Remarks by Abraham H. Foxman,
ADL National Director on Presenting the
ADL Dr. Joseph L. Lichten Award in Catholic-Jewish Relations
To Dr. Eugene Fisher
Washington, DC, April 29, 2007 ... When we asked Dr. Eugene Fisher for his C-V for this occasion, he emailed us a 30-page document detailing his illustrious career as the only fulltime professional in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations in the United States for the last 30 years.
But what really made an impression is what Gene said in the email accompanying his C-V. Despite the listing of his historic accomplishments and publications from 1977 to 2006, Gene wrote, almost apologetically: "Sorry, it's a little out of date."
The fact is, Gene Fisher has been ahead of his time - time and time again - on the many social, political and theological challenges facing Catholics and Jews, as we worked to reconcile after a tragic 2000 year history.
When the Vatican II Council approved Nostra Aetate on October 28, 1965, everything changed.
Nostra Aetate – Latin for "In Our Time" revolutionized the Catholic Church's approach to Jews and Judaism after nearly 2000 years of pain and sorrow. Nostra Aetate repudiated the centuries old "deicide" charge against all Jews in all times. It stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics. It reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel. And it dismissed church interest in trying to baptize Jews.
For the first time in history, Nostra Aetate called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other.
To proclaim this new message and carry out the directives of Vatican II, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1967 established a new position: Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. In essence, this post would serve as the crucial communications center for building bridges between America's Catholic and Jewish community.
The great Father Edward H. Flannery was appointed the first to the post in 1967. In 1977, Gene Fisher was appointed, becoming only the second officeholder, and the first layperson to hold the job.
So in a very real sense, we have all grown up with Gene Fisher. If Father Flannery nursed this new positive Catholic-Jewish relationship from its infancy to early childhood, it is Gene Fisher who was given the task of nurturing our relationship through its adolescence and adulthood, which most parents will acknowledge are the most difficult times.
Gene came to Washington via Detroit. He had already earned his doctoral degree in Hebrew Culture and Education from New York University, something quite unusual for a Catholic theological student at that time.
When he was tapped to be the Bishops Conference's point man on Catholic-Jewish relations, Gene was working for the Archdiocese of Detroit, as well as being an adjunct professor of Sacred Scripture at St. John's Seminary in Plymouth, MI and for the Religious Studies Department of the University of Detroit.
For the past three decades, Gene has lectured widely throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America and Australia. He has published twenty books and monographs, and over 250 articles in major religious journals, many of which have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish and German for publication in Latin America and Europe.
Gene has participated in countless interfaith programs in the U.S., Israel, and the Vatican. For 30 years he worked closely with ADL, especially our emeritus Director of Interfaith Affairs, Rabbi Leon Klenicki, to pioneer interfaith educational projects. We especially focused on developing teaching materials about the Jewish roots of Christianity and the need for Catholics to confront the anti-Semitism embedded in church life: through its liturgy, history, Passion Plays, seminary training and Bible study.
Early on, Gene became a central figure in the implementation of Nostra Aetate in America. His dedicated efforts over the past three decades left us with a series of invaluable materials for the work of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.
A cursory look around any good interfaith library would have to include many of Fisher's important work such as "Anti-Semitism is a Sin: A Discussion of the Document, The Church and Racism," edited with Rabbi Klenicki; "John Paul II on Jews and Judaism 1979-1986" with Rabbi Klenicki, and "Within Context: Essays on Jews and Judaism in the New Testament."
Gene always insisted that Catholics gain an accurate portrayal of Jews and Judaism. He educated the official church about Christianity's relationship with Judaism. He was always there as a Catholic leader who knew and respected the global Jewish community and the State of Israel. Neither were remote theological or biblical abstractions for him, nor were they stereotypes or targets for conversion. Instead, Fisher personally experienced Jews as a living community of faith.
Gene was an important part of Pope John Paul II's program to revolutionize Catholic-Jewish relations.
In 1985, the Vatican announced that there we "no theological barriers" to recognizing the State of Israel - a profound declaration that dismissed the ancient canard that Jews had no homeland as divine punishment in the death of Jesus.
It was Gene Fisher who coined that phrase.
In 1987, when Jewish leaders were upset that ex-Nazi Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had been welcomed to the Vatican, Pope John Paul meT with Jewish leaders in Miami and pledged to join the Jewish people in the cry "Never Again" regarding the Holocaust.
It was Gene Fisher who drafted that speech.
There are two events in recent years that to me highlight the courage and dedication of Eugene Fisher to the sacred work of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation.
The first came in December 1999, when Gene worked with the Jewish community to assemble a group of noted Jewish and Catholic scholars who would – for the first time in history - study together selected Vatican archives in an effort to shed light on the role of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah. The project unfortunately did not achieve its goals, after the Vatican refused to make certain documents available to the scholars. But I believe Fisher was ahead of his time, and some day his commission will be seen as the right model for this necessary search for the truth.
Then in the spring of 2003, Gene Fisher took a bold step by joining the ADL to challenge Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic script
for "The Passion of the Christ."
Gene assembled a team of nine world class Catholic and Jewish scholars to examine Gibson's biased screenplay, which one leading Catholic theologian called "one of the more anti-Semitic documents most of us have seen in a long time."
The scholars produced a cogent, well written 18 page analysis, which concluded that a film based on Gibson's screenplay would be anti-Semitic, and violate the United States Catholic Bishops Conference's own guidelines about how to teach about the Passion. Alone among his colleagues, Fisher showed true courage in fighting for the principles of Nostra Aetate.
For these and many other reasons, I am very proud today to honor Dr. Eugene Fisher with the Anti-Defamation League's Dr. Joseph L. Lichten Award in Catholic-Jewish Relations.
The Lichten award was established in 2005 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. It is named in honor of Joseph Lichten, ADL's Director of Catholic-Jewish Relations, who was present throughout the deliberations of Vatican II and was one of the significant figures in the history of the Second Vatican Council.
Lichten and Gene Fisher have many things in common, but one of the most interesting is that Gene is a Catholic who earned a doctorate in Hebrew Studies, while Lichten was a Jew who earned a PhD in Catholic Canon Law.
Dr. Lichten was born and educated in Poland. From 1941-1945 he served as a consultant and advisor on eastern European affairs to the embassy of the Polish government-in-exile. When the Communists took control of his native country, he left its diplomatic service, came to the United States and became an American citizen.
Dr. Lichten joined ADL in 1945. In 1953 he started the very first Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the United States. Over the years, he organized and participated in hundreds of ADL Catholic-Jewish interfaith conferences, workshops and colloquia with Catholic clergy, scholars and lay leaders.
As head of ADL's Vatican Liaison Office, he was given the rare gift of an office in the Vatican itself and he continued to teach at the North American college, where only the finest young Americans studying for the priesthood are privileged to attend.
In 1986 Pope John Paul II named him a knight commander of the pontifical equestrian order of St. Gregory the Great, the first American Jew to be so honored "for conspicuous virtue and notable accomplishment on behalf of the Roman Catholic church and society."
For those who may not know, I am pleased to tell you that Rabbi Leon Klenicki will become the second ADL Interfaith Director to receive this honor.
During the deliberations of the Second Vatican council, Joseph Lichten gave every bishop a copy of an ADL-sponsored survey of American anti-Semitism which pointed out the influence of the deicide charge on American Catholics. The final council vote on Nostra Aetate showed the Church's special concern and Joe Lichten's profound influence.
Tonight I am proud to present the award named for our Joe Lichten to our Eugene Fisher.