Two Faiths Strive to See Eye to Eye ; in US, Jewish-Christian Rapport Frayed in 2004. Can a Joint Trek to Middle East Help Resolve Differences?

Article excerpt

In the post-9/11 world, where religion infuses events with more intensity, the demands on interfaith dialogue are rising. For American Jews and mainline Christians who have worked during the past year to renew a dormant national dialogue, the stakes are especially high. They are seeking to come to terms with major differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a necessary first step toward restoring their historical alliance on issues of civil liberties and social justice in the United States.

Their effort hit a snag last summer. Some churches, upset about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, began asking whether they should use economic leverage - namely, divestment - in protest. This sparked an emotional reaction on the part of Jews across the country, raising ghosts of Christian-Jewish history and forcing leaders to move beyond the polite conversation stage.

After several frank and wrenching sessions during the year, the dialogue - among leaders of about 15 major organizations, federations, and denominations - came close to a meltdown last month. But instead they agreed at a May 13 meeting in Washington to visit Israel and the territories together, to see the situation through one another's eyes and seek common ground for action.

"In the course of the past year we've learned a lot about each other. We recognize there are at least two narratives to the story, and we need to look at the other's story from their perspective," says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, interreligious secretary for the National Council of Churches, which has been hosting the national dialogue in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). "The trip will help ... as we'll be listening to both sides together."

The visit is planned for September, and some seek not only greater understanding, but evidence that Christians and Jews can work together on this issue. "Hopefully, there will be a product, some joint action," says David Elcott, AJC's US interreligious director. "This has divided us for too long, and rather than arguing, we need to find a way to help see two states, Israel and Palestine, live in security and peace."

In many US communities, the two faith groups have gathered for dialogue for many years, providing some level of trust for working through the current tensions. The Jewish-Christian dialogue in Boston, for example, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. "These have been marvelous discussions over the years, and their success can be seen by how open, honest, and confrontational people tend to be," says Larry Lowenthal, AJC's Boston director. The group has met three times a year, twice for theological discussions and once to address political issues.

For Jews, Israel is a prime concern. And mainline Christians have longstanding connections to the Holy Land and to Palestinian Christians in Israel and the territories. Although mainline Christians have always supported Israel, they have become more vocal of late about the consequences of the occupation on Palestinians' lives.

Christians did more than speak out on the issue last summer, when the national convention of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of phased, selective divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. The plan is to exert pressure and talk with companies before deciding whether to withdraw investments.

The decision outraged many Jews, who called the step anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic. Then, as other churches, including Episcopalians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ, began to consider some form of economic leverage, Jewish groups went on the offensive, seeking to reverse the Presbyterian action and prevent other similar moves.

After meeting with Jewish groups, some Presbyterians in various cities came out in opposition to divestment by their denomination.

National Presbyterian leaders, however, said the church's actions were being misunderstood and misrepresented. …