NEW YORK (Sep. 10)
A split within the umbrella group that officially represents world Jewry in dialogue with the Vatican is causing deep concern among Jewish leaders in the United States and Europe.
In a highly controversial move, the American Jewish Committee informed members of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations on Friday of its intention to withdraw from the organization.
Other member groups said AJCommittee’s action will seriously threaten the cause of Jewish unity in the midst of the dispute with the Polish Catholic Church over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.
AJCommittee made the announcement after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported Thursday that an alternative organization to IJCIC is being planned by AJCommittee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Congress. Neither ADL nor AJCongress is currently a member of IJCIC.
Organizations who are IJCIC members are now strongly urging AJCommittee to reconsider its decision.
“It is harmful to Jewish interests — indeed, some might call it a piece of insanity — to tear apart the Jewish community and choose the path of disunity at any time,” said Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International.
“But to do so now, when it is so vitally important to create and maintain a united front on the issue of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, on the very eve of scheduled discussions with the Vatican on the issue, appears to be utterly without reason,” he said in a statement.
‘FOR THE SAKE OF UNITY’
Reich, who is also chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called on ADL, AJCongress and AJCommittee “to step back from the brink and reconsider the effects of any such action.”
His sentiments were echoed by Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, who asked AJCommittee to remain in IJCIC “for the sake of unity,” and by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who said that “to advertise our differences is to reveal our weakness.”
Schindler said that division among Jews “can only play into the hands of those in the Catholic Church who seek to renege on the commitment to remove the Carmelite convent from Auschwitz.”
But Rabbi A. James Rudin, who is both director of interreligious affairs for AJCommittee and the current chairman of IJCIC, defended his organization’s decision to leave.
“The Jewish community is very pluralistic and this just reflects the pluralism,” Rudin said. The new group “will enrich and strengthen the Jewish dialogue universally.”
Rudin dismissed criticism that the decision hampers Jewish unity during the crisis over the Auschwitz convent. A crisis often “brings out new configurations that can be very enriching,” he said.
Rudin’s status as chairman of IJCIC after the AJCommittee’s announcement is now in doubt.
Elan Steinberg, executive director for the World Jewish Congress, said that his group has informed the IJCIC secretariat that it no longer considers Rudin chairman of IJCIC, since AJCommittee has announced its intention to withdraw.
VATICAN TRIP MAY BE CANCELED
Steinberg also said that Gerhart Riegner, cochairman of WJC’s governing board, was told by a Vatican spokesman that Rudin will now not be received by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli.
Rudin was to have led an IJCIC delegation to Rome this month to meet with Casaroli.
The visit was requested by IJCIC in August to discuss the controversy surrounding the Auschwitz convent, the recent remarks by Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp, which were widely construed to be anti-Semitic, and other tensions in Catholic-Jewish relations.
On Sunday, Rudin would only say that the plans for the visit to the Vatican now “have to be reassessed.”
He said that, since “obviously the configurations have changed,” the scheduled trip is now “under discussion and advisement.” He said, however, that “nothing has been canceled” at this point.
Steinberg said that European community members of WJC have expressed “shock” at what they see as an effort to disenfranchise their communities, currently represented by WJC’s presence in IJCIC.
He said the Europeans as well as communities in Latin America have asked WJC to “maintain their representation to the Vatican through the IJCIC structure.”
Rudin has insisted that the withdrawal of AJCommittee from IJCIC is not an attempt to destroy or discredit the umbrella group, which was named by the Vatican in 1974 as the organization officially representing world Jewry.
“The breakup of IJCIC is not imminent or desirable,” Rudin said. “Our leaving it is not going to cause its breakup.”
But Rabbi Michelman of the Synagogue Council stressed that although the groups remaining in IJCIC will represent large numbers of world Jews, AJCommittee’s withdrawal is a severe blow to the organization, which prizes Jewish unity.
“We have been truly representative, and that has always meant something to the church bodies with whom we are in constant dialogue,” Michelman said. “When we reach an agreement with them, they know they have met with those who are truly representative of the vastness of the world Jewish community.”