Oct. 22, 2004
US churches, Jews dialogue on Israel

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

There is a new, urgent priority in interfaith dialogue in America: Israel.

As growing numbers of mainline Christian denominations adopt policies and speak out in ways considered inimical to Israel, Jewish groups are reaching out to public policy officials at America's national churches in a bid to influence their decisions on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This week, a delegation of Jewish officials met in Washington with Middle East policy officials from the Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Orthodox churches in a first-of-its-kind interfaith meeting focused primarily on Israel.

"Historically, in our relationships with the ecumenical Protestant community we have had a very longstanding, felicitous relationship when we work together in coalitions on issues of social justice; however, we have ignored the issues of the Middle East and not discussed them in any seriousness," said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith consultant for the Anti-Defamation League. "This meeting will be the first time we made a concerted, decisive effort to gather not only the interfaith experts, but the Middle East policy people as well."

The new effort marks a significant shift in priorities in interreligious dialogue away from the historic focus on social-justice issues in America and onto the politics of the Middle East. It comes, observers say, in light of a dawning recognition by American Jewish organizational officials that they have failed to make the case for Israel to mainline Christians, who in turn have influenced the worldwide debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Israel's detriment.

"Religious communities are politicizing theology in ways we have not seen in many decades," said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, which hosted the interfaith meeting Wednesday and Thursday. "The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, the intifada helped us realize we need to build more support for Israel's security."

The meeting in Washington comes on the heels of a controversial visit by officials of America's ninth-largest denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, to Lebanon, where they met with Hezbollah officials. Afterward, one Presbyterian delegate from Pittsburgh, Ronald Stone, declared, "Relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jews."

The meeting drew wide condemnation in the Jewish community, and it put American Jewish organizational officials who were slated to attend this week's meeting in Washington in a difficult position. "We called and said it would be difficult for us to meet without a statement from the church that disassociates itself from that," Elcott said.

Such a statement came on the eve of the meeting, though some Jewish organizational officials said it didn't go far enough.

This was the second time in recent months that the Presbyterian church has angered and alarmed Jewish officials. The first time was in July, when the church passed a resolution calling for divesting from companies that do business in or with Israel. Now, after a meeting last month by Anglican church officials to Palestinian refugee camps, the Episcopal, or Anglican, church has announced that it, too, is considering divestiture.

"Out of that experience, in which many people were deeply shocked at the conditions of the occupation today, the Episcopal Church's committee on responsibility and investment is recommending that we should at least talk about this," said Rev. Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries at the Episcopal Church.

"We recognize the concerns of some of the American Jewish community," he said. "We realized that we haven't talked together enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

On Thursday, Jewish officials pressed their Christian counterparts on divestment, arguing that it is unfair to Israel and does not account at all for Palestinian terrorism. Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders made similar arguments at a meeting in late September with Presbyterian officials. After that meeting, Presbyterian leaders expressed regret that they had not consulted with Jews prior to passing the resolution on divestment but said they would not back away from the decision of their democratically elected body.

This week's meeting in Washington was an effort to initiate that consultative relationship before mainline churches take further steps that could hurt Israel and its standing in the world, Jewish participants said. Protestant groups attending represented Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, American Baptists, Lutherans and a variety of other Christian communions. The meeting did not include evangelical groups, which generally are pro-Israel, or Catholics, with whom Jewish officials say they have a fairly good relationship.

"The point of the meeting is that we might work together as religious people," said Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group that represents various Protestant denominations that claim about 45 million adherents in the United States. "Even when difficult times arise-perhaps particularly when difficult times arise-we might still be in dialogue with each other, so we understand each other's perspectives and are able to respond in a way that is more respectful of each other."

"That may not preclude us from making the kinds of statements that we want to make, but still we will work hard to be respectful each other," he added.

On the Jewish side, participants included the AJCommittee, the ADL, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Conservative, Orthodox and Reform officials.

Between meetings Thursday, Bretton-Granatoor called the summit in Washington "productive in a limited way." He said, "There's an exceedingly frank discussion and there's an agreement at all times that our discussion should be as friends with whom we have deep differences."