Interfaith Dialogue: Beyond 'Tea and Cookies'

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Most experts in interreligious dialogue say that if relationships are to mature, they have to grow beyond the "tea and cookies" stage into the capacity to challenge one another. The problem is that issuing challenges tends to make people mad in a way that tea and cookies rarely do.

A clear example in Birmingham came with the summit's last panel, composed of three rabbis: Marc Ellis and Michael Kogan of the United States and Dan Cohn-Sherbok of England. Up to that point, most participants had used their five-minute speaking blocks to outline how pluralism could be accepted from within their traditions.

Ellis, however, flung down a gauntlet.

He denounced what he called an "ecumenical deal" in Jewish-Christian dialogue, which in his opinion works like this: Jews agree to forgive mainline Christian churches for anti-Semitism, and in return Christians agree not to push Jews on Israel's conduct in Palestine. Criticism of Israel is interpreted as a reversion to anti-Semitism. The end result, Ellis said, is that out of guilt over the Holocaust, Christians end up being silent on another historical crime.

One consequence of this "ecumenical deal," Ellis said, is that Jewish dissenters (and he counts himself one of them) are frozen out of the dialogue. One example, he said, is that he had been asked in advance of the pluralism summit not to address the Palestinian problem.

"This deal is upheld by Jews such as Eli Wiesel and by mainstream Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches," Ellis said. "Some people in this room are among the architects of the deal."

Sparks flew.

Kogan later said that had he known in advance the Palestinian problem would be on the table in Birmingham, he would not have come.

"Unless we're also going to deal with the caste system in India, and the oppression of women in Arab states, and the problems of the American Indians, etc., to focus exclusively on the sins of Israel seems to many Jews to be scapegoating," he said.

Kogan insisted on focus.

"We can't get hijacked by social and political issues. …