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
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'
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. …