My great-grandfather, Pawel Turowsky, came to the United States from the Russian Empire in 1907. Two years before, the failed Russian Revolution of 1905—harbinger of the successful Revolution twelve years later—had been brutally crushed by the Tsar’s forces. A wave of state-sponsored violence against Russia’s Jewish population, scapegoated for the rebellion, soon followed. My great-grandfather, who was either Jewish himself or had some amount of Jewish paternal ancestry (accounts within my family vary), fled to the then-more-liberal Germany, then crossed the Atlantic on the British steamship Westernland and entered the US through the Port of Philadelphia. After short stints in various industrial regions in the Northeastern US and Central Canada, he settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he met and married my great-grandmother in 1910.
When my maternal aunts—both much older than my mother—were growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, they would visit Pawel’s home every Sunday after Mass. Massachusetts had “blue laws” then that closed most public places on Sundays so there wasn’t much else to do. My aunts would go their grandfather’s house for a cup of chicken soup and a nickel apiece—not chump change in those days, at least not for small children. The chicken soup and the nickel were typical expressions of love from an elderly, emotionally constipated midcentury man. What was less typical was that he would answer the door with a knife clenched in his hand. Presumably he was consciously aware that the people visiting were his granddaughters. However, somewhere beneath his consciousness, in the part of the human brain that trauma permanently and heritably changes, he was convinced that he was in Russia again and the Tsar’s Cossacks were at his front door.
People both then and now have characterized my great-grandfather as paranoid—but, as my mother observes, it’s not paranoia if people actually are or were out to get you.
My great-grandfather’s story, while dramatic, isn’t entirely atypical for the “white ethnic” working class of twentieth-century America. Catholics and Jews were both integral parts of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal voting coalition (although Catholics were already beginning to drift off by the 1950s, mostly due to Cold War anticommunism). At least in the Northeast, they lived in the same downscale urban and suburban neighborhoods. “Cultural Catholic” icons like Frank Sinatra and Martin Scorsese grew up with Jewish neighbors, friends, and in some cases family members. While antisemitic ideas were certainly present in the working-class Catholic culture in America at the time (the viciously antisemitic radio priest Charles Coughlin attracted a massive following during the Great Depression before being forced off the air by his diocese), it was a fact of life that Catholics and Jews were, in many ways, in the same boat.
Needless to say, this had not, traditionally, been the case in Europe. The genocidal antisemitism of the twentieth century was racist and pseudoscientific rather than religious and pseudotheological in character. However, European Gentiles had been primed to accept racially antisemitic ideas via centuries of religiously antisemitic rhetoric, sometimes issuing from the highest levels of the Church. From the High Middle Ages onward, the papacy fell under pressure to legitimate antisemitic mass movements within Christendom. Many Popes, beginning with Callixtus II, responded by attempting to protect the Jews. However, others, such as Gregory IX, instead sanctioned state violence and repression against the Jewish community in their capacities as secular rulers. In the sixteenth century the system of Jewish ghettos emerged, a system that, in Italy, was fostered and implemented by Popes Paul IV, Pius IV, and Pius V, again in their capacities as secular rulers of much of the peninsula. In much of Western Europe this system continued for up to three hundred years and was finally ended not by a change in papal policy but by Enlightenment-influenced secular or anticlerical regimes. It was this system that the Third Reich sought to replicate and intensify in occupied Poland before resorting to outright genocide. As late as the turn of the twentieth century, elements within the Vatican supported explicitly antisemitic political endeavors under the aegis of Cardinal Secretary of State Mariano Rampolla, who would have become Pope in 1903 if not for a veto exercised by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I.
It was only during and after the Holocaust that the Vatican began to consistently repudiate antisemitic policies and ideas. By the time of the Second Vatican Council the sensus fidelium in most of the world was that past Church actions against the Jews had been unfair, oppressive, and not justifiable by any covenant theology. The Vatican II document that normalized relations with the global Jewish community was Nostra aetate. This did receive more dissenting votes among the Council fathers than most of the other documents but it still passed 2,221 to 88. In terms of percentage, that’s 96% to 4%.
Time passed. Nostra aetate permeated the life of the Church. The second of the two 1978 conclaves elected the most pro-Jewish Pope in history, John Paul II. Most people throughout the final third of the twentieth century would probably have said that the Catholic-Jewish reconciliation process was going quite well.
History has a way of not staying history. “The past isn’t prologue,” said William Faulkner, no stranger to life in the aftermath of racial strife and oppression. “It’s not even past.” In the past five years, and especially since white American Catholics began to succumb en masse to the Trump mystique, I have seen expressions in Catholic circles of attitudes that I once believed had died out forty or fifty years ago.
