This past Sunday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque,  I was asked to introduce a film that I helped to produce in 2001 entitled I am Joseph Your Brother at a special screening as part of a series on Film and Religions, part of the Tmol Shilshom programs at this leading Tel Aviv cultural institution. I was happy to participate in this event  since the production of this film was one of the greatest educational experiences of my professional life, and I am always glad to hear that the film is still screened in many places for educational purposes, including in universities and seminaries in Israel and abroad.

I was asked to explain how this film came to be made. What were the circumstances that prompted me and some colleagues to produce this unique documentary film?

The context for this was the historic pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Israel in March 2000. As director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) at that time, I had been intimately involved in dialogue with leading Catholic religious figures in the Vatican and in Israel during the 1990s, and as result, I was asked by the Nuncio (ambassador) of the Vatican to Israel at that time—Msgr. Pietro Sambi, who became a good friend during his 8 years of service in Israel –and the Government Press Office of the State of Israel — to organize a series of briefings for the Foreign and local press and interested individuals during the month before the visit of the Pope. There was great fear and anxiety in Israel –what would happen? how would the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-nationalist Jews behave? would there be security problems? would there be public relations problems?

It turned out that this historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel was an amazing week in our history. It was a week in which the government of Israel did almost nothing wrong for an entire week! Our Prime Minister at the time was Ehud Barak.  Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog was secretary to the government, and Rabbi Michel Melchior — Israel’s leading orthodox rabbi in the field of interreligious relations–was Deputy Foreign Minister. All of them, and their staffs, worked very hard to make this historic visit a great success. (I devote an entire chapter to this in my recent book: The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem. See chapter 3).

At these briefings, many of my colleagues and I shared with the audiences information about the revolutionary changes within the Catholic Church vis a vis Jews and Judaism during the past 50-70 years, since World War II and especially since Vatican II in the 1960s.  Many of the people heard about these changes for the first time, including one Israeli couple who make documentary films, Eli and Elaine Tal El, who came up to me after one of the briefings and said to me something like this:

“We have never heard about any of this before. This is all new to us, and we think to most Jews, in Israel and abroad. We have an idea: why don’t we make a documentary film which traces the history of Jewish-Catholic Relations up until the visit of this pope to Israel?”

Together with my wife, Amy, who is a filmmaker and a film historian, we developed a partnership with this Israeli couple to produce a film (available on DVD from the National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, Massachusetts). We approached the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington DC, where I had a friend and colleague (Dr. Eugene Fisher, now retired), who was the director of their department of Interreligious Affairs. They awarded us a major grant and we produced this film for ABC-TV in the U.S. and it was screened on television stations all across North America. Soon after this, the film was translated into Italian and we screened it in Rome, in the presence of representatives of the Vatican and at an international film festival on Religions and Film in Trento, in northern Italy.

We tried to sell it to commercial television in Israel, but they didn’t like it because they thought that “it was too soft on the Vatican.” Indeed, we produced a balanced film, that tried to be fair to both sides in the dialogue.

Then, the Open University came along and translated it into Hebrew for us, and it was broadcast many times on the old “Discovery channel” (channel 8) on Israel television.  This was one of the reasons that I was happy to be part of this screening and discussion with Dr. Orit Ramon of the Open University in front of an audience of more than 300 people at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv this past Sunday.

What are the main messages of the film?

As I said near the beginning of the film:

We have moved from persecution to partnership, from confrontation to cooperation.

The Crusades are over. Vatican II has happened. The world is no longer flat. The relations between Catholics and Jews are completely different now than they were for most of our history. A revolution in consciousness and in behavior has taken place!

A great process of reconciliation has happened in our lifetime between leaders of the Catholic Church and leaders of the Jewish People. It is practically unprecedented in world history. We need to be aware of it and to know more about it.

Unfortunately, however, too many Jews remain ignorant about these changes, which shock Catholic leadership. This is especially true in Israel, where almost nothing is taught about this in the schools. (I wrote a paper about this in March 1998 for a seminar on Education at the Vatican, in which I documented, with the help of a research assistant, how little is taught about this in Israeli education.)

We Jews need to re-educate ourselves about Christianity (and other religions) so that we do not continue to live in the past. We have not done enough. This is a great challenge for us now, and for the future, since the world has changed and we need to change accordingly.

If an historic reconciliation like the one between the Catholic Church and the Jewish People can happen in our lifetime,  so too it should be possible to engage in other historic reconciliation processes, such as between Judaism and Islam, and the one that was begun between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people in the early 1990s.  These processes will take time, energy, commitment and dedication to the cause. But they are not impossible. On the contrary, I would argue that they are pressing religious imperatives now and for the future.