“We had the feeling of the Holy One being at work through us,” said the Rev. Mark Hanson, a top Lutheran leader, as he reflected on a recent meeting between Jewish and Christian leaders.
That might sound a bit over the top, especially since the cleric was describing a meeting of Christian and Jewish organizational leaders in a plain-vanilla New York office building. But the March 27 gathering, which brought together top leaders of Jewish organizations and mainline Protestant churches, was portrayed by all as a breakthrough, ending an 18-month collapse in dialogue and instilling hope among participants for a brighter future for interfaith dialogue.
“These were five precious hours after a year and a half of disconnect,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who, along with a Christian counterpart, facilitated the meeting.
Sharp splits over Israel, which caused the breakdown in face-to-face interaction, are far from being resolved even after the positive meeting. In fact, both sides have yet even to discuss issues of substance. But against the backdrop of mutual suspicion and dysfunctional communication that had characterized the relationship between the two communities in recent years, the agreement to renew talks and to continue with high-level consultations is viewed by all as a breakthrough in itself.
Round-table interfaith discussions on Israel between Jewish and mainline Protestant churches were fraught with tension ever since their launch a decade ago. But it was an October 2012 letter, signed by leaders of 15 Christian denominations and urging Congress to condition military aid to Israel because of its human rights record, that plunged the relationship to a new low.
Jewish organizations immediately decided to pull out of the next round of talks and have not resumed the round-table conversations since. Members of Jewish organizations participating in the meetings expressed at the time their sense of betrayal after seeing their Christian counterparts go to Congress without first discussing the issue at the round table.
Other events in recent years, though not tied directly to this interfaith forum, had deepened the divide even more. They include attempts, that eventually failed, by groups in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Methodist Church to pass resolutions calling for divesting church funds from Israel, and a document, published earlier this year by an arm of the Presbyterian Church, that described a “pathology inherent in Zionism” that is at the root of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
But despite the bad blood, an open line of communication was maintained even after the formal breakdown of talks between. Hanson and Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the JCPA. In these conversations, both sides sought ways to renew the round-table meetings. Eventually they came up with the idea of convening a first-ever meeting of top leaders of Christian denominations and Jewish groups. They reached out to heads of the major Jewish organizations and of Reform and Conservative movements on the Jewish side, and to the heads of eight of the 15 churches that had signed the 2012 letter to Congress.