Publicly verifiable examples of these attitudes are many. Catholic pundits such as Austin Ruse make a habit of attacking the same set of female, ethnically-Jewish Catholic bloggers over and over and over again. Here is Ruse feigning shock that going out of his way to attack people with names like Simcha Fisher and Dawn Eden Goldstein is being taken as antisemitic. (In his attempt to deflect charges of antisemitism he’s also being profoundly sexist and unkind to the disabled—“lady-bloggers”? “Political Tourette’s”? Surely Crisis has some kind of style guideline about using this sort of language.) The target of Ruse’s ire is these bloggers’ criticisms of institutions such as Christendom College. Here is a Where Peter Is essay by my fellow contributor D.W. Lafferty dealing with the life and times of antisemitic conspiracy theorist E. Michael Jones and his legitimation by the right-wing Catholic online ecosystem. Here is article in the conservative magazine Ricochet detailing the fallout from an incident in which National Review ran an article that quoted without comment a characterization of Hasidic Jews as “locusts”; Catholic NR correspondent Kevin Williamson (previously fired from The Atlantic for publicly musing about hanging women who have abortions) had defended the original article. (Both Ruse and Williamson expressly and strenuously deny being antisemitic, but then, so does Jones!)
I’d like to mention a few personal examples of this kind of rhetoric. On a microblogging website that I use (I’m not going to link to it because I use it pseudonymously), I once saw a group of Catholics piling on a Reform Jewish blogger who had spoken positively of abortion. (This blogger was not representative of Jewish opinion.) “Of course the Jews want to sacrifice infants,” one of these people observed. None of the others bothered to upbraid or disavow this person. On another occasion, I mentioned that in college I had had several Marxist professors, some of whom had been the dreary ideologues we associate with the ideal-type of the “Marxist professor” and others of whom had been wonderful, open-minded educators who happened to have extremely left-wing political opinions. Somebody responded by calling me a kike (I’ve openly discussed my Jewish ancestry on this website) and reposting selfies that I had taken in which my hooked nose was obvious. On still another, offline, occasion, a left-wing Catholic I’m acquainted with went through a flirtation with anti-Zionism to the point of antisemitism and quoted the opinion of a liberal WASP who had converted to Reform Judaism to defend herself.
(I should note in the interest of evenhandedness that a stridently anti-Christian perspective among younger Jews is also burgeoning in online media ecosystems; however, addressing this isn’t the Catholic Church’s business.)
I can’t come to any immediate and perspicuous conclusion as to what’s causing this resurgence of antisemitism on the Catholic right (and, as in my last example, sometimes on the Catholic left too). There has always been an antisemitic current within Traditionalist Catholicism, a sensibility that takes even more exception to the “indifferentism” of Nostra aetate than to the vocations crisis or the Pauline Mass, and Traditionalism has found a new audience among socially atomized “extremely online” youth. But not all of the people parroting antisemitic talking points or equivocating for their use are Traditionalists. It could be that these views never really went away, and that the social media/“Web 2.0” era of democratization of news and opinion is just making them more visible than they were in the John Paul II days. But if this is so, then the fact that these views are being widely disseminated is cause for concern even apart from the fact that people hold them. Maybe I, and others who have noticed resurgent Catholic antisemitism, are blowing isolated incidents out of proportion and seeing patterns where there aren’t any. But this doesn’t explain why these isolated incidents are being defended in Crisis and National Review.
Pope Francis recently declared that he “will never grow tired of condemning every form of antisemitism,” which, he observed, is having a “barbaric resurgence” in the world today. Unfortunately, all too often this barbaric resurgence is coming, so to speak, from inside the house. I hold out hope that this demon from the past might settle down again soon enough, but it is a faint hope; more often the mental picture that I get is of Pandora’s box, of Catholicism’s wickedest hobgoblin, safely quarantined for a little while, being unleashed onto the world once more. I have faith that Pope Francis will, indeed, never grow tired of condemning antisemitism. I hope that his successors will do likewise, because the impression that I get is that this condemnation will become all the more necessary and pressing in the years to come.
Image: “Pandora Opens the Box” by Walter Crane. From Wikimedia Commons.
[EDITOR’S NOTE 29 Jan 2020: A line from the original version of this essay has been removed because it was not essential to the piece and made a general claim that may not apply to certain individuals.]
[EDIT 30 Jan 2020: An inaccurate description of Jewish perspectives on abortion has been edited following correction by an Orthodox Jewish commenter. –NT]
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.