Why the Wiesenthal Center left the interfaith roundtable
This article first appeared in The Jewish Press
Sometimes, only a period of separation will save a troubled marriage. That is why the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups are pulling out of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable. Fifteen liberal Protestant leaders, including those of the Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist denominations, chose the Jewish High Holiday season to urge Congress to curtail U.S. aid to Israel.
We were expecting a different initiative from our dialogue partners, one focusing on the tens of millions of Christians under siege from Nigeria to Afghanistan. The oldest Christian communities on earth in the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq have been all but ethnically cleaned. More than ten million Coptic Christians in Egypt live in perpetual fear of a government controlled by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood. Practicing Christians in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are incarcerated on charges of blasphemy; in North Korea, they languish in huge concentration camps. As for the plight of the Palestinians–more have been killed in Syria in the past few weeks than in almost four years of conflict with Israel, since the end of the Gaza War.
After decades of breaking bread together, we would have expected these church groups to ask us to join with them to shake the rafters with a prophetic scream on behalf of a religious minority under siege – Christians.
Instead, these groups stand mute while their own brothers and sisters are persecuted, and seek to invoke the wrath of Heaven and Congress on the Jewish state.
We’re not happy about the breakup of a relationship forged with optimism and sincerity. After WW 2, many Christians felt some responsibility for the theological anti-Semitism that set the stage for the racial anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany. For many, in the wake of images of Auschwitz, building bridges of understanding and respect to the Jewish world became a priority. At the same time, Jews saw the need to begin a new chapter in Jewish history, one in which Christian friends and neighbors were able to look to their own theology to find the dignity and validity of the Jewish experience. Decades of fruitful conversation and education followed.
There were always bumps in the road, particularly regarding the Jewish State. Unlike Evangelicals who were enthusiastic in their support, liberal denominations had a hard time fully accepting Israel and understanding its centrality to Jews. When Arab armies threatened Israel’s existence in 1948, ’67, and ’73, these denominations did not speak up, to the deep consternation of their Jewish partners. Both parties, however, remained in a less-than-perfect relationship, believing that a core mutual understanding could guide future dialogue. In the case of some signatories of the letter,there never was a relationship. The Mennonite “peace” church has never had anything but unvarnished contempt for Israel; the Quakers may be friends tomany, but not to the Jewish people.
Now, with the latest threat to vaporize Israel still ringing in our ears from Ahmadinejad's soon-to-be nuclearized Iran, with millions of Israelis livingwithin the target range of Hamas and Hezbollah rockets—these erstwhile friends choose this moment to call upon the U.S. to cut into Israel’s defensecapabilities.
Why the slap in the face? Thank God, their call to Congress will fall on deaf ears. Americans’ support for Israel remains bipartisan and strong. Did these church elite believe their initiative would lead to more scrutiny of foreign aid? Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt and the Palestinians would likely lose more from calls for greater transparency, not the Jewish state. Israel provides U.S. with vital intelligence, technological and military cooperation, and military aid to Israel creates American jobs.
If peace is these churches’ sole objective, shouldn’t they also criticize the PA’s corruption that led to losing the trust of their own people?
Why else release such a letter? Some suggest that the signatories are seeking to placate the entrenched, vocal anti-Israel extremists in their own churches. Those activists were incensed when the rank and file of several denominations adopted a policy not of divestment but of investment, a strategy that actually produces tangible benefits for the Palestinians.
Alas, we sense there is also a more basic reason at play. Some at this table really don’t like us. How else can we account for such a selective moral outrage, pounding the Jewish State for real and imagined sins, but yet to demand that the U.S. take action when their co-religionists face murder andethnic cleansing? Only a deep-seated hatred could turn these leaders deaf to all the other urgent issues raging around them.
We are in no need of staying in an abusive relationship. There are other voices in the Christian world, and other roundtables – with Catholics, with Evangelicals – that have been productive and mutually satisfying. Moreover, we will maintain our affection for the majority of churchgoers in these very same denominations whose table we are leaving. They, too, are being served poorly by the same people who misuse their mantle of leadership.
Why does it all matter? Because, in the past, Christians and Jews working cooperatively helped change the world. Only a few decades ago, Rev. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked arm in arm in the Deep South, helping the civil rights struggle to reach new heights. An injured world awaits all the good that could come from the positive power of collective religious conviction. When others are ready for a genuine relationship, we will be there.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
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