In the post-9/11 world, where religion infuses events with more intensity, the demands on interfaith dialogue are rising. For American Jews and mainline Christians who have worked during the past year to renew a dormant national dialogue, the stakes are especially high. They are seeking to come to terms with major differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a necessary first step toward restoring their historical alliance on issues of civil liberties and social justice in the United States.
Their effort hit a snag last summer. Some churches, upset about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, began asking whether they should use economic leverage - namely, divestment - in protest. This sparked an emotional reaction on the part of Jews across the country, raising ghosts of Christian-Jewish history and forcing leaders to move beyond the polite conversation stage.
After several frank and wrenching sessions during the year, the dialogue - among leaders of about 15 major organizations, federations, and denominations - came close to a meltdown last month. But instead they agreed at a May 13 meeting in Washington to visit Israel and the territories together, to see the situation through one another's eyes and seek common ground for action.
"In the course of the past year we've learned a lot about each other. We recognize there are at least two narratives to the story, and we need to look at the other's story from their perspective," says the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, interreligious secretary for the National Council of Churches, which has been hosting the national dialogue in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee (AJC). "The trip will help ... as we'll be listening to both sides together."
The visit is planned for September, and some seek not only greater understanding, but evidence that Christians and Jews can work together on this issue. "Hopefully, there will be a product, some joint action," says David Elcott, AJC's US interreligious director. "This has divided us for too long, and rather than arguing, we need to find a way to help see two states, Israel and Palestine, live in security and peace."
In many US communities, the two faith groups have gathered for dialogue for many years, providing some level of trust for working through the current tensions. The Jewish-Christian dialogue in Boston, for example, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. "These have been marvelous discussions over the years, and their success can be seen by how open, honest, and confrontational people tend to be," says Larry Lowenthal, AJC's Boston director. The group has met three times a year, twice for theological discussions and once to address political issues.
For Jews, Israel is a prime concern. And mainline Christians have longstanding connections to the Holy Land and to Palestinian Christians in Israel and the territories. Although mainline Christians have always supported Israel, they have become more vocal of late about the consequences of the occupation on Palestinians' lives.
Christians did more than speak out on the issue last summer, when the national convention of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of phased, selective divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. The plan is to exert pressure and talk with companies before deciding whether to withdraw investments.
The decision outraged many Jews, who called the step anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic. Then, as other churches, including Episcopalians, Methodists, and the United Church of Christ, began to consider some form of economic leverage, Jewish groups went on the offensive, seeking to reverse the Presbyterian action and prevent other similar moves.
After meeting with Jewish groups, some Presbyterians in various cities came out in opposition to divestment by their denomination.
National Presbyterian leaders, however, said the church's actions were being misunderstood and misrepresented.
Although some Jews support divestment, for many, it is a loaded issue, implying lack of respect for the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Mainline Christians insist that they strongly support Israel's right to exist, but oppose the occupation.
The profound challenge for this dialogue is that it happens within a context of differing narratives and emotion-laden history, including centuries of Christian teaching of contempt for Jews as Christ-killers, of pogroms, boycotts, and the Holocaust. Christians long viewed themselves as succeeding Jews as the children of Israel, and Jews viewed Christianity as a heresy, rather than a legitimate religion.
But in recent decades, some clergy and theologians of both faiths have grappled with the implications of the Holocaust and worked to rethink theology. The Catholic Church renounced its past teaching and entered the difficult path of reconciliation. Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people and spoke of God's covenant with them as a continuing one. Mainline Protestants have taken similar steps.
"Most Jews don't know what's happened in Christian-Jewish relations in recent decades - they still see through medieval eyes," says Rabbi Elcott.
The surge in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2000 and a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere have heightened insecurities, posing even greater challenge for dialogue. In response, a group of prominent Jews and Protestants in Chicago have met for 3-1/2 years and last month produced a statement of principles and guidelines they hope can serve as a model for communication on the Israeli-Palestinian issue across the US.
At the national dialogue table, emotions have been tempered to some degree, as participants have listened more carefully and understood better others' perceptions and motivations.
Jews say they've learned that Christians are speaking out from deep faith, an attachment to the Holy Land, and a close relationship to Palestinian Christians.
"We are clear [that] we have no right to question the integrity of Christians speaking out ... [and] that they do so on a wide range of issues and aren't prejudicially isolating Israel," Elcott says.
Christians say they are more aware of the sensitivity of economic boycotts in Jewish history, and of singling out Israeli actions amid a world of injustices.
"If we are looking for peace in the Middle East, we absolutely need our Jewish partners, and can't alienate them," Dr. Premawardhana says. "That doesn't mean we sacrifice our principles or commitment to justice for Palestinians."
The potential use of economic leverage remains a tense matter, however, as several churches are still studying it. Mainline denominations make such decisions at national conventions of elected delegates, and resolutions can come from the grass roots. Christians aren't ready to drop the issue altogether, they say, while Israel continues to hold and expand West Bank settlements.
"We want a secure Israel next to a safe and secure Palestine," says James Winkler, a prominent United Methodist leader. "But we are also aware that in so many historical struggles, justice has come not without cost and not without pressure. And we know economic pressure has been used to secure better working conditions and liberation in many settings, including in our own country."
Despite the difficulties, people on both sides of the dialogue speak of a broader agenda motivating them to stick to it. In fact, their May 13 meeting was held in the very room in Washington where Christians and Jews came together 40 years ago to write civil rights legislation.
"We recognize a larger picture," Mr. Winkler says. "We are on the same side in so many justice struggles here and around the world."