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AJC Moral Courage Award Recipient Lassana Bathily

Lassana Bathily, the hero who risked his life to save Jews at the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris, will receive AJC’s Moral Courage Award at the AJC Global Forum’s World Leaders Plenary on Monday, June 8. The siege at the supermarket by jihadist Amedy Coulibaly came on January 9, two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

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Coulibaly killed four Jewish customers – Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Phillipe Barham, and François-Michel Saada, and held the remaining customers hostage, threatening more violence. Lassana Bathily, a 24-year-old employee at the supermarket, heard the shots and ushered more than a dozen customers into a cold storage room, shut off the refrigeration system, and closed the people inside for their own protection.

Lassana Bathily then proposed helping the customers escape through the store’s delivery lift, but when no one wanted to take that risk he fled alone and called for the police. When they arrived, he provided them vital information on the layout of the store as well as a key to unlock the supermarket’s metal blinds, helping the police end the siege.

A practicing Muslim from Mali who has lived in France since 2006, Lassana Bathily’s heroism drew widespread praise, including an online petition with 220,000 signatures that called for his naturalization. He indeed was granted French citizenship, and at the ceremony French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised his actions as “the highest gesture of Islam and peace,” and welcomed him as “the newest citizen at the heart of this country.”

Despite the praise, Lassana Bathily has remained humble, telling the French news channel BFMTV, “We’re brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, Christians or Muslims,” adding: “We’re all in the same boat, and we have to help one another to get out of this crisis.” 

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Date: 6/3/2015
From Weakness to Strength: Catholic-Jewish Relations and Nostra Aetate

By Noam Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations

Even as we act to combat heightened anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, it is important to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church document that transformed Christian attitudes toward Jews and took much of the sting out of Christian anti-Semitism.  Today, the sea change in Christian-Jewish relations is taken for granted. Few are aware of, and even fewer have read the October 28, 1965 “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” proclaimed by Pope Paul VI and known by its first words, Nostra Aetate, In Our Time.

[AJC will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate at the AJC Global Forum’s Opening Plenary on Sunday, June 7, at 5:30 PM. Sign up to watch the webcast live.]

As we confront the venom and violence of anti-Semitism emanating from the far left, the far right, and, most threateningly, radical Islam, we must acknowledge that the top Catholic leadership is neither complicit nor silent. In the spirit of Nostra Aetate, Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism, calling it a sin and reminding Christians of their religion’s Jewish roots. If all religious leaders followed his example, extremists would not have the power to dominate the discourse.

In the wake of the Shoah and considerable Christian self-reflection on religiously-motivated, millennia-old anti-Jewish hatred, Pope John XXIII—who had saved Jews during the Holocaust—called for a different path in Catholic understanding of Jews and Judaism. He did not live to see either the fruits of his inspiration or the final and dramatic product, Nostra Aetate. The document rejects collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus, and the depiction of Jews as forever accursed. Nostra Aetate decries anti-Semitism, affirms the eternal covenant of God with the Jewish people, and reminds Christians of Jesus’s Jewishness.

But had Nostra Aetate just been left on the shelf, it would not have had its transformative influence. Instead, with the active help of AJC-sponsored studies and conferences, it became the gold standard for other Christian denominations as they too addressed and corrected their respective histories of anti-Semitism and supersessionist ideologies in which Christians had replaced Jews as the “new Israel.” The Catholic Church produced guidelines and created structures for the practical implementation of Nostra Aetate. Above all, it was the power of papal gestures by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, that transmitted a message to the world of respect and admiration for Judaism and the Jewish people. These powerful visuals have included unprecedented visits to synagogues, pilgrimages to Holocaust commemorative sites, and state visits to Israel. It was John Paul II who established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel in 1993, connecting the revolution in Catholic-Jewish relations to the central reality and focus of modern Judaism, the State of Israel and the return of millions of Jews to their ancestral homeland.

Catholic-Jewish relations are still a work in progress, and challenges do surface from time to time. But the lines of communication are open and issues are addressed directly and respectfully. 

This is a moment to celebrate Nostra Aetate’s lasting impact.

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Date: 6/3/2015
4 Things You Might Not Know About Anti-Semitism in Europe

We asked AJC’s European Directors what American Jews need to know about the rise of anti-Jewish sentiment and acts of violence in Europe. Here are their responses: 

[Sign up to receive an email reminder when the live webcast for the AJC Global Forum plenary "Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?" begins]

Identity Crises – A Report by Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC Director of International Jewish Affairs

American Jews have the luxury of being  “unselfconsciously” Jewish. There is no contradiction between sharing an American identity along with our Jewish religious and ethnic allegiance. That is the norm in the United States, where citizenship is a matter of civic responsibility, independent of background. However, this is not the case in Europe, where national identity has always entailed a heavy element of blood and ethnicity.  Thus, Jews are usually viewed as a minority in European countries even if they do not fit the typical picture of minorities, such as ethnic Hungarians living in Romanian territory or Turkish immigrants living in Germany.   Jews have often been living in these countries for generations and are fully assimilated into their language and culture. Yet Jews may become targets of anti-Semites not because they stand out as different, but for the very opposite reason: They seem so similar but are suspected of secretly “undermining” the traditional values of the authentic national identity.

Difficult Choices – A Report by Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, AJC Paris Director

It may be hard for American Jews to understand how difficult life has become for the Jews of Europe. While many do not encounter anti-Semitism, for others everyday decisions have become nightmares. Think about the heartbreaking dilemma of parents who live in the banlieues (the lower-class suburbs) for example, who are torn between sending their kids to public school, where they can be victims of anti-Semitic insults or even violence, or to Jewish school where they might become victims of an anti-Semitic terrorist act (in 2012, a terrorist killed 3 Jewish school children in Toulouse). This is, unfortunately, the harsh reality. Many American Jews probably do not know that almost no Jewish children go to public school in these neighborhoods because of their parents’ fears, and because since the January attack attack on a kosher supermarket (in which four Jewish hostages were killed) all Jewish day schools are guarded by soldiers. 

Pleas Unanswered – A Report by Daniel Schwammenthal, Director of AJC’s Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute

For years, the Belgian Jewish community has urged the government to help fund its security needs, such as bullet-proof windows and security cameras. It took almost a year since the terror attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum for the authorities to finally come through. Speaking at the AJC Strategy Conference on Combating anti-Semitism in Brussels on May 5, Jan Jambon, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Security and Interior, confirmed that the government will “provide the necessary financial means for the extra security of the buildings and institutions of the Jewish community.”

The Belgian government has taken other dramatic steps to help protect its Jewish community. Since mid-January, soldiers, not just ordinary police, are guarding such sensitive sites as Jewish schools and synagogues. Additionally, the authorities can now more easily revoke the citizenship of jihadis. While these are important steps, more need to follow.

The Difficult Work of Penance – A Report by Deidre Berger, AJC Berlin Director

While little known, there are dozens of civil society organizations in Germany that work against intolerance and anti-Semitism.  Some of these focus on programs to combat anti-Semitism among youths of immigrant background and others monitor and record anti-Semitic incidents.   Many of these organizations are members of the “Task Force:  Education on Anti-Semitism,” a network of educators and experts that have met bi-monthly at AJC Berlin since 2002 to share best practices and foster professional exchange on Holocaust education, information about Israel and the Mideast conflict, and Jewish life.   While the advocacy efforts of AJC Berlin have helped bring increased government funding and lengthened terms for grants for projects to combat anti-Semitism, the German government has yet to appoint a special representative to coordinate overall efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

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Date: 6/2/2015
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