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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Jewish representatives turned down any attempt to force a choice between partnering with mainline Protestants or with evangelical Christians.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Ethan Felson, JCPA’s vice president and the group representative to the interfaith roundtable. “We don’t have to choose one over the other.”

Though Jewish groups tend to agree with evangelicals solely on the issue of Israel while, in general, holding opposite positions on social issues, cooperation with mainline Protestants follows a different pattern. Despite deep disagreements on Israel, the two faiths joined in numerous coalitions dealing with issues of poverty, hunger, gun control and separation of church and state.

Bad blood between Jewish organizations and Protestant churches could spell trouble for future cooperation on social and domestic issues, since it would be more difficult to work together once trust is lost.

“The Jewish community will continue to work with groups we have deep differences with,” Felson said. “But the strains here will impact how some of these partnerships happen.”

Last February, the Jewish community flexed its muscles and refused to sign on to an initiative regarding private prisons that are led by the United Methodist Church, because of the church’s support for divestment from Israel.

Still, many on both sides feel it is important to find ways of reviving the dialogue. “Despite the decline in membership, mainline Protestants in America continue to have a very important influence in politics,” Rudin noted. Another point made by Jewish activists is that while leaders of Protestant churches are critical of Israel, this sentiment does not represent the men and women in the pews. In a 2009 survey of members of the Presbyterian Church USA, 88% of church members said it was important to maintain close diplomatic and military relations between the United States and Israel. This number fell when members of the clergy were asked the same question.

PC (USA) is also facing internal debate over its hard line on Israel. Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, a group that is within the church and seen as supportive of Israel, issued a statement criticizing the Rev. Grayde Parsons for signing the letter. The group argued that the letter “contradicts and diminishes” PC (USA) policies adopted by the group’s assembly. In response, the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network accused the group of ignoring “the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people on a daily basis by the matrix of Israel’s 45-year-old military occupation.”

Not all of the Jewish community agreed in lockstep with the decision to drop out of the roundtable and call for a high-level meeting. The ADL, which was the first to drop out of the roundtable, notably refused to sign the letter, since the group expects an apology or clarification from the mainline Protestant churches soon.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

This article incorporates a change in the presentation of Rabbi Gutow’s quotation which reflects his larger stance on the situation over a longer period of time (change made Nov 3).


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