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by D. M. Neuhaus, S.J.

The following article by Fr. David Mark Neuhaus, S.J. is written with Fr. Neuhaus’ long residence in Israel as background, a residency during which he entered the Catholic Church after being raised in the Jewish faith.  He speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic and has a L.S.S. degree from the Pontifical Biblical Institute.  This article appeared in an edited form in the November, 2000, issue of In All Things, a Jesuit journal of the social apostolate published by the United States Jesuit Conference’s Office of Social and International Ministries (U.S. Jesuit Conference, 1616 P Street, NW #300, Washington, DC 20036-1405 [ ]


One of the most exciting contemporary theological projects within the Catholic Church is formulating a positive theological basis for dialogue between Jews and Catholics. Coming to terms with a past “teaching of contempt” for Jews and Judaism has slowly created a vibrant dialogue between the two communities which seeks to found the dialogue on a firm theological basis which would be enriching for both sides. The socio-political dimensions of this dialogue have been a basic and formative part of the dialogue which has undertaken to root out the deeply entrenched “teachings of contempt” and, in broader terms, to eradicate all theological bases for intolerance and racism. This article seeks neither to evaluate contemporary Jewish-Catholic dialogue, particularly vibrant within the context of North America and Western Europe, nor to add to on-going theological discussion of the implications of this dialogue for Catholic theology. This article seeks to analyse rather the extension of the dialogue to the particular context of Jerusalem. The question posed here is: How does the Jerusalem context influence dialogue between Jews and Catholics?

There are a number of factors that make dialogue in Jerusalem different than elsewhere:

i)  The most obvious particularity of the dialogue between Jews and Catholics in Jerusalem is that here Jews are the dominant majority. This is the first time in 1900 years that Jews are the socio-politically dominant partner within a society[1]

ii)  Secondly, Catholics are a tiny minority in Jerusalem. Culturally mostly Palestinian Arab, marginalised in the city, and preoccupied with steady emigration, Catholics are struggling for survival.

iii) Thirdly, Catholics (and all Christians) are not only faced with a dominant Jewish majority but also, within Palestinian Arab society, with a dominant Muslim majority.

iv)  Finally, indigenous Catholics in Jerusalem are often ignored by foreign visitors. For many, the Church in Jerusalem is synonymous with the stone edifices over holy sites and few encounter the Church of Christ made up of living witnesses.

Any analysis of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Jerusalem must take into account these particularities of local context. Existing dialogue in Jerusalem seldom does though. It tends to be a dialogue between expatriate Catholics and Jews (often immigrants from the North American and Western European Diaspora). Contextualized Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Jerusalem needs to embrace at least three clearly distinct and yet necessarily inter-linked dialogic perspectives.

1.)   The dialogue of expatriates

Most extant formal frameworks for Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Israel are frequented by expatriates who are attached to the numerous Catholic religious institutions in Israel. Many Jewish Israelis completely identify the Catholic presence in Israel with this group[2]. The dialogue between expatriate Catholics in Israel and their Jewish counterparts is moulded by the dialogue in the USA and in Western Europe and might be characterised by the following issues:

a)  How has the establishment of the State of Israel altered our traditional relationship?

b)   How do we interpret differently our holy texts? How can Christians become more aware of Christian rootedness in Biblical and Second Temple Judaism?

c)   How have our theologies promoted unacceptable socio-political thinking and practice?

d)   What happened in the first and second centuries? How did Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism develop as two separate “ways”?

e)    What has been and what should be the relationship between religion and political power? Christians have been helped enormously by Jews in the dialogue to discover the moral price they have paid for political power.

2.)   The dialogue of locals

Catholic Palestinians who comprise more than 90% of the Catholics in Israel are largely absent from the existing frameworks of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. More imporbordotant than inter-confessional diversity[3], local Catholics are mostly part of the Palestinian people[4]. The majority of these Catholics are citizens of the State of Israel. They are mostly Arabic speaking (they generally speak Hebrew fluently too), and are well integrated in the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. These Catholic Palestinians experience not only minority status in Arab society where Muslims are the majority but also within the Israeli state where Jews are the majority. This is a unique context and must modify the dialogue between Jews and Catholics[5]. Particular issues might be the following:

a)     What has been the experience of a “non-Jewish” minority within the Jewish state?

b)     How have the Shoah, Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel moulded the dialogue between Jews and Catholics in this context?

c)     What is the Western Christian responsibility within the context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

d)    Can the dialogue contribute to democracy, pluralism, justice

e)     What role does the Bible play within the political context of the Israel-Palestine conflict?[6] Have certain Biblical interpretations allowed us to legitimate the progressive destruction of the Palestinian people?

f)     How does this Jewish-Catholic dialogue give rise to its own theological issues? What is the correct Christian understanding of the election of Israel? What is the connection between Israel and the Land of Israel?

