"I grew up in one of the few Jewish families in Wales," Solomon told an audience of nearly 400 seated before him. "But I didn't really face much anti-Semitism," he said, pausing for effect.
"In the town where I grew up, most of the hatred was against Catholics."
Solomon, in toying with the audience's expectations, made his point: that prejudice can take some unexpected forms.
A fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in England, Solomon and Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews were the symposium's keynote speakers.
They discussed past and present issues concerning Catholics and Jews before a standing-room-only crowd at the University of San Francisco's Gershwin Theater.
The institute, which is affiliated with USF, is devoted to improving Catholic-Jewish relations. It was the inspiration of Lillian Hyatt of San Francisco and honors the work of her late husband, David Hyatt, as well as the late Rev. Edward Flannery, who both crusaded for interfaith dialogue.
Opening remarks were provided by Andrew Heinze, director of the Swig Judaic studies program at USF, and the university's president, the Rev. John Schlegel.
The two speakers offered a contrast in both style and substance. Cassidy relied on soaring rhetoric to paint a picture of an optimistic future, while Solomon employed a more anecdotal tone, suggesting that some intractable problems don't warrant solutions — just understanding.
Cassidy, the president of the Vatican commission, often made reference to Pope John Paul II, quoting him extensively throughout his speech.
"The Pope has paid homage to victims of the Shoah in much more eloquent language than I'm capable of doing," said Cassidy. "And his words at St. Peter's Basilica are indeed the fruit of Catholic-Jewish dialogue," he said, referring to last months apology to the Jews.
"What must be acknowledged," he continued, "is that the Shoah is still very much part of the memory of the suffering of the Jewish people…and should always be remembered as an attempt to eliminate the Jewish people from the soil of Europe."
The dialogue between Catholics and Jews should focus on commonalties of the religions, Cassidy said, including the similarities in stances on peace and justice, family issues and human rights.
Cassidy also called for a broadening of the dialogue to include more theological discussions and mutual explorations of life's "important questions."
"It must be said, however," Cassidy warned, "that there is no place in such a dialogue for unfounded accusations.
"There must be a free dialogue that begins in individual hearts…and resists the unpleasant activities of pressure groups that can damage that progress that has been made."
Solomon, attired in a well-traveled suit — a marked contrast to the violet-hued vestment of Cardinal Cassidy — was equally informal in addressing the audience.
"I don't think anyone in the Jewish world has the authority to speak on the Jewish point of view — myself included," said Solomon, a specialist at Oxford in modern Jewish thought.
"But I can say without a doubt that we could not have been here together 100 years ago."
The path to reconciliation in the 20th century took many twists and turns, according to Solomon. He cited as milestones in the process the refusal of Pius X to aid Theodor Herzl in setting up a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Holocaust and the Second Vatican Council.
The Second Vatican Council of 1965 absolved the Jews for the death of Jesus, but only briefly touched on the Holocaust, and contained no reference to Israel, It might have been fortuitous that the latter two issues weren't fully discussed, Solomon suggested.
"The Holocaust and the state of Israel were still very recent issues then, and it would have been much worse to have the wrong words said than no words said at all."
Having said that, Solomon ticked off a list of areas where the two religions were similar, and where they differed. In the latter category, Solomon included the stances on abortion, divorce and the virtues of celibacy.
"Indeed, there are many areas between us that constitute unsolved problems," Solomon said "and there will continue to be unsolved problems throughout our histories.
"Perhaps that isn't such a bad thing, if we agree to live in peace, and attempt to understand them.
"What's most important is that we recognize this process not as a product of Jewish public relations, or Catholic guilt, but as a dialogue that shatters our self-indulgences and self-interests."