Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Envisioning the Future of Jewish-Christian Relations In Israel
Interfaith Coordinating Council in Israel
On June 5, 2000, the following members of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) gathered to discuss issues affecting the future of Jewish-Christian relations in Israel: Dr. Sidney DeWaal, President, Jewish University College; Rabbi Naama Kelman, Director of Educational Initiatives, Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem; Mr. Yehezkel Landau, Co-director, Open House, Ramle; Fr. Michael McGarry, Rector, Tantur Ecumenical Institute; Sr. Trudy Nabuurs, Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, Ecce Homo; Rabbi David Rosen, Director-General, ADL in Israel; Moderator: Dr. Ron Kronish, Director, ICCI. Edited excerpts from the discussion follow. *
KRONISH: We will talk about two things concerning Jewish-Christian relations in Israel and the region: i) We will reflect briefly on where the dialogue has led us over the past 30 or so years. What positive developments and what problems have we encountered? ii) We will discuss the challenges for the future for Jewish-Christian dialogue in this country, Israel, and in this land, Israel/Palestine. In what directions will we need to move? What steps do we need to develop?
DEWAAL: I come to this as a Protestant Christian who grew up in a mainline church, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, and emigrated to the USA in my early twenties. Over time I began to work more interdenominationally, but in evangelical circles. One of the positive developments during my past seven years in Jerusalem is that many of my Jewish colleagues are beginning to understand a distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical christians. Fundamentalists will say, “Israel can never make a mistake; they are the apple of God’s eye. We are here to facilitate their return to Israel. Who are we to be critical of anything they say or do?” I belong to the mainline evangelicals who have gone through a real change in their perception of Israel. From the late 1940s through the 1960s they were very supportive of Israel in the sense of wanting to talk, to understand each other, to explore the continuity between Judaism and Christianity. This openness and nonjudgmentalism came to a halt during 1987-1992 (the Intifada) when they became more critical of Judaism – particularly due to the political dimension, since politics and religion are inseparable. The ability to talk to the other about what binds us together as people of faith became very difficult.
I have also come to realize that the Holocaust is very important in Israel’s history, perhaps the most important if not the defining event for Jews and Judaism today. I realize that it will take time to get beyond this point. If we are going to move forward in our conversation and consider what binds us together as people of faith, the time must come when both Jews and Christians can look upon the Holocaust as the horrendous event it was, and no longer need to belabor that point. As long as the Holocaust remains the means of identifying Jewishness, Judaism and the Jewish nation, there will never be a time when Jews can talk to Christians, especially if Christians are perceived as the perpetrators of the Holocaust. I am hoping that as we dialogue and learn about each other, and as we hear the confessions from the Catholic and Protestant sides, we will talk more about what it means to forgive. I think that Christianity can contribute to this by presenting a view of forgiveness that helps us start all over again.
ROSEN: We must make a distinction between two very different processes: organizations and activities within Israel proper and in terms of Israel-Palestinian relations, and the extent to which interfaith relations are part or not part of this. In Israel proper an obviously unique element was added to the dialogue with the establishment of the State of Israel. For the first time Christianity as a religion encountered Judaism as a majority and a sovereign ethos in its land. I think it is still very difficult for many Christians to come to terms with this. It has presented a new kind of challenge for contemporary Christianity. I think most Christians would prefer to not have to deal with the history of Christian antisemitism. They would prefer to avoid the theological implications of the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland and the establishment of sovereignty in the land. One of the unique aspects of Jewish-Christian dialogue here in Israel has been with those Christians who have been a part of this land and who are now addressing the theological challenges which the rebirth of independent Jewish life in our ancestral homeland is posing for them now against the backdrop of history. What does it mean to engage in this new relationship?
The Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is affected by the fact that Palestine is a society struggling for national self-determination. Anything perceived as not serving this overriding struggle is seen as either peripheral or as a dangerous luxury. Some of our other encounters have been with Christians who have, in varying degrees, been exposed to western society. They play a very significant role in helping to bridge these different areas.
