Confronting the Rising Tide of Antisemitism

Franciscan Magazine Homepage > Winter 2024 > Confronting the Rising Tide of Antisemitism


Confronting the Rising Tide of Antisemitism

The recent Nostra Aetate conference and Franciscan University’s response to growing antisemitism.

Winter 2024 | John Romanowsky

In This Article

In early 2023, Franciscan University decided to co-sponsor a conference with The Philos Project to address an alarming rise in antisemitism. Nostra Aetate and the Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism was planned for October 24 to 26, the five-year anniversary of the brutal murder of 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. From the beginning, the conference was infused with a sense of urgency. But no one could have imagined just how tragically timely it would prove to be.

Two weeks before the conference began, Hamas launched a horrific attack on Israel, killing over 1,200 civilians. Following Israel’s intensive military response, overtly antisemitic protests erupted worldwide across cities and campuses. The protestors shocked many with their simplistic support of Hamas as “victims” and condemnation of Jews as “oppressors.”

But even as the need for the conference became more pressing than ever, the University had to deal with a more immediate challenge.

On October 7, the day of the Hamas attack, Father Dave Pivonka, TOR ’89, president of Franciscan University, received gut-wrenching news. A group of 38 students from the University’s study abroad program in Gaming, Austria, had arrived in the Holy Land a day earlier for a 10-day pilgrimage.

Franciscan University students enjoying peaceful prayer, Mass, hikes, and fellowship near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel in October

Organized by the Community of the Beatitudes, the pilgrimage providentially had begun in Galilee, far north of the violence in the Gaza Strip. The students were safe there, but would they be for long?

With the war escalating quickly, getting the students safely back to Gaming was Father Dave’s top priority. Tom Wolter, the Austrian Program director, coordinated the evacuation, which was complicated by airline flight cancellations, the size of the group, and rapidly changing circumstances in Israel.

Franciscan’s pastoral associate, Sister Lisa Marie Shatynski, TOR, and Father Anthony Ariniello of the Community of the Beatitudes were on the ground with the students. They took walks in the beautiful, peaceful region, swam in the sea, and took time for daily Mass and prayer. They even visited the place Peter met Christ after the Resurrection.

Meanwhile, Father Dave reached out to friends at Franciscan’s long-time pilgrimage partner 206 Tours for assistance. Within hours, they had an exit plan in place and put it into action. They escorted the students safely across the border to Amman, Jordan, where they caught flights back to Austria. The whole operation took less than 72 hours.

After the students’ safe return, Father Dave’s prayers and attention turned to others closer to home who felt threatened and needed help.

“We are seeing a serious spike in antisemitism and threats against Jewish students across the country,” he said at the time. “With too many universities preaching tolerance but practicing prejudice, we felt compelled to do more. We decided to offer Jewish students the chance to transfer immediately to Franciscan.”

Although no Jewish students applied for a mid-semester transfer, the response to Father Dave’s invitation spoke volumes. Across social media and many Catholic, Jewish, and education outlets, including The Times of Israel, InsideHigherEd, and Catholic News Agency, people expressed their gratitude and approval. The Washington Examiner published an opinion piece by Father Dave about the initiative, and Fox & Friends interviewed him on its live morning show on October 24.

By the time the Nostra Aetate conference began on October 24, the participants understood, if they hadn’t before, they were not engaged in a purely academic discussion but were addressing a profound crisis with real-world consequences.

Central to the speakers’ reflections was the Vatican Council II document, Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions. Issued in 1965, the document marked a significant advance in Catholic-Jewish relations. It states, “The Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Franciscan University students enjoying peaceful prayer, Mass, hikes, and fellowship near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel in October

Catholic and Jewish presenters took turns unpacking the implications of this teaching and how it can inform an effective response to antisemitism.

“We, as followers of Jesus, must reject antisemitism, and indeed all forms of ethnic and racial and religious bigotry,” said Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. “It’s incumbent on us to be outspoken against such bigotry and to be vocal in the defense of its victims.”

Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, senior rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, agreed and spoke about the theological dimension of hatred of the Jews.

“Antisemitism is not a hatred of difference; it’s a hatred of Jews,” he said. “After all, one can find on college campuses gatherings in the past week that are reminders of Nuremberg rallies in which the ideology put forward by the students will at least in name embrace diversity and ‘intersectionality’ of every kind except the well-being of Jews or the Jewish state.”

Other speakers included Sohrab Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact and visiting fellow at Franciscan’s Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life; Peter Berkowitz, the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; Dr. Faydra Shapiro, senior fellow with The Philos Project and research fellow with the Center for the Study of Religions at Tel Hai College in Israel; and Dr. Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation.

At the conclusion of the conference, the presenters were invited to sign an official public statement that declares unequivocally, “We reject hatred, bigotry, and racism in all their forms. As Catholics and Christians, we believe that antisemitism is a spiritual evil.” This Coalition of Catholics Against Antisemitism Statement has since grown to include over 660 signatures.

While speaking out publicly is imperative, the conference presenters underlined the need for more action. Father Dave expressed this well in the conclusion of his Washington Examiner op-ed about his decision to invite Jewish students to transfer to Franciscan.

“More than ever, the Jewish people need allies. Franciscan seeks to rally more allies to come to their aid. We hope our offer to give Jewish students the safe haven they deserve will inspire other universities across the country to heed the call, too. And in some small way, help to turn the tide of antisemitism toward true peace.”

Go to Top