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.

Several key issues stand at the heart of this conflict. Some have to do with historic ties of Protestant missionaries to Middle East Arabs, which led to a cool approach toward Jewish nationalism in the Holy Land. Others stem from so-called liberation theology, which is interpreted as seeing the Palestinians as an oppressed group needing assistance.

Antonios Kireopoulos
national council of churches
Antonios Kireopoulos

Jewish members of the interfaith dialogue canceled the meeting planned in 2010, following a showing at a previous meeting of videotapes by Christian participants depicting alleged Israeli infractions of Palestinian human rights. The annual meeting was renewed in 2011 and then canceled again this year.

Participants on the Christian side of the table are equally disappointed with the roundtable. Protestant representatives had expected the roundtable to produce a strong joint call for Israeli–Palestinian, peace based on a two-state solution. They believe Jewish groups are dragging their heels about promoting such a solution in the face of Israeli intransigence.

“The dialogue has never been able to say anything constructive about Middle East peace, and that is very frustrating,” said Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary at the National Council of Churches.

Church leaders have not yet responded yet to the Jewish community’s invitation to convene a high-level meeting instead of the annual roundtable. Despite harsh criticism from Jewish members of the interfaith forum, Protestant representatives remained unapologetic about their call for Congress to take action on aid to Israel.

“We have clear policies on use of U.S. aid around the world, and this letter is a result of these policies,” said Peter Makari, a roundtable participant representing the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He added that signatories of the letter felt no need to consult with their Jewish counterparts before issuing the call.

Another factor complicating dialogue attempts between the Jewish community and mainline Protestants was the deepening of ties between Jewish organizations and the evangelicals from the Christian-Zionist community. Protestant representatives around the table expressed to their Jewish colleagues repeatedly their wish to see these ties severed.

“In reality, Christian Zionists aren’t ultimately real friends of Israel,” Kireopoulos said. “This is a false friendship.”

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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