Real Dialogue is Needed With Christians

David Elcott, Director of U.S. Interreligious Affairs

November 26, 2004 - The Jewish Week

One of my best teachers about life was a principal named Madeline Hunter. She told the story of Bobby, a hulking, unruly sixth-grader who terrorized the classroom. She finally intervened, walking through the classroom until she reached him.

"When I leave, please come outside," she whispered, "and we will go talk in my office."

Madeline walked out and waited. Finally, a sulking Bobby emerged, but he refused to budge from the hallway. Again she invited him to her office. He threw his jacket on the ground and yelled, "You carry my jacket."

She asked a room filled with educators, "What should I have done?" Everyone agreed that she should stand her ground, make him pick up the jacket and go to her office. Don't reinforce bad behavior.

Madeline shook her head and said, "No. I had asked him to come to my office. That was my goal." And they went together to her office, the principal carrying the student's jacket the whole way.

Those of us who are committed to defend Israel and protect the Jewish people have to learn my teacher's lesson: Focus on your primary goal. Expressing anger, particularly on issues dear to our hearts, may feel liberating. Voicing righteous rage sates the soul. But those emotions are deflective.

Refusing to dignify recalcitrant Presbyterians with a meeting or boycotting Anglicans who speak of divestment may satisfy our sense of justice and please our constituencies, but we who accept the obligation of defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people cannot afford that luxury. Certainly, those who call for Israel's destruction or express overt anti-Semitism are to be repudiated and isolated. Otherwise, our job is to enter exactly the most difficult arenas and speak with our most trenchant critics if we are to counter policies that could undermine Israel and foster more violence.

To be clear, even the limited divestment proposal passed by the Presbyterians is ill conceived and counterproductive. It discriminates against the Jewish state, it offers hope to the most extreme elements that opposition to peace pays off, and it will exacerbate conflict. We oppose it absolutely.

We at the American Jewish Committee along with our sister organizations have mobilized Jewish communities across this country, meeting with thousands of Christians to voice our protest. Our opposition explains exactly why my colleagues from many of our national organizations and religious movements joined me in engaging the leaders of seven mainstream Protestant denominations recently in Washington for 24 hours of intensive engagement.

What did we learn? Because many leaders of the mainstream Protestant churches do not know us well enough, they think we are indifferent to Palestinian suffering. Having not met with us before to discuss the Middle East, they do not understand our commitment to peace and security for Israel and Palestinians alike. They had not heard firsthand the impact their attacks on Israel have on our psyche, that discrimination against Israel is experienced by us as another form of an ancient prejudice.

These policymakers lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land, yet they have not met with Jewish victims of terror. They have not experienced the vulnerability Jewish parents feel when Israeli restaurants, school buses and discotheques are blown up.

We were not present to tell these stories when the Presbyterians voted or when the Anglican commission toured the Palestinian territories. We were not invited to the National Council of Churches to meet delegates, to seek a common ground of commitment to peace. They have not been engaging with us on the national level and, therefore, we were easily dismissed.

In these encounters we learned that we do not know them, and so we listened. Mainstream Protestants passionately care about the Holy Land, about all those who are suffering. They feel a unique obligation to speak in a prophetic voice in support of their own Christian communities and against what they see as unnecessary violence against the Palestinian people. I better understand that their protest against the security barrier or even Israeli occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 does not stem from anti-Semitism but from their fear that the facts on the ground will make a two-state solution impossible. And I learned to respect those concerns, even if I disagree as to the origin and the present causes of the violence.

We met with these Christian leaders just as the ugly communique arrived describing how an official Presbyterian delegation lauded Hezbollah leaders and denigrated Jews. And because we were together, the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued a clear and unequivocal denunciation of its own delegation. As a result of our meetings, we have been asked to prepare a paper explaining our distress over constant critiques by Protestant churches and why divestment is a destructive policy. They will distribute this Jewish document to their decision-makers.

In fact, since our meeting, the Episcopalian Church already has rejected divestment, repudiated violence against Israelis, promised consultation with the Jewish community and said that any new investment policy would take into account Palestinian terrorism even as it looks at Israeli policies in the territories conquered in 1967. Not perfect from our point of view, but a critique of Israeli policies that we could hear and respect.

These leaders will now travel with us to the Middle East to meet and listen to Israeli victims of terror, and we will join them in hearing Palestinian stories. And we are seeking ways to jointly support a peace settlement that ensures the security and integrity of the State of Israel alongside a democratic Palestinian state that renounces violence.

We Jews are a small minority, powerful in many ways, but still small. We must defend ourselves with vigor. One way is to find allies in the religious and ethnic communities of this country to better protect our interests and repair the world. It is incumbent upon us to reach out if we are to be defenders of our people. This is not only pragmatic politics but the highest form of mitzvah, as we are commanded by Psalm 34: "Seek peace and chase after it."

David M. Elcott is the U.S. interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.