3.)   The dialogue of immigrants

A third group, less clearly identifiable and of yet unknown proportions (official statistics tend to ignore the existence of this population), consists of the myriads of Christians who have immigrated to Israel in recent years, particularly from the former Communist bloc (and also from Ethiopia)[7]. As most of these immigrants have identified themselves in some way as Jews on entering the country, it is extremely difficult to know how many Christians are among them and what is the nature of their religious identity. Some have identified themselves as Catholics although the vast majority are Orthodox. Clearly, the government hopes that the majority of these Christians (particularly those who have family ties with Jews and who are not overtly believing or practising Christians) will assimilate themselves into the Jewish majority. Clandestine communities have been formed (Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic)[8]. The dialogue between Jewish Israelis and Christian immigrants is almost non-existent because these Christians tend to live their faith clandestinely[9]. A future dialogue between these Christian Israelis and their Jewish compatriots will clearly revolve around questions at the core of Israeli Jewish life:

a)    What is a Jew? There is a general confusion regarding the identity of this new group of Christian Israelis. Some do have Jewish ancestry[10]. Are they “Jewish Christians”?

b)     What is an Israeli? Is Israel a Jewish state? What does this mean in terms of integrating these Christians?

c)     Can the children of these Christians be educated as Christians? What would this type of education entail? Can Hebrew be used as a medium of Christian instruction?

d)    How can discrimination against “non-Jews” in Israel be fought? There is suspicion of and even violence against what some Jewish Israelis perceive as Christian “missionary activity”. An anti-Christian (and anti-“non Jew”) sentiment seems to be increasing.

4.)   Missing elements in the dialogue

Thus far the point of departure for the analysis of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Jerusalem has been the extant dialogue in the USA and Western Europe. Dialogue in the Jerusalem context has been seen to modify this dialogue. Yet Western dialogue falls short of the particular Jerusalem context on a number of points:

a)   In the West, religion has been restricted to a private domain of personal faith. Religious leaders have to struggle to be relevant in the socio-political domain. In Jerusalem, religion is still an all too indivisible part of the socio-political sphere. This does not contribute to an atmosphere of dialogue as religious leaders represent partisan interests and often are drawn into the promotion of intolerance rather than dialogue. Many local Catholics feel that Jerusalem still needs a good dosage of secularism and they often find that their closest partners in dialogue are

b)   Jewish-Catholic dialogue as it has developed since Vatican II has revolved around the Jews being a minority and Christians being a majority. This is not true in the Jerusalem context. Jews are clearly the dominant majority. This unique situation raises the difficult question of whether the mix of Judaism and power will witness to anything substantially different than what the mix of Christianity and power witnessed to in the “Christian” West. The exercise of power, whether as Christians, Muslims or Jews has not been glorious. Jerusalem is a city which can become a point for a joint  pilgrimage of repentance as we engage in mutually aided soul-searching into our histories. Dominant majorities (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) have tended to oppress weak minorities and have usually exploited religious ideology, and symbolism to do so[11]. From our Jerusalem perspective, it has become imperative that Jews examine their own traditional “teaching of contempt” for “non-Jews”.

c)   Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the West has largely ignored other aspects of inter-religious dialogue[12]. From the Jerusalem perspective, the dialogue with Islam is fundamental. A large population in Jerusalem has its roots in the Arab-Islamic world. Most Jerusalemite Christians share a socio-cultural world with Muslim Arabs which facilitates dialogue. I want to stress that this cultural world is one which Jews from the Arab world, who constitute a significant part of the Israeli Jewish population, share too [13] . What is striking is that for many Jews in Jerusalem, the Judeo-Christian heritage is no more important than the Judeo-Islamic heritage. For many of these Jews, Arabic has been a lingua franca for centuries. The Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, has pointed out that the symbiosis of Jews and Arabs “produced something that was not merely a Jewish culture in Arabic. It was a Judeo-Arabic, or one might even say a Judeo-Islamic, culture” [14] . Jews like Saadya Gaon (Sa’id ibn Yusuf al-Fayyumi) and Maimonides (Musa bin Maimun) participated alongside Christians and Muslims in the formulation of Arabic culture and philosophy. In this century, Layla Murad (Egyptian Jew) competed alongside Fayruz (Lebanese Christian) and Umm Kalthum (Egyptian Muslim) for recognition as the diva of Arabic song. This Middle Eastern cultural link is blossoming in the world of music, cinematography and literature and yet it is hardly making inroads in the interreligious dialogue.

d)   The Jerusalem context makes it ever more essential that a dialogue brings to the fore the joint commitment to justice as a fundamental element in the establishment of peace. Religion is used as a mobilising ideology by both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism. Christian witness in Israel is torn by this ideological cleavage. Many Catholic expatriates are sympathetic to Zionism and Jewish political claims. Others, as well as many Catholic Palestinians are involved in the struggle for the rights of the Palestinians. Some have developed versions of a contextualized “liberation theology” in order to give a Christian theological framework for the struggle of the Palestinian people. These political implications cannot be ignored. Jewish-Catholic dialogue must not be used to co-opt support for unjust structures of domination and oppression.

e)   Finally, Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Jerusalem must be informed by the “preferential option for the poor” unless it is to become an elitist, academic club. This means that it must open itself to the realities of Catholic Palestinians and new Christian Israelis who are living in the difficult situation of being minorities in a context which is often intolerant of cultural and confessional diversity. Moreover, the dialogue must open itself up to the realities of an Israeli Jewish society which is increasingly polarised between rich and poor.

