The history of Christian viciousness toward Jews is too grotesque for credence. As a character in a James McCourt novel says, in a very different context, “I can’t believe her!… So I won’t.” Some Catholics at the Second Vatican Council said that the charge of deicide against the Jews was so silly it should not be dignified with a refutation. John Connelly in his book From Enemy to Brother writes that the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray actually claimed that he had not heard the charge until he was forty. In the same way, deniers of anti-black prejudice in America forget that there was slavery, or say it was ended without aftereffects, or that it wasn’t really so bad (no worse than, say, “wage slavery” up north—slaves, after all, could not be fired from their jobs). The prejudiced cannot recognize their own prejudice—as one cannot taste one’s own saliva.
Admittedly, the Christian-Jewish history does test belief, so packed is it with absurdities. The Jews, it was claimed, were not sated with the blood of Christ; they had to sacrifice more innocent blood running in the veins of Christian children—see Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale.” Still wanting to kill Jesus, Jews loved to stab the Eucharistic host—see Paolo Uccello’s Urbino altarpiece of Corpus Domini. The stories are so deeply ludicrous that they cannot, one would think, be deeply true. Why, for instance, would Jews be such believing Christians as to think Jesus is present in the host for them to kill him again? But law records support the twisted art of Chaucer or Uccello. In 1255, eighteen Jews were hanged in England on the charge of killing “Little Saint Hugh” for his blood. In 1492, twenty-seven Jews were burned alive in Sternberg, Germany, for desecrating the host. In 1510, thirty-nine were burned and two beheaded for the same “crime” in Berlin.1
These tales are so vile that people do not want to advert to them. They are hidden by their hideousness. But lesser forms of persecution—branding, ghettoizing, stigmatizing, caricaturing—continued even past the Holocaust. When the Second Vatican Council was assembled, two decades after the Holocaust, there was no urgency to remedy injustices inflicted on Jews by the Catholic Church. Luckily for church apologists, there had never been a full-dress papal statement of Jewish “perfidy”—though that had been deeply inculcated by bishops and publications and practices. The resulting atrocities could be dismissed as the acts of individual Catholics, not of the church itself—or so traditionalists hoped. They had not counted on one thing, a thing that made all the difference. That one thing was John XXIII—a wonderful exception, a rule-breaker pope.
In 1960, John had met Jules Isaac, a Holocaust survivor whose family had not…
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