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FOCUS ON ISSUES Christian ad on `shared’ Jerusalem sparks Jewish anger, not surprise

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 (JTA) — A recent Christian-sponsored advertisement in The New York Times calling for Jews to share control over Jerusalem and for readers to lobby the U.S. Congress has left Jewish officials wincing in anger — but not surprised. Representatives of Jewish groups, many of which condemned the ad, say the intent of the campaign by Churches for Middle East Peace — which includes leaders of America”s largest mainline Protestant denominations — is to erode U.S. government support for the Jewish state. They say the effort is most troubling because of its potential influence over U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, and the possibility that it could contribute to disrupting the delicate political balance in Israel over Jerusalem. It is not surprising, Jews say, because sponsors of the campaign have a long history of criticizing Israel even as they work closely with Jewish groups on domestic issues of common concern. In addition to the ad, the group is also circulating to its member churches materials decidedly slanted against Israel, including a prayer and sample letters addressed to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and to newspaper editors. Among other things, the material encourages members to urge the U.S. government to press negotiators to “move beyond exclusivists” claims”” to Jerusalem. The Dec. 21 ad also included a coupon addressed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urging the committee”s members “to raise and recommend the concept of a shared Jerusalem”” in the confirmation hearings for the next U.S. secretary of state. Madeleine Albright has been nominated to that post. Corinne Whitlatch, director of Churches for Middle East Peace, denied that her group wants to influence U.S. foreign policy toward Israel. In a telephone interview, Whitlatch said the disposition of Jerusalem”s status is up to the Israelis and Palestinians, and that “our ultimate goal is to open up the debate a bit. In many people”s minds there are only two options for Jerusalem: Greater Jerusalem under the sole sovereignty of Israel or a divided Jerusalem. “The discussion of other options can bring about a different future for the peoples,”” she said. “The definition of a shared Jerusalem is more a construct of the mind and the attitude”” than a political construct, she said. Leaders of some of America”s largest Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Disciples of Christ, signed onto the ad. So did leaders of smaller denominations and religious orders, including the Unitarians, Quakers, Mennonites, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, as well as the head of the group that oversees all Catholic orders of nuns and monks. Several major Jewish groups raced to issue press releases condemning the group”s effort. Many said the 12-year-old Washington-based group has always lobbied against Israeli interests and on behalf of what it perceives to be Palestinian concerns. Churches for Middle East Peace “has had a long record”” of opposition to Israeli interests, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “They cannot stand Jews with power. That”s their dirty little secret. They can deal with Jews as a minority, as individuals, as purely a religious group, but when they see Jews with power, especially over Jerusalem, it sticks in their throat,”” he said. Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti- Defamation League, agreed. Their “constant criticism of the State of Israel is the new way of theological anti-Judaism, of the teaching of contempt,”” he said. “Before they denied us a role in God”s plan and now they want to deny us a place in history,”” Klenicki said. Responding to the charges, Whitlatch of Churches for Middle East Peace said there “is not even a whiff of contempt”” in her group”s effort, and accused Rudin and Klenicki of “almost race-baiting, trying to goad a Jewish-Christian conflict here.”” The Churches” campaign, kicked off by the ad headlined “Christians Call for a Shared Jerusalem,”” comes after a brief hiatus from what one Jewish interreligious affairs professional called the group”s “history of bashing Israel.”” The group has, in the past, lobbied against U.S. military and economic aid to Israel, and against legislation requiring the U.S. Embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That hiatus coincided with a Middle East peace process that was headed in a direction that the Christian signatories apparently liked. Despite their sense of the group”s anti-Israel positions, Jews have often worked closely with organizations included in the Christian umbrella group. One example is the recent effort by Jewish groups to aid black churches destroyed by arson. In the last several months, the American Jewish Committee has raised about $200,000 and worked with the National Council of Churches to rebuild some of the houses of worship. Jewish groups have also worked with the National Council and its members to prevent erosion of the constitutional wall separating church and state, and on public policy issues such as abortion law. The campaign will not prevent the AJCommittee and other groups from continuing a relationship with its backers where there are concerns of mutual interest, said Rudin of the AJCommittee. Meanwhile, however, Jewish groups hope to counter the Jerusalem campaign — and prevent similar future efforts — by discussing their concerns with its signatories now. The AJCommittee is sending a letter to the 17 leaders of Christian denominations and religious orders who signed the ad, and the Anti- Defamation League issued an “open letter”” condemning the campaign. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has asked for a meeting with the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, secretary general of the National Council of Churches, which represents the interests of some 42 million Protestant and Orthodox Christians. The Conference of Presidents is also organizing a national educational outreach countercampaign to “sensitize the American public about the facts and realities of Jerusalem,”” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the umbrella group. He expects to publish materials written by non-Jews about Jerusalem, and utilize the Internet and speakers to reach church and school groups. Jewish statements condemning the Churches for Middle East peace were also issued by the American Jewish Congress, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union”s Institute for Public Affairs. Conspicuously absent from the ad”s list of main signatories was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which in the past has joined Churches for Middle East Peace in harshly condemning Israeli policies in disputed West Bank territory and in Jerusalem. Despite the concern, Rudin said Churches for Middle East Peace does not represent the majority of American Christians. “You have to recognize who didn”t sign it: Roman Catholic bishops, leaders of African American churches, evangelicals,”” Rudin said. “It”s an important piece of Christian America, but it”s not all there is,”” he said. In addition, some long-time prominent Christian friends of Israel rose to challenge the group”s premise in as-yet unpublished letters to the editor of The New York Times. The Rev. John Pawlikowski, a professor at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, wrote one, as did David Blewett, head of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel.