Interfaith Dialogue Troubled Even Before Israel Dispute

For Jews, Christians' Letter to Congress Was Last Straw

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 25, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Frustrated by what he saw as hostility toward Israel, Rabbi Eric Greenberg recalled how a few years ago he presented Christian leaders in an interfaith dialogue with a study highlighting historic Jewish ties to the Holy Land.

Rabbi Steve Gutow
courtesy of Jcpa
Rabbi Steve Gutow

Sitting across the table, one of the church leaders replied that, according to the prophets, the Jewish people sinned and lost their right to the land.

“And I thought, after all these years, what have they learned?” said Greenberg, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, in a recent conversation with the Forward. “It was eye-opening.”

The back-and-forth illustrates the rocky path charted by the interfaith roundtable since it was launched eight years ago. The squabbles erupted into an open split after 15 mainline Protestant Church leaders wrote a letter to Congress on October 5, calling for an investigation into Israel’s use of American military aid.

Jewish organizations abruptly pulled out of an upcoming roundtable annual meeting after hearing about the letter to Congress.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said there is a need for a pause in the dialogue in order to reexamine how both sides can work together in the future.

“It is very difficult now to go into the room and breathe the same air,” said Gutow, one of the leading Jewish participants in the interfaith gatherings. He stressed that in any case there is importance in finding ways to continue interfaith dialogue.

While Jewish leaders expressed outrage at the churches’ decision not to consult with them before turning to Congress on an issue as sensitive as foreign aid to Israel, many of those involved say they aren’t surprised by the breakdown in the roundtable.

“While we remain committed to continuing our dialogue,” the Jewish organizations stated, “the letter represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach.” Instead of the scheduled roundtable meeting, the Jewish community proposed a high-level consultation with Christian counterparts.

The interfaith roundtable was established in 2004, following the first attempt by members of the Presbyterian Church USA to pass a resolution calling for divestment from Israel. Ever since, the forum “has had its ups and downs,” according to one member.

“What we’re seeing here is nothing really new,” said Rabbi James Rudin, senior inter-religious adviser at the American Jewish Committee and one of the pioneers of Jewish dialogue with mainline Protestants. He said the current falling-out should be seen as yet another flashpoint in a difficult relationship that has been shaped by church leadership’s hostility to Zionism and Israel.


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