Oct. 7 also represents the failure of the Israeli state, where only the military is functioning, the rest being carried out mostly by civil society. As for the Palestinians, I think many are wondering how Hamas and their government could have led them into such a situation. I think there could be, for the first time, the birth of a common feeling between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, which is that they are alone in the world, maybe failed by their respective representatives. Out of this distress could emerge a glimmer of hope, a new strength. As the rabbinic tradition teaches, “the call from below can awaken the call from above.” Or at least that’s my hope.