Michael Novak’s Reflections on What Jews and Christians Hold in Common

Feb. 23 2017

The distinguished Catholic thinker Michael Novak died last week at the age of eighty-three. Perhaps best known for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which advances the moral case for economic freedom, he wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including Christian-Jewish relations. Herewith, an excerpt from his 1993 essay on the French Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and his writings on the Jews:

The debt Catholics owe to Jacques Maritain for his reflections on Judaism is enormous. As teacher to a whole generation of bishops and theologians, his contribution to the statement of Vatican II on the Jews was significant, perhaps philosophically indispensable. Maritain saw . . . that God’s covenant with the Jews is unbreakable; and that the friendship between Christians and Jews is an obligation springing directly from the vocation of both as vessels of God’s inscrutable love. . . . Further, he viewed the history of Judaism as a mystery linked to the fate of the entire world. . . . Maritain read all of history in the light of this mystery—including, in his later writings, the existence of the new state of Israel. . . .

[T]he Jewish interpretation of Christianity is at odds with the Christian interpretation of Judaism. Of this there is no doubt. Still, to assert that each must deny certain claims of the other and let these mutual denials dominate attention is to go too far. It is wrong to allow the sharp and central point of difference between Christianity and Judaism to obscure all that they hold in common. It is wrong not to walk together as far as possible, on the excuse that at one crucial point there is a clear difference. For neither in Jewish nor in Christian thought is it held that this difference must last for all eternity, or even for the entire duration of temporal history. . . .

To be a Christian is not only to be “spiritually a Semite” [in Maritain’s phrase], but in some very subtle sense to be a Jew. A great many of the prerogatives of the Christian faith belong first of all to the Jews. Many of the elements basic to a Christian way of life were first basic to a Jewish way of life: a reverence for the Scriptures; a sense of the sacred; respect for the law; humility before the transcendent; the cherishing of the human capacity for reflection and choice; the sharp taste of the existing (as distinct from non-existing), and of being (as opposed to nonbeing), and therefore of the blessed contingency of this created world; the practice of compassion; the ideal of friendship with God and of “walking with God”; the habit of prayer; and a sense of the presence of God during the activities of every day—all of these are habits of life that Christians share with Jews and have learned from Judaism.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Catholicism, Christianity, Jewish-Catholic relations, Jewish-Christian relations, Judaism, Religion & Holiday

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat