Leaders from Jewish and religious right groups declared a truce – but not a treaty – this week after a daylong Capitol Hill summit aimed at healing deep wounds between the communities.
With tempers in check and a mutual desire to forge friendly relationships, about 30 representatives from mainstream Jewish and religious right organizations came here Tuesday to participate in a roundtable sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The two sides are often at odds over the role religion should play in American life, but relations reached a new low this summer after the Anti-Defamation League published a scathing report critical of many of the groups at the summit.
The report, “The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” criticized the Christian groups for, among other things, calling America a “Christian nation.”
The report, which received considerable media attention, drew sharp attacks from several leaders of the religious right, including Pat Robertson, who heads the Christian Coalition, the pre-eminent religious right organization.
Planners of this week’s gathering said that while the idea for such a dialogue had been kicked around for years, the furor over the ADL report provided the necessary impetus to move ahead.
Although the dialogue participants devised no concrete programs for cooperation, both sides agreed that the face-to-face discussion was long overdue.
At a news conference following the closed-door session, participants described the discussion as ardent and candid, but always polite.
“We have to learn to get along even when we disagree,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who headed the now-defunct Moral Majority.
“We agreed to disagree without maligning or impugning the motives or character” of others, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein said the participants also agreed to “create a mechanism for consultation prior to recrimination.”
Although the groups are far from agreement on many core issues such as school prayer and abortion rights, they will work to “find a middle ground between a theocracy and a naked town square,” Eckstein said, referring to the notion of a country without religion.
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, spoke candidly of his reservations prior to the gathering.
“This was a risky enterprise and we felt apprehensive at the outset,” Baum said, adding that he is “gratified at the conclusion.”
The summit evolved into an exercise in diplomacy, rather than policy, many of the participants said at the news conference.
“We talked to each other and not at each other,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director. “We listened to each other and agreed to lower the rhetoric.”
Foxman said the participants had pledged to “respect each other’s differences and respect that there are truths, not only (one) truth.”
Foxman said that ADL stands by its report, but that he hopes there “may not be a need for another report.”
The participants also agreed in principle to meet again in the future.
“We have an obligation to prevent America from falling into a cultural or religious war,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
The session “cleared away the debris and stereotypes” at a “very delicate and volatile moment in American religious history,” he said.
The wide breadth of Jewish participants included leaders from the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Council of Jewish Federations, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.