May 2, 2014

​Protestant and Jewish Leaders try to Mend Rift

By LAUREN MARKOE ©2014 Religion News Service

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

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

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.