In Jerusalem, a city torn by strife, dialogue might indeed be possible not in fleeing from the strife but in immersing oneself in the elusive ordinary encounters with Jerusalem’s Jews, Christians and Muslims. All who have voyaged there know only too well that it is city more full of holes than holy, bleeding, torn and infected with the least holy of diseases, religious fanaticism, intolerance and hatred. Its uniqueness I would suggest though is in its very tornness and brokenness. Today, as local Christians are increasingly marginalised, the battle to gain Christian support for the domination of Jerusalem is on. Western Catholics cannot shrug off their responsibility. Our history is intricately linked to the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dialogue with Muslims in Jerusalem reminds us of both a distant past when Christians waged war for Jerusalem, which was also a war of extermination against Islam (and by extension against Judaism too), and also of a more recent past when colonialism legitimated itself under the guise of the protection of “holy places” and Christian missionary activity. Dialogue with Jews in Jerusalem reminds us both of a distant past when the adoption of Christianity as an official religion made the life of Jews increasingly unbearable, and also of a more recent past when European intolerance of Jews contributed to the birth of Zionism and the dream of a “Jewish national homeland in Palestine”. Yet, let us not forget, dialogue with local Christians reminds us that life as a minority under a double majority, Jewish and Muslim, can

 David Mark Neuhaus sj     
Pontifical Biblical Institute     


1 Jews in Israel are very heterogeneous. There are believing, practising Jews and non-believing, non-practising Jews and many varieties in between. Well-known are the differences among ultra-Orthodox (haredi), Orthodox (dati), traditional, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist; but as important for the dialogue is the diversity of cultural backgrounds and the major differences among Jews from North America, Latin America, Western, Central and Eastern Europe, and from the Sephardi and Arab worlds. Israel is a highly politicised and ideological society and the diversity of Jewish Israeli positions on Zionism, pluralism and coexistence with the surrounding world directly effect Jewish openness to dialogue with non-Jews in general and Christians in particular. Each group has its own specificity, particularly in relationship to the dialogue (or lack of dialogue) with “non-Jews”.

2 Until January 1988, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, was a foreigner even though the vast majority of faithful are local Palestinians. The present head is H.B. Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian from Nazareth. The Protestant churches preceded the Catholic Church by a few years in electing indigenous Palestinian bishops. The Greek Orthodox Church is still headed by foreigners. The Eastern Catholic churches are generally Arabised but often have non-Palestinian Arab heirarchies.

3 There are six recognized Catholic confessions in Israel, Greek (Byzantine) Catholics (who account for the great majority particularly in the north of Israel), Roman (Latin) Catholics (particularly in the cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth), Maronites, Syrians, Armenians and Chaldeans.    

4 The Palestinian Arab minority in Israel comprises about 18% of the population. Christians form about 20% of this minority and Catholics comprise over half the Christian component (just over 1% of the Israeli population). In the Palestinian Territoritories, Christians comprise about 5% of the population and Catholics are about a third of the Christian population.

5 No formal structure exists to promote this kind of dialogue although certain Christian Palestinian groups have sought out Jewish dialogue partners. Unfortunately, many of the more educated Christians tend to address foreign audiences rather than entering into dialogue with Jewish Israelis.

6 Within this context see the letter of the Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, Reading the Bible Today in the Land of the Bible (November, 1993).

7 The reality of a Christian immigrant community in Israel is not new. Since 1948 Christians, particularly from Eastern Europe (but also from elsewhere), have found their way to Israel within the waves of predominantly Jewish immigration. In the past, the vast majority of these Christians have had close family links to Jews and were either assimilated into the (secular) Jewish population or left Israel for another country.    

8 One non-clandestine community is the Catholic “Opus Saint James” which has Hebrew-speaking Catholic branches in the main cities of Israel.

9 To this complicated reality one needs to add the large numbers of Christian foreign workers (Latin Americans, Eastern Europeans, Far East Asians and Africans) who have come to Israel in recent years. At least part of this group hopes to stay on in Israel as a permanent presence.    

10 The Law of Return which regulates Jewish immigration to Israel states quite clearly (since its 1970 amendment) that a Jew for the purposes of this Law is anyone born of a Jewish mother who has not chosen to belong to another religion.

11 The Second Colloquium of Jesuits involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Jerusalem (June 2000) took as its theme “The Significance of the State of Israel for Contemporary Judaism and for the Jewish-Christian Dialogue” and dealt largely with the problems of religion and state power.    

12 It is interesting to point out that the Vatican office which deals with dialogue with the Jews is not the Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Christians but rather the Secretariat for Christian Ecumenism.

13 In fact, almost half the Jewish Israeli population whose cultural roots are in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine share a cultural world with Muslim and Christian Arabs which is still alive among these Jews in Israel (particularly folk, musical and culinary culture).    

14 B. Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press, 1984, 77.

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