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Jewish, Protestant leaders still sparring over Jerusalem

NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (JTA) — In an unlikely turn of events, the same national Protestant leaders trying to convince the U.S. government to put more pressure on Israel to share control over Jerusalem with Palestinians are planning to develop — with Jewish leaders — a joint statement of support for the current Middle East peace process. The liberal Christian effort to effect U.S. policy being waged by Churches for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 15 Christian organizations, continues at full throttle. Among the participants is the National Council of Churches, the umbrella group that represents some 52 million people in 33 mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations. They kicked off the campaign with a full-page ad in The New York Times on Dec. 21 calling for “shared” control over Jerusalem and urging readers to lobby the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to that end. Some 700 people responded, according to Churches for Middle East Peace press materials. And this week, three days after a meeting between Jewish representatives and the National Council of Churches that was intended to mend relations, the push continued. At last Friday’s meeting with the National Council of Churches, members of a Jewish delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations asked the head of the influential Christian group to retract its call for a shared Jerusalem. The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the group’s general secretary, said the group could not because that view was in consonance with its Middle East policy. With a few exceptions, the relationship between the National Council of Churches and the Jewish community over the years has been strained and difficult, Jewish sources say, primarily because of what they characterize as the liberal Protestant group’s consistently anti- Israel positions. Although there has been cooperation on issues of common concern, such as lobbying for domestic policy legislation, and around aiding black churches that have been destroyed by arson, by and large “we’ve had poor relations for quite some time with mainline Protestants,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, president of the National Council of Synagogