With the rapid rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and a growing list of Islamic governments and Muslim extremists actively sponsoring it, strong words from the leader of the Catholic Church are necessary.
So when Pope Benedict XVI denounced all forms of anti-Semitism, he added a powerful and important voice to our fight against this old and very ugly form of bigotry.
Last month, when the pope met with a small group of leaders of an Anti-Defamation League delegation — including myself and led by ADL national director Abraham Foxman — to discuss the rise of anti-Semitism and other issues affecting Jews around the world, we were grateful and confident that the meeting would reflect the recent progress on the issue.
Under the leadership of recent popes, the Vatican has made many progressive moves in recent times to reconcile and strengthen Jewish-Catholic relations. Placed in the context of some of the darker history of the church and its roles in aggravating anti-Semitism, this development gives me great hope, and adds significance to its modern-day stance against it.
On a more personal level, I was deeply moved by Pope Benedict's warm, sincere and inviting demeanor. At our meeting in his apartments in Vatican City, he extended his hands to me and, as he spoke, everything else was blotted out of my mind except the single thought of what my late Russian-immigrant, Yiddish-speaking father — Mitchel, the paper hanger — would have thought of that scene: a private audience with a pope to discuss the challenges of anti-Semitism in the world.
From our talk, two of the pope's statements stand out.
First, he said, "The church deplores all forms of hatred or persecution directed against the Jews and all displays of anti-Semitism at any time and from any source."
These are powerful and compassionate words that acknowledge so much.
Second, he concluded his remarks saying, "May the Eternal One, our Father in Heaven, bless every effort to eliminate from our world any misuse of religion as an excuse for hatred or violence."
Again, these are appropriate words that recognize the religious and political venues being used today to advance anti-Semitism.
The election of this pontiff was viewed with concern by some in the Jewish community because he is a German, and old enough to have lived through World War II. But his visage, warmth and obvious sincerity belied the common view that he, unlike his predecessor John Paul II, was stiff, pedantic and unfeeling.
That was particularly evident by his reaction when Foxman told the pope his personal story of surviving the Holocaust and being saved by his Polish Catholic nanny. In response, he put his hand to his breast and said, "You have touched my heart."
The following day's headline in L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, called for "mutual understanding and authentic respect among Jews, Christians and Muslims," and reprinted the speech the pope made to our ADL group.
Beyond the accomplishment of just having such a meeting with the pope — which would have amazed my father and many in his generation — were the subsequent actions taken by the church that give me hope for reducing, and one day even defeating, anti-Semitism. The pope said all the right things to us in private, but also sought to let the world know his clear stance with us to combat anti-Semitism.
Can one meeting with the pope really make a difference considering the recent advancements in anti-Semitism worldwide?
Perhaps not by itself, but when combined with the many positive actions by the church in recent times — bringing attention to the fact that the new pope is alert to the danger and taking action to defeat anti-Semitism — it's certainly no small accomplishment.
Joseph Smukler is a former chair of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as well as national chair for International Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League.