Leaders of various denominations from the Pittsburgh Jewish and Christian communities gathered at Congregation Beth Shalom Thursday, Nov. 8, to discuss the ramifications of a letter to Congress asking to end unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel signed by 15 leaders of mainstream Protestant churches.
Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai, and Rev. Donald Green, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, led the dialogue.
The dialogue’s Jewish attendees represented the Reform and Conservative movements and its Christian attendees represented the Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Assembly of God and Catholic Churches. In addition to clergy, there were lay leaders from almost all religious communities.
In their letter to Congress, sent Oct. 5, the Protestant leaders acknowledged the insecurity that Israelis have been left with after suicide bombings and rocket attacks from Gaza, in addition acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. They also acknowledged that no one party is to blame for lack of progress in the stagnating peace process.
The Protestant leaders, however, expressed concern that the chances for peace are moribund and that this is in large part due to human rights violations committed by the Israeli military. They asked Congress to investigate the use of U.S. military aid to Israel to confirm that it is in line with federal law. If those investigations show anything but Israeli compliance with the law, then they asked Congress to withhold military aid to Israel.
In response to the letter, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism decided not to attend the meeting of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable, which was to take place on Oct. 22. In a statement, Rabbi Steven Wernick of the USCJ said, “In addition to being completely baseless, this letter demonstrates that all of our work, all of our dialogue and all of our Protestant partners’ pledges of commitment to coexistence amount to very little if such a letter can be sent to Congress without event he courtesy of a heads-up.”
The American Jewish Committee, B’nai-B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Rabbinic Assembly and Union for Reform Judaism all joined USCJ in its decision.
Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, believed it necessary to continue this dialogue, which has been held for 30 years, even as national Jewish organizations were cancelling their meeting with their Christian partners.
“The PAJC kept the dialogue open because there are ups and downs but the relationship has to endure,” said Fidel. “To experience and enjoy the good times, the relationship must make it through the difficult times. We felt that, especially in times of conflict, the conversation is even more important.”
Participants from all religions and denominations echoed the high value that Fidel attributes to dialogue throughout the forum.
Gibson, who has been a mediator of the Jewish-Christian dialogue for several years, stressed that the relationship has survived and worked through many crises, such as the Sept. 11 attacks, the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and Pittsburgh’s financial problems. It has even tackled the thorny issue of abortion.
Zionism is the nationalist aspiration of the Jewish people, Gibson said, and the Protestant leaders’ letter makes it harder to work together to achieve a secure homeland for the Jews because it puts the relationship between Jews and mainline Protestants at risk.
Gibson, however, noted that when the Presbyterian Church (USA) held its General Assembly in Pittsburgh this past summer, it narrowly voted down divestment from Israeli businesses. When there were Jews who charged the PCUSA for even introducing the motion to divest from Israel, he said, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, reminded them that similar frustrations were coming out of the Jewish community as well.
Green echoed the call for understanding and a continuation of dialogue.
When he was a parish pastor helping couples define what love is, Green said he defined love as a persistent and continuous action, one for the sake of the other. Such things also ring true for the relationship between Jews and Christians in America and around the world.
While he has his own opinions on the Middle East, Green said he thinks the manner in which the letter was sent was inappropriate and that the Protestant leaders should apologize. The timing of the letter was questionable as the Protestant leaders sent it two weeks before the Christian-Jewish Roundtable was to take place. By going to Congress without speaking with their Jewish colleagues, he said the Protestant leaders alienated them, and maybe Jews across America, which is why they pulled out of the Roundtable.
The need for dialogue and work for mutual understanding was the overarching theme of the dialogue. There was consensus of recognition of the raw emotion surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that discussion on the topic should be approached with care. Everyone agreed, however, that discussion and dialogue must continue.
In closing, Gibson recited a quote from the Book of Zechariah that presented an avenue that the American Jewish and mainline Protestant communities could use to put their rift behind them: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”
(Sam Lapin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)