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The collection of Yad Vashem, Israel’s museum of the Holocaust and memorial to its victims, presents us with a chronicle of human barbarity and evil. But in its celebration of those “Righteous Gentiles” who protected Jews, it preserves a luminous moral and spiritual legacy. Among those individuals is Don Gaetano Tantalo, an Italian Catholic priest who had come to know two Italian Jewish families by the names of Orvieto and Pacifici during their vacations in his region. When the Nazis entered Italy, he hid these Jews, seven in all, for nine months, in his house and church.

Had he done only this he would have been remembered by our people as a hero, but he did much more. He facilitated the religious observance of his Jewish friends. As Yad Vashem recounts, “he was . . . sensitive to their religious requirements. He supplied them with Bibles [and] greeted them with ‘Shabbat Shalom’ every Friday evening.” Perhaps the most striking example of this service relates to Passover, a time when traditional Jews require special foods—above all matzah, unleavened bread—for the Seder, the celebration of Pesach and one of the central rituals of Jewish life. Don Tantalo supplied his Jewish friends with matzah, as well as “brand new dishes” to fulfill the requirement for kosher vessels and utensils. One can only imagine what this involved in 1944.

The most moving memento of this Seder is a simple piece of paper bearing a series of numbers written in Don Tantalo’s hand. This, Yad Vashem tells us, is a calculation of the Jewish calendar written out by the priest so that his Jewish friends would know when their holiday occurred. It is the gift of Jewish time itself.

In a sense, Don Tantalo’s calendar also captures not just this one chapter in Jewish history, but Jewish history itself, with all its miracles and tribulations. As we ponder anti-Semitism, it is not enough to consider hatred of Jews as a political or social phenomenon. We must understand its theological roots. The story of this heroic priest provides a lens.

The first commandment given on the eve of the Exodus concerned not matzah, nor bitter herbs, but the marking of time itself: “This month,” God declares to Moses, “shall be for you the first of months.” This means that the Jewish calendar, the Jewish marking of time, is linked to the Exodus; the Jewish understanding of time is bound to the miraculous emergence and redemption of God’s covenant people. Thus, the singular sign of the people Israel’s covenantal nature is its relationship to time—or, if you will, its defiance of time.

The Jew, Tolstoy reflected,

has brought down from the heaven the everlasting fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. . . .
     He whom neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he whom neither fire nor sword nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth . . . he who has been for so long the guardian of the prophecy, and who transmitted it to the world—such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as is eternity itself.

Another description of the miraculous existence of the Jews comes from Walker Percy:

Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.

To consider Don Tantalo’s handwritten calendar, which allowed for the observance and endurance of two Jewish families, is to be reminded of the biblical message that it is in time that the miracle of the Jewish people’s endurance is experienced.

We must bear this in mind as we ponder anti-Semitism. For what is the source of Jew-hate, a hatred that has mutated in so many ways throughout the centuries? My friend, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was eloquently outspoken on the topic of anti-Semitism, but I must respectfully disagree with his explanation for it, namely, that Jews are hated because they are different, and therefore “antisemitism—the hatred of difference—is an assault not on Jews only but on the human condition as such.” I do not agree. Anti-Semitism is not a hatred of difference; it is a hatred of Jews. In the past few weeks, on college campuses across America, little Nuremberg rallies have convened, at which “diversity” is embraced so long as it does not entail the well-being of Jews or the Jewish state. Anti-Semitism is a hatred of Jews, driven by something significant about the Jewish story.

In the Bible, the miracles of the Exodus are followed immediately by the attack of the Amalekites. Amalek appears angered by the Exodus itself and seeks to assault Israelites as Israelites. As Deuteronomy tells us, Amalek attacked not the military warriors of ancient Israel, but rather the stragglers, the helpless, much as the Einsatzgruppen mowed down elderly Jews throughout Poland, and Hamas terrorists raped Israeli women and beheaded babies. The appearance of Amalek after the Exodus hints that it is the Jews’ miraculous relationship with history itself, the mysterious presence of the Jew in the world, that drives the rage of anti-Semites. One of the greatest Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, Franz Rosenzweig, put it this way:

The peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power. We alone cannot imagine such a time.

Here, I think, is the heart of anti-Semitism. The Christian writer Robert Nicholson conjectures that anti-Semitism “almost always grows from a resentment of ‘chosenness’: the idea that the Jewish god appointed one nation, the nation of Israel, to play a special role in history.” Anti-Semites—from those murdering children in the streets of Israel to those celebrating Hamas in a rally on the streets of New York—are driven by jealousy and hatred of a people that refuses to die. They imagine that they will be the first in history to achieve its destruction.

