Jewish interfaith leaders felt apprehensive this week after leaving a meeting with Cardinal William Keeler, the ranking Catholic official in the United States.
The meeting was hastily arranged after Keeler and other Christian leaders released a statement last week calling on the Clinton administration to press Israel to limit its presence in Jerusalem.
The statement set off a storm of protest from Jewish groups and Israeli leaders.
Although Jewish participants described the meeting as constructive, they did not feel satisfied that the cardinal and other Christian leaders understood the sensitivity of the issue in the Jewish community.
The statement signed by Keeler and other church leaders caused “potential damage” to the relationship between Catholics and Jews, said Michael Kotzin, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Chicago.
From the top levels of the hierarchy to the grass roots, the Catholic-Jewish relationship is described by Jews as being the best interreligious or interethnic relationship in the country.
The problems with Keller have to do with both his “method and the substance” of the statement, said Kotzin, who participated in the March 13 meeting at the cardinal’s residence in Baltimore.
His statement “set up a sense that the Catholic community has become a kind of counterpart advocacy group for the Palestinian position,” Kotzin said.
“Given the relationship we’ve had with them on this, it implied a troubling switch. And given the openness of exchange we have, it seemed violated by this method. [The statement] put at rist the confidence of our maintaining dialogue as we’ve had it,” said Kotzin.
Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has long had a close relationship with representatives of several Jewish groups.
Several of the Jewish participants said the meeting would serve to strengthen the dialogue and consultation process that has taken place between the American Catholic and Jewish communities for several years.
“It was a constructive meeting,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “It was beneficial for Cardinal Keeler to realize how important Jerusalem is for us.”
According to Jerome Chanes, co-director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, “The substance [of the disagreement with keeler], although serious, is probably less important than the process” of working through the disagreement.
“The whole premise of Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years has been the consultative process that has been taken seriously by both sides,” Chanes said.
“The surprise here was that on a statement which is clearly on some of the most sensitive issues and has the potential to damage the peace process, there was no prior consultation,” he said. “We feel that at this meeting we were able to work through that prospectively, with an eye to the future.”
NJCRAC, an umbrella group representing national Jewish organizations and local community relations councils, initiated the meeting with Keeler after reading the statement he signed last week.
The eight Christian leaders who signed the statement criticized Israel’s assertion that Jerusalem will remain the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel.” They further accused Israel of violating international law by expanding Jewish settlements in Jerusalem.
Asserting that the “future of Jerusalem is open to peaceful negotiations,” the church leaders called on Clinton to use his influence “to prevent this issue from being settled by force of events or the creation of facts on the ground.”
Its signatories, who also included Edmond Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, asked to meet with President Clinton about the issue.
There is a tacit agreement between Catholics and Jews engaged in dialogue. Before either group issues a position on an issue considered sensitive by the other, that group will consult, or at least warn its dialogue partner about the impending announcement.
This time, Jews who have had warm relations with Keeler for decades did not even get a warning about the statement he was planning to issue about Jerusalem, an issue at the heart of Jewish concerns and passions.
“It’s fundamental issue of importance to the Jewish people,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and a participant in the meeting with Keeler.
“There was bewilderment and surprise and sadness” on the part of Jews that the cardinal took the position he did, Rudin said.
“We’re looking forward to clarifications from the cardinal,” he added.
Other Jewish participants in the meeting said the lack of communication about the statement beforehand “reinforces a sense of skepticism about the dialogue that people in our community have,” Kotzin said.
Kotzin, who represents a community with several ongoing Catholic-Jewish dialogues, will shortly leave for a trip to Israel, to accompany Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, on the cardinal’s first visit to the Holy Land.
“It’s troubling to those of us who move forward with a sense of trust,” he said.
Eugene Fisher, associate director of the bishops conference’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said that Keeler’s support of the statement about Jerusalem was a reflection of “increasingly urgent concerns in the Christian community which need to be put in the public forum in this country.”
“There is a fear that before negotiations turns to the topic of Jerusalem, things would happen on the ground like settlements, that preclude negotiation,” said Fisher, who also participated in meeting.
Out of the two-hour meeting between Jewish representatives and Keeler came two other proposals that both sides intend to follow up, participants said.
One is for a group of American bishops and representatives of Jewish groups to take a joint study tour to Israel and Rome within the next two years. Although individual bishops have traveled to Israel with Jewish groups, never has such an interfaith group traveled together.
The other proposal was for an ongoing process of formal consultation to be initiated between the Catholic bishops group and the national Jewish agencies.