NABUURS: I am a Sister of Sion who came to Jerusalem from Australia about three and a half years ago. I live and work in the Ecce Homo Convent situated in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Our location there, along with our focus on Jewish-Christian and interfaith relations, enables us to foster dialogue in various ways. For 20 years we have been offering a study program for Christian (mainly Catholic) ‘teachers and preachers’ from different parts of the world. Many of them come with a very limited or narrow view of the Word. We focus on helping them understand the Word also from a Jewish perspective. We also encourage them to meet Jews, to visit synagogues, and to obtain insight into Jewish faith and prayer. This helps to reduce stereotyping and prejudice. Since we are living in the Muslim Quarter they also meet Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian.
LANDAU: I came to this country 22 years ago, to put my body where my prayers were and to contribute, from a faith perspective, in whatever small way I could to healing human relations in this holy land. My convictions led to my involvement in peacemaking on the interfaith level and on the inter-communal political level. For me Jewish-Arab relations and interfaith work are two sides of the same coin. They’re not separable. My rebbe at Harvard Divinity School said that Jews and Christians have been violating the Ninth Commandment; mainly out of ignorance they have been bearing false witness against each other for 2000 years. Over ten years ago, in an effort to translate my convictions and aspirations into a practical laboratory involving people in this land, Open House was born – to provide for co-existence among Jews, Christians and Muslims on a grassroots level where theology is very indirectly addressed. At summer camps, parenting workshops, computer classes and intercultural meetings religion is shared and talked about as a natural part of life. Looking to the future, if we Jews want to involve more Palestinian Christians, as we should, we have to be sensitive to their theological and political concerns. That takes a lot of empathy and listening. It is a slow process of mutual discovery and support.
There aren’t too many of us who are identified as religiously observant Jews and Zionists while also universalists or pluralists. My major worry is being perceived as the exception to the rule and being used for somebody else’s theological or political agenda.
Challenges for the Future
KRONISH: In recent years there have been a lot of active organizations, dialogues and trialogues. However, I think much of it remains an ‘ivory tower’ experience which avoids anything to do with real life in order to steer clear of the political. There is value to pure interreligious dialogue about religion, prayer, spirituality, history and theology. However, we have so detached ourselves from politics for fear of getting our hands or our minds dirty, so we haven’t really figured out how to relate religion to the real world. Over the past three to five years we have had a number of dialogues based on text study. Three sets have taken place within the framework of ICCI: with indigenous Jews and Christians, with western Jews and Christians, and with students from abroad. Approaching the scriptures with our different perceptions provides us with a common base and enables us, as well, to relate the discussion to contemporary issues. These have been good beginnings.
I think the March visit of Pope John Paul II was a watershed in many ways. What particularly impressed me was what we call ‘the great educational opportunity’. During the month before the Pope’s visit and during the visit itself there was more about the Pope and Christianity on television and in the newspapers than during the last 30 years! A number of taboos were broken as well. There was actually a cross on Israeli television, and the TV didn’t blow up! All of a sudden it became kosher to talk about Christianity and not be afraid of it. For the future we should consider how we might follow up on this.
For me the main problem has been getting local Christians and Israeli-born Jews involved. But the fact that we’ve made some modest beginnings gives us hope for the future. There is of course the limiting linguistic problem because so much of our dialogue is in English. Maybe we will need to do more in Hebrew and Arabic in the future.
My question to you now is what are the main challenges for the future in the Jewish-Christian dialogue in Israel and in the region?
DEWAAL: I will begin with the progress being made in our discussions on theological, psychological, sociological and biblical issues. Ongoing discussions between students of Hebrew Union College and Jerusalem University College are an example. In their first discussion, which was about Messiah, the JUC students asked, “How are we going to talk about that?” while at HUC they asked, “What does that mean anyway?” But they talked, and realized that they needed to go to a prior topic, redemption, and found that the word meant totally different things in the Jewish and Christian contexts. When they talked about redemption they discovered they needed to talk about sin – and that’s where the conversation really got stuck. But they began to understand language concepts that have been used by both religious communities with some overlap, but also with very significant differences. My hope is to further develop this kind of discussion, as well as the kind we have had in other groups such as in the Ein Kerem Dialogue Group in which we have talked about Jewish and Christian texts relating to Christmas and Hanukkah, and about the meaning of land. You begin to see that there are different understandings and perspectives.