We can now begin to understand the lie that typifies the last thousand years of anti-Semitism: the blood libel, begun in Norwich, England, in 1144. Thomas of Monmouth claimed that Norwich’s Jews had murdered a Christian child in order to use his blood in the production of matzah. The blood libel spread throughout the world, so that for Jews the celebration of Passover, the festival of freedom, was often the most frightening time of the year. A theological approach allows us to understand how the absurdity of the blood libel captures the essence of anti-Semitism. By turning the matzah, a symbol of Jewish chosenness, into a symbol of ritual evildoing, the libel illustrates how, as Nicholson writes, anti-Semitism “turns Jewish chosenness on its head and assigns to the people of Israel responsibility for all the world’s ills.”

But in 1944, during a most fearful chapter in Jewish history, one Catholic priest organized Passover for seven Jews under his care, not only facilitating the Seder but providing a calendar, a symbol of Jewish time, reflecting his love for the Jewish faith and his reverence for the mysterious eternity of the Jewish people. As he put it, “I received a special act of kindness from God, who gave a poor, rural priest the opportunity to host his chosen sons in my most humble home.”

We remember him now, as it is only by means of a theological understanding of anti-Semitism that we can understand why contemporary anti-Semitism focuses on Zionism. Today Israel, more than anything else, embodies the miracle of Jewish eternity. After the attacks of October 7, a striking speech was given by Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, who spoke of his visit to Auschwitz, where he wept. A gentile at Auschwitz, he was consoled by Jews. He found hope, he said, in seeing Israeli flags held aloft by young Jews, as he realized what they represented, namely:

the only story [in which] the same people worship the same faith, on the same land, in the same language, in the same country, as 3,000 years ago. From the time of the Pharaoh, many monsters have tried to attack and destroy the Jewish people; all of them have been condemned to the trashcan of history, and the Jewish people are still here, the Jewish people will still be here, the eternal Jewish people will always be here, and they will say the beautiful words in Hebrew am Yisrael chai [the Jewish people live].

It is in Israel above all that one experiences the Jewish relationship with time, or if you will, the Jewish defiance of time. As Paul Johnson reflected, in the past century more than one hundred completely new independent states have come into existence. Israel is the only one whose creation can fairly be called a miracle. Israel is both a modern democratic marvel and a reminder of the mystery that is the endurance of the chosen people. In a sense, the state of Israel is the Passover Seder of our time. It is the focus of Jew-hate, the locus of blood libels, because it is the embodiment of Jewish eternity.

I had the opportunity to ponder this fact recently, as I saw a blood libel unfold in real time. Hamas announced one evening that Israel had struck a hospital in Gaza, killing five hundred, and major Western media outlets ran with the story. Further review of the evidence revealed that the missile had almost certainly come not from Israel but from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that it had struck not a hospital but a parking lot, and that the fatalities, however tragic, were far fewer than five hundred. I was astounded when the New York Times acknowledged without apology that its early reporting had “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified.” It seems not to have occurred to this august media institution that murderers, rapists, and baby killers might also be liars. In view of history, it was painfully ironic to find the media so eager to turn the moral opprobrium of the world away from the actual murderers of children and toward those who in the prosecution of war seek to avoid all harm to children and other noncombatants. The Times and others promulgated a lie that, like the blood libel of yore, served to foment anti-Semitic hate.

As thousands upon thousands participate in anti-Semitic rallies around the world, as we see assaults on Jewish businesses in England and Spain and the burning of a synagogue in Tunis, it is clear that hatred of Israel reflects the twisted theology of anti-Semitism. We can thus have no better source of inspiration than a priest who during the Holocaust created a calendar that embodied Jewish time and Jewish eternity. Yad Vashem possesses a postcard sent after the Nuremberg trials by Don Tantalo to one of the Jewish families. He had written on the card in Hebrew letters the words of Psalm 34: “affliction will bring death to the wicked, and those that hate the righteous shall be found guilty.” He saw the conviction of Nazi officials as a fulfillment of biblical time, a defeat of the Amalek of his age.

We ponder this now as Amalek reveals itself again, and we seek to unite against this new instantiation of evil, and to find a bond between Catholics and Jews. In Jewish tradition, a small piece of unleavened bread, matzah, symbol of the redemption in Egypt, is kept hidden away until the end of the Passover evening, a sign of our faith in our future redemption. Yad Vashem informs us that after the death of Don Tantalo, a “small piece of baked matzah . . . from that auspicious Passover remained hidden among his belongings.” This matzah, a sign of his bond to the Jews he had sheltered, is an embodiment of the bond we seek today. We Jews are a grateful people, and an eternal one, and we will remember this priest forever. This small piece of matzah kept by this priest symbolized the hope of a redeemed world to come: when time itself folds into eternity, and evil is defeated for all time.

Meir Y. Soloveichik is author of Providence and Power: Ten Portraits in Jewish StatesmanshipThis essay is adapted from a talk delivered at a conference on “Nostra Aetate and The Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism,” co-hosted by Franciscan University of Steubenville and The Philos Project. 

Image by The White House Baiden-Harris [sic] (Source), public domain. Image cropped.

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