Philosopher, theologian, teacher, spiritual director, custodian of souls, man of God— Marcel Dubois, O.P., was all of these. Of the Christians living in the State of Israel, he was one of those best known to Jews. By the time of his death last June, Father Dubois had taught philosophy to generations of Israeli students at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. In a country where Christians make up only 2 percent of the population, this Dominican priest and professor of Thomas Aquinas’s thought gave a contemporary face to the post-Vatican II church, a church engaged in serious, respectful and loving dialogue with the Jewish people.
Born in northern France in 1920, Father Dubois arrived in Israel in 1962 to join Isaiah House, a small community of Dominicans committed to understanding the reality of the Jewish people in a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. Father Dubois was the first Catholic priest many of his students had ever encountered, and his attentiveness broke many of the stereotypes they had inherited from the Holocaust generation. Hundreds flocked to his classes, which included an introduction to Christianity, delivered in Hebrew with a French accent. Later Father Dubois was naturalized as an Israeli citizen, became a well-known public figure and in 1996 received the Israel Prize for his contribution to Israeli society. Especially popular among intellectuals in Jerusalem were his regular public conversations with a Jewish Orthodox philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, a strong critic of Christianity.
In the Catholic community, Father Dubois was recognized as a noted theoretician, theologian and activist in the growing dialogue with the Jewish people initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Isaiah House attracted a steady flow of visitors seeking guidance from the man who had found a place in the hearts of the Jewish people. The Dominican community, with its small number of brothers (some of Jewish origin), became a center of reflection on “the mystery of Israel” within the State of Israel, a Christian reflection on the role of Judaism that had been initiated in the 1930s by such French Catholics as Jacques Maritain. Father Dubois and his brothers also gave spiritual guidance and theological formation to the small community of Hebrew-speaking Catholics that had sprung up in Israel in the 1950s.
In his later years, especially in the late 1980s after the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, Father Dubois distanced himself from unquestioning support for the Israeli state, while remaining true to his love for the people. “During our first years we were carried along by the joy of seeing the People of Israel reunited with the Land of Israel, the Land of the Bible. And that caused us to neglect the ambiguous aspects of Zionism,” Father Dubois said in an interview soon to be published as The Israel We Longed For: Reflections of Marcel Dubois O.P. (edited by Olivier-Thomas Venard, Fordham Univ. Press). His involvement with both the Israeli left and the Palestinians led him to ask questions: “The return of a people to its land is legitimate, but must it be done through the dispossession and violent occupation of another people?” Father Dubois tried to convince Israelis that their nationalist choices conflicted with the Jewish tradition and vocation as understood by a sympathetic Catholic. To Christians, he explained, “The mystery of Israel and the State of Israel are two realities that depend on each other, but…if the mystery of Israel is part of my faith, the national, nationalist or political situation of the ‘state’ of Israel is something else altogether.”
Three days after his death on June 15, the Hebrew-language Israeli daily Haaretz called Father Dubois “one of the enchanted human stones of Jerusalem.” Marcel Dubois remains a witness to the church’s untiring work for reconciliation, dialogue, justice and peace. Now many Israelis repeat after his name: Zikhrono livrakha, “May his memory be blessed.”