With regard to the need for bridge-building: Coming from the mainline evangelical tradition, I deal with fundamentalists and other evangelicals who are also dispensationalists. This is a fundamentalist term which means that God works through various dispensations sequentially in history. They see the present time as the end of the dispensation of the church. We have returned to the dispensation of the Jews which, in the earlier testament, was there before the dispensation of the church. We have returned to the continuation of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel through the Old Testament prophets. Their theology sees all politics in this part of the world as the continuation of this fulfillment. According to their theology, all Jews must come back to Israel before Jesus can return. The land belongs to the people because God promised it to them. Period. When non-dispensationalists ask: “Since God wrote this history and so is the Lord of history, could that possibly mean that the current historical movements in this part of the world are also part of this history which God has written?” Suddenly they are sitting with their fists in their mouths – stuck! Many have learned to say “Yes” to this and have come to the conclusion that the land must be shared. Israel has a right to return, but other peoples are also legitimate partners and possessors of this land. This Protestant theological divide underpins all the activities over here and makes the kind of discussion we are talking about very difficult.
LANDAU: We have to do a lot more work now and in the future within our own faith communities to urge them to be more open-minded and open-hearted. As a Jew I think, following the Pope’s recent pilgrimage here, it will be easier for people to understand that Christianity is not only a negative phenomenon in history, but that it is a positive redemptive force, as Maimonides already saw. Beyond theological disagreement, there is spiritual validity and value in the other communities’ identity and vocation. Just to make a statement like this is already a major step toward a pluralistic theology.
Our major challenge is to overcome the schizophrenia between the political and spiritual dimensions which people like to keep separate, especially those working for peace: “Theology or religion just get in the way and fuel the fanatics. Let’s talk about universal declarations of human rights, or use self-determination or some other secular humanistic paradigm as the common denominator.” I hear this from Christian friends and in statements by churches. They speak theology only to use the prophets against Israel. This is difficult, because the bottom line for me is that Zionism is part of some Jews’ spirituality and that is a valid contribution to God’s ecology in the world. You don’t have to be converted to Zionism to let the Jews be Zionist. By the grace of God the Jews are still around. With their special vocation in the world alongside Christians and Muslims, the political national face which goes under the title Zionism, now crystallized in the State of Israel, is part of the Jewish vocation in God’s history. To reconcile this with the territorial and other claims of Palestinians is not an easy thing for any of us. And here the Christians, beginning with Palestinian Christians, are an important witness between Jews and Muslims. As the minority in this double sense, they are also a litmus test indicating how Israel and Palestine will treat minority communities of faith.
NABUURS: As we mentioned earlier, the Pope’s visit kind of made Christianity kosher for Jews. But his visit also had a tremendous impact on Christians throughout the world as well as here. Hopefully, having witnessed the Pope’s deep commitment, some of our new teachings and documents about the Jews and Judaism will be looked at with a greater awareness.
It is also important for us to bring people together to really hear each other’s story. Recently two of us brought a young Christian Palestinian woman with us to a compassionate listening workshop. She had met Jews previously in an office in which she had worked, but her own pain and suffering did not allow her to even shake hands with them because, as she said, “I see the blood of my people on their hands.” Now, for the first time she really met Jews, and it was a remarkably powerful experience. She was able to hear the story on the other side, and she was listened to. It made me realize how extremely important this project of bringing people together to hear each other’s story is. Another project recently begun by ICCI is the environment project. I took part in the Jewish-Christian clean-up hike a few weeks ago. It was quite profound as we studied the texts and learned with each other as we went along. For the future I see the need to continue efforts such as these which bring people together through projects.
KELMAN: Regarding the Pope’s visit: To see a truly passionate and compassionate leader reach out and literally touch human beings was quite remarkable. You could hear this in the way newscasters talked about it. In a sense it was painful for me as a Jew to need to see this. I think Israelis, and certainly Palestinians, can be moved by these symbolic gestures. One thing we may need for the future is more symbolic gestures. We obviously don’t want to overdo this, but as Jerusalem now is becoming a major issue for all of us, we might think very carefully about how religious leaders all over the world can help us here with symbolic gestures, whether visiting as a group, as individuals, or in some other way. This has its dangers in a holy land which is so highly symbolic itself. I am a little concerned suggesting more symbolic gestures, but I also see how important it can be.
