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By Eric Clayton

Working for peace is more than a job for Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ; it’s integral to who he is. And who he is — his identity — is rooted in multiple communities. 

“Being a Jewish Israeli, a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, an Arabic speaker and lover of the Middle East, and an honorary member of a Palestinian family,” Fr. Neuhaus says that promoting justice and peace is not a choice. “It is an essential part of what I must strive for if I am to survive in all the richness of what my multiple identities offer.” 

Neuhaus grew up in South Africa, part of a Jewish family of refugees that had fled Nazi Germany. Haunted as he was by the Holocaust and the events of the Second World War, questions of justice were intrinsic to Neuhaus’ upbringing — and examples of injustices abounded all around him.  

Early Life and Awakening 

“The reality of the South African apartheid regime was constantly talked about at home where my parents strongly opposed it,” he says. Both at home and at school, the young Neuhaus was given a strong sense of the systemic injustices at work. He felt a need to respond. “When I was fifteen, my parents sent me off to Israel to get me out of trouble,” he remembers. “I was already aware and speaking out.” 

Once in Israel, Neuhaus fell in love with Jerusalem. He decided he wanted to spend his life there, but he quickly learned that many of the same injustices prevalent in South Africa were all too present in Israel. The move from South Africa wouldn’t keep David out of “trouble”; rather, it gave him a new context in which to speak out for justice.  

“Promoting justice and peace is not a choice among others; it is an essential part of what I must strive for.”  

“Discrimination against Palestinians and the military occupation of the territories conquered in war made Israel a very troubled society,” he recalls. “The struggle for freedom and liberty was a reality here, too.” 

Encounters That Changed Everything 

In those first weeks in Israel, Neuhaus met two people who would change the trajectory of his life. The first, Oussama, a Muslim Palestinian, became a lifelong friend who adopted David into his family. “This gave me a perspective on life in Israel/Palestine that I would never have gotten from being solely integrated into Jewish Israeli society,” Neuhaus says. 

The second was, in Neuhaus’ words, “an elderly, crippled Russian Orthodox nun. Fascinated with Russian history, I spent more than three hours with her the first time we met,” he says. During that conversation, she shared about her life and eventual exile as a result of the revolution and her decision to become a nun. Surprisingly, she radiated joy. “During my long walk back to boarding school, I realized that I had just met the happiest person I had ever encountered.”  

A later conversation with that same nun, spurred by a simple question — Why are you happy? — resulted in a young David’s first encounter with Jesus Christ.    

“Bridging worlds — Jewish, Christian, and Muslim — has not diluted my faith but deepened it, showing me the universal call to love and justice that transcends all boundaries.” 

A New Path 

Though his parents were stunned — it had been Christians after all who had perpetrated violence against Jews during the Holocaust — David pledged to become a Christian and eventually a Catholic. The papacy of Pope Saint John XXIII and the work of the Second Vatican Council were particularly attractive. “These had led to the inauguration of relations with the Jewish people, relations based upon a deep regret for the teaching of contempt and the violence it provoked together with the desire for mutual respect,” Fr. Neuhaus remembers. “I knew that here I could make my home. 

“The first Catholic priest I met was a Jesuit who had devoted his life to the Palestinian people,” Neuhaus says. “I met him through Oussama.”  

David’s preparation to enter the Catholic Church and eventually the Society of Jesus occurred against the backdrop of conflict. “It was during the First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that I became more directly involved in political activism,” he remembers. “Not only attending demonstrations and vigils but also translating between Hebrew and Arabic for Israelis engaged in acts of solidarity with Palestinians.”  

As a conscientious objector who refused military service, Neuhaus found himself in prison. “This was a wonderful occasion to meet in prison with strata of Israeli society I had never encountered before. I was baptized six months after I was released, prison having been like a long spiritual retreat.” 

Building bridges is a core aspect of the Jesuit and Ignatian charism. Photo: Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ

David was baptized in 1988 and, after the customary three-year waiting period prescribed for recent converts in the Jesuit Constitutions, he entered the Society of Jesus. His ministry of solidarity, of creating inclusive and safe spaces for all people, is a hallmark of his Jesuit life. 

“As a Christian in this land, I am part of a community that needs justice and peace to survive and that is called to incarnate these values within the microcosm of the Church,” he says. “The diversity of the members of our Church imposes upon us the challenge to be both inclusive and aware of difference.” 

Living the Mission 

Fr. Neuhaus holds a PhD in political science, as well as advanced degrees in theology and Scripture from universities all over the world. “Having studied political science, I have always been aware how much the Bible is manipulated and exploited in the propagation of ideologies that are opposed to the basic Biblical messages of justice, peace, reconciliation and love,” he says.  

As such, he’s determined to ensure that everyone knows that the Bible is “good news for all about God’s plan for liberation and equality.”  

Those are the values that have always animated Fr. Neuhaus in his work and, in the wake of the horrors of October 7, that have only reinforced his determination. “Our struggle is now, as it has always been, to find a way of saying that justice and peace are possible,” he says. “The struggle has always been to create spaces of safety and inclusivity through the commitment to promoting equality and freedom.” 

“As Christians, we might be tempted to close in on ourselves for self-protection in this toxic environment where there is danger and death all around us,” he says. “However, our Christian identity, vocation, and mission do not allow for this.” 

What is true for Fr. Neuhaus is true for us all: How are we, in our unique contexts, called to this vocation of creating safe and inclusive spaces for all?  

Slide

The child of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany, Fr. David Neuhaus, SJ, was born in South Africa in 1962. At age 15, he moved to Israel where, in 1988, he was baptized into the Catholic Church. In 1992, he entered the Society of Jesus and in 2000 was ordained a priest. Fr. Neuhaus has completed a BA, MA, and PhD in political science at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, along with degrees in theology in Paris at Centre Sèvres and in Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. From 2009 through 2017, he was the Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and from 2011 through 2017, he also served as pastoral coordinator of the migrant-worker and asylum-seeker populations. He has published extensively on Scripture and teaches Scripture at the Seminary of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in the Religious Studies Department at Bethlehem University, and at the Salesian Theologate in Jerusalem.

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