‘It’s Always Better To Have Dialogue’

After shakeout over Israel, Jewish and liberal Protestant groups plan summit.

12/04/12
Staff Writer
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The latest breach between some leaders of the U.S. Jewish community and a major sector of American Christianity remains open, two months after liberal Protestant participants in the Christian-Jewish Roundtable dialogue group urged Congress to reconsider aid to Israel because of the Jewish state’s “widespread human rights violations committed against Palestinians.”

But while the recent fighting between Gaza and Israel, and the United Nations’ upgrading of the Palestinian Authority’s status make an immediate resolution of the Israel-centered interfaith dispute seem unlikely, coalition activities at the local level are continuing as before, Jewish and Protestant participants in the roundtable say.

The long-established, grass-roots cooperation in such areas as “immigration reform, separation of church and state, religious liberty, civil rights” is not affected by the suspension of national dialogue meetings, said Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee in an e-mail interview.

And, said Rabbi Marans, the interfaith discussions the Jewish community has conducted for several decades with a wide range of Protestant (both liberal and Evangelical) and Catholic groups, strengthens American Jewry. “Since the Shoah and subsequent Christian reflection on Christianity’s role in Jewish persecution, the Jewish community has benefited from a marked improvement, indeed a revolution, in diminishing anti-Jewish theology and anti-Semitism,” the rabbi said. “The Jewish community dare not take that historic change for granted.”

All seven Jewish participants in the twice-a-year formal roundtable discussions, which have brought representatives of both faiths together for dialogues since 2004, withdrew from a meeting planned for Oct. 22-23 after a letter to Congress three weeks earlier heavily criticized Israel and called for a possible suspension of American financial support.

Discussions are under way for a “summit” meeting of the participating organizations’ top leadership, to re-establish the regularly scheduled meetings, but no date has been set yet. The liberal Protestant signers of the letter that caused the suspension of the dialogue meetings sent a letter on Nov. 21 to Jewish leaders calling for a resumption of the dialogue while affirming their “commit[ment] to the issues raised in our [earlier] letter.”

“Our shared needs and interests are so great and our shared histories are so long, that it hurts all of us when dialogue stops,” said Rev. Katharine Henderson, president of the Auburn Theological Seminary. “As the standoff continues, the possibility for relationship decreases, and the potential for demonizing, stereotyping and deepening the breach increases.”

The Jewish members of the roundtable said they had received no advance notice of the letter, an omission they called a violation of the mutual trust that the dialogue meetings were supposed to foster.

The Protestants’ action “precludes a business-as-usual approach,” a letter sent by the Jewish organizations to their Christian counterparts stated. “A betrayal of trust,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Relations between Jews and mainline Protestants “hit a 45-year low,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in Haaretz. “And this time, they may not recover.”

“These people are not anti-Semites,” and the dialogue is likely to resume after “some time has passed,” Rabbi Yoffie said in an interview with The Jewish Week. “The American Jewish community is in the business of talking to our religious counterparts. It’s better for us; it’s better for America.”

“The Jewish community is clearly communicating exasperation that notwithstanding decades of Jewish-liberal Protestant dialogue, some Christian leaders do not fully comprehend the centrality of Israel to American Jewish identity and the unacceptability of demonization, delegitimization and double standards regarding Israel,” Rabbi Marans said.

Several Jewish roundtable participants suggested that the Protestants’ desire to protect their missionaries and institutions in the Middle East motivates the criticism of Israel.

“Relations between Jews and mainline Protestants have long been stormy,” Rabbi Yoffie wrote in Haaretz. “The exception is the honeymoon period of roughly 20 years following World War II.” The roundtable meetings were temporarily suspended two years ago after Christian participants showed videotapes that depicted alleged Israeli infractions of Palestinian human rights.

Resumption of the dialogue discussions largely depends on national Protestant leadership admitting its error in sending the October letter, Rev. John Wimberly, a Washington Presbyterian clergyman and veteran participant in interfaith activities, told The Jewish Week. “It’s going to take a lot of confession and asking for forgiveness. They need to say they made a big mistake.”

Rev. Wimberly said many leaders of national Protestant organizations are out of touch with the majority of members of his sect, who overwhelmingly support Israel.

Will the recent exchange of rocket fire between Israel and Gaza, and the Palestinians’ continued pursuit of statehood outside of negotiations with Israel, further complicate interfaith dialogue in this country?

Probably not, JCPA’s Felson said. “The issues that have taken us to the current standstill transcend specific current events. While they have an impact, the challenge is to forge a relationship that can weather the inevitable storms.”

“It’s always better to have dialogue than not to have dialogue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which was the first Jewish participant to withdraw from the roundtable’s October meeting after the Protestants sent their letter to Congress. “It’s better for us to have an open line to discuss the things that divide us and the things that unite us.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said interfaith cooperation in such areas as protection of civil rights and human rights has continued, both in Washington, where he is based, and in communities around the U.S.

One example: Jewish and Protestant leaders in Pittsburgh made a point of holding their monthly discussions after the roundtable talks were suspended. “It was never in doubt. We discussed it among ourselves and decided that no matter what happened on the national level, the local dialogue must continue,” Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, which sponsors the dialogue, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Its value only increases in times of conflict.”

And Rev. Henderson of the Auburn Theological Seminary recently co-led an interfaith group of women to Israel and the West Bank. “We continue with our My Faith/Your Faith program, which brings together teens of different faiths to promote a dialogue,” she said. “Programs like these, and congregational partnerships, continue all across the country.”

steve@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

12/15/2012 - 18:58

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I am a member of a South Carolina United Methodist Church congregation. I am active in my congregation so I believe I have some feel for how the vast majority of our members feel about Israel. I believe they feel that, in general, Israel fights a defensive battle against continuing threats and the United States should continue its strong support for the defense of Israel. I just wanted you to know how us "grass-roots" Methodists feel. Please don't judge the entire UMC by the actions of a few so-called leaders.

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