Prominent mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders are trying to revive an interfaith group that dissolved 18 months ago over a letter the Protestants wrote to Congress about Israel.
The Christian-Jewish Roundtable was founded about a decade ago to deepen understanding between the two groups, particularly on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over which Jewish groups and more liberal Protestant churches have frequently disagreed.
After a private meeting in New York before Holy Week and Passover, both sides announced they want to work together again.
“It was not a ‘kumbaya, everybody loves each other’ meeting,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, where the March 27 meeting was held.
But the 15 participants and two facilitators — one a rabbi, the other a minister — showed goodwill, he said.
“I don’t want to overstate it, but I’m hopeful,” said Gutow, who convened the meeting with the Rev. Mark Hanson, the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
James E. Winkler, president of the National Council of Churches, described the five-hour summit: “You just had the feeling that there are differences between us, particularly on how we view the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but a deep, underlying commitment to each other, and of course to peace.”
Winkler added that he “breathed a huge sigh of relief” after the meeting went well and the two sides agreed to meet again. The group aims for three meetings during the next two years.
The roundtable broke up after the Protestants sent a letter to Congress asking for more scrutiny over American aid to Israel.
To the Protestants, the letter was an attempt to question what they see as unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the Israeli government, and a way to stand up for beleaguered Palestinians who live in Israeli-occupied territory.
To the Jews, who said they had been blindsided by the letter, it reflected the Protestants’ unwillingness to appreciate threats against the Jewish state and their willingness to subject Israel to standards higher than those applied to other nations.
“We didn’t talk about the content of the letter,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly, whose church has long debated divesting from certain companies that do business with Israel. “The meeting was about how we talk to each other, about how we begin to get on that road of reconciliation.”
The roundtable that fell apart in October 2012 was actually two roundtables — one focused on Middle East issues, the other on theological concerns — and included mostly senior staffers from major mainline Protestant denominations and Jewish groups.
But last month’s reconciliation meeting brought together the principals of these organizations; the list of attendees reads like a “who’s who” in America’s religious leadership.
In addition to Gutow, Hanson, Winkler and Parsons, the participants were:
— Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League
— David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee
— Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism
— Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International
— Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly
— Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
— Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
— the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister of the United Church of Christ
— the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
— Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, ecumenical office of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church
— the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada
The Rev. Tom Duke and Rabbi Melissa Weintraub acted as the meeting’s facilitators.
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