My experience indicates that the most powerful dialogue happens when people meet with their peers. For me in the women’s dialogue there has been an incredible ability to break down the walls between us. Though I am an egalitarian, I would encourage more peer meetings – between children and colleagues – to provide situations in which the talk will help to humanize each side.
Perhaps we also need a different metaphor than bridge-building, since we have people coming towards each other from all directions. A bridge links two sides. We are sometimes so fixed in our western equations of linear and bridge that we think of only one direction. Might we consider a sunburst, or maybe a star? although Rabbi Rosen reminded us about the circumference! and in this country we also get into trouble with stars! But we need a new kind of dialogue that is able to bring a lot of other people together.
MCGARRY: Important for the future are the initial efforts being made in teaching about the other. During the Pope’s visit some of the most eloquent things were said by Prime Minister Barak. Of note is his reference to following up with the new Interreligious Committee. The fact that this Committee could even be incorporated is a great sign of the maturity of the State of Israel. This kind of effort by a state is risky, but it doesn’t have to be marginal. If the state, in the best sense of real statesmen, can see this as good for the society, it will hopefully be supported and not hi-jacked by other political concerns. This could be an opportunity to amplify history and to even highlight some of the rare but significant moments when good things happened between Jews and Christians. Some of the Papal efforts to save Jews or to protect Jews from the worst of our own Catholics should be brought forward. I don’t think there is a straight dark line from the first century to the Holocaust. Distinctions have to be made. A more nuanced history about certain dimensions of our history can be helpful. The ways some Christian theologians in the Middle Ages drew from the great Jewish teachers should be brought forward, as well as the way Christians in the third and fourth centuries continued to draw from their Jewish brothers and sisters. Though they don’t cancel or nullify the negative experiences in our shared history, these are a couple of moments I would amplify. We don’t have to start at point zero in the year 2000.
ROSEN: When we consider that this is, generally speaking, a traumatized population, I think we have a lot to be grateful for in Jewish-Christian relations in the last 30 to 40 years. The vast majority of people here live in fear of somebody somewhere, as difficult as that is for others to believe. Yeshaya Liebowitz was right in saying that politics influences theology more than the other way around. Our socio-political context is going to determine a great deal. Among Christian Palestinians is probably one of the last places where you’ll still find supercessionist theology. This kind of attitude results from contextual trauma, in the same way that the vast majority of Jews here still don’t believe, even with the Pope’s visit, that the Christian world has really genuinely changed. The amount of proselytizing activity still taking place – and receiving big support from certain quarters in the USA – can still easily set these things back. So we have to be modest in our expectations, and also recognize our own peripheralness. However, where this encounter exists here it is a very special encounter, not only because of the context, but also because of the text. We must give credit to the kinds of activity like the joint text study and the Elijah Institute, and our ability to encounter one another on that level. It is difficult to find parallels elsewhere where the level of dialogue becomes so profound. If we remain like the yeast we can hopefully have a leavening effect on a broader context. But we are always going to be a minority component.
KRONISH: As a proponent of education I am always looking for ways to connect education to the political realm. A new effort in the country called Peace Education is a very small phenomenon but it is growing. The interfaith community can play a role in peace education, not only in the schools but also in the churches, the mosques and the synagogues. This will link us more to the political context. I also want to highlight that we need to increasingly add Muslims to the dialogue. There have been experiments in recent years and trialogue is happening. I think we must do more on that.
DEWAAL: I remember the piece Ron Kronish wrote on ‘The Other Peace Process.’ I believe that interfaith/intercultural dialogue is a very big part of ‘the other peace process’ because I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace and seeks to promote that peace. So I am very encouraged by the fact that there is a lot more moderation coming to the fore in all of these discussions than people sometimes believe.
KRONISH: Thank you all for coming and for your important contributions.
* Sidic is very grateful to Rabbi Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, for arranging and moderating this discussion and for making it available to us for publication