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Behind the Headlines: Jews and Protestants Renew Dialogue After Years of Frosty Relations

A recent high-level meeting between the World Council of Churches and Jewish interreligious affairs representatives may be the beginning of a renewed relationship between the two communities.

The meeting, hosted by the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, was called in an effort to end several years of frosty relations between the Jewish group and the WCC, the Geneva-based international umbrella group for Protestant and Orthodox churches.

Only time will tell how far good will can take the dialogue, but the fact that both sides want to try to rejuvenate the relationship was clear at the October 23rd meeting between WCC Deputy Secretary-General Todor Sabev and Jewish interfaith affairs leaders, said participants.

The good will is also present at the national level: the National Council of Churches, the North American Protestant and Orthodox umbrella organization, is inviting Jewish interreligious affairs leaders to begin an annual dialogue.

Ties between the organized Jewish community and Protestant leaders have lain fallow for the past several years.

The problems have been "personnel, personality, lack of interest and bad policy on Israel," according to Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.

The WJC and its president, Edgar Bronfman, currently hold the rotating chairmanship of IJCIC, the umbrella group charged with representing the Jewish community in dialogue with other religious groups. Singer is one of his spokesmen.

For Jewish interreligious affairs leaders, the last several years have been consumed by a string of crises with the Catholic church.

Now the Catholic-Jewish relationship seems to be on a steady course, with the new Carmelite convent off the grounds of Auschwitz almost completed and the Vatican well on its way to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

And so, Jewish interreligious affairs experts are again turning to the Protestants, with whom there has been no official dialogue at the international level for seven years.

The recent election of a new secretary-general of the WCC, Konrad Raiser, promises a fresh opportunity for re-establishing communication with the Jewish community.

But problems remain. One ongoing point of contention between the two groups has been that leaders of several of the WCC’s 300 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations have been sharply, very publicly critical of Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

The status of the Palestinians has long been a prominent part of the WCC’s agenda.

Another obstacle to a solid working relationship past and present, say Jewish observers, is the Protestants’ selection of a Jew who converted to Christianity to be the official representative working with Jewish community.

The WCC’s current liaison to the Jewish community is Hans Ucko, a convert from Judaism to Lutheranism.

IJCIC members have strongly suggested to WCC officials that Ucko be removed from his position because his status as an apostate, from the Jewish perspective, is both a theological and pragmatic obstacle.

"One of our most important bones of contention is that proselytism cannot happen from an organization which includes evangelical churches. So we cannot have a person who was successfully evangelized, be our representative," explained one IJCIC participant.

Another member, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, said that "for him to deal with us on Jewish matters we consider an affront, and insensitive to Jewish people."

"It communicates that their attitude is ‘we’ll stick it to the Jews,’" said Schonfeld, co-chair of the interfaith affairs committee of the Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella for representatives of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, which is a member organization of IJCIC.

"We will not have any dealings with the WCC on substantive matters if he remains in charge of Christian-Jewish matters," said Schonfeld, who is Orthodox. "They are fully aware that Ucko is an impediment. The ball is in their court."

If Ucko continues to serve as the WCC’s official liaison to the Jewish community, IJCIC members will be confronted with a dilemma sure to split the organization along its Orthodox-liberal axis.

The Orthodox will probably refuse to work directly with Ucko. And the liberal participants, who agree that his being a convert from Judaism is a problem, will not likely let Ucko’s background prevent the development of a relationship with the WCC.

Since each member of IJCIC has the right to veto any group decision, those who want to meet with Ucko will be doing it outside of IJCIC auspices.

"A lot of us are going to do what we’re going to do," said one liberal participant. "We are not going to permit the opposition from keeping us from functioning. We’re are looking for long-term progress" with the WCC.

The WCC is not the only church group to appoint someone with a Jewish background to deal with the Jewish community, and opposition to the practice is one of the rare issues on which IJCIC members are united.

Other prominent church officials include Jay Rock, the National Council of Church’s co-director for interfaith relations. He deals with the Jewish community on behalf of the umbrella organizations, and was born to a Jewish father.

And Monsignor Robert Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and international Catholic welfare agency that works in the Middle East, was also born to a Jewish father.

Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, secretary-general of the National Council of Churches, described Christian organizations selecting people with Jewish backgrounds to work with the Jewish community as "sort of a bias."

Rabbi Marc Winer, a Reform rabbi who serves as co-chair of the interreligious affairs and chairman of the domestic affairs committees of the Synagogue Council, put it more sharply. "Deep down, lurking in their hearts, they (the church groups) see these representatives as "their Jews."

"The problem is not the halacha (Jewish law), but what assigning someone who is regarded as a Jew within their organization represents. It’s an expression of Christian triumphalism which sticks in our craw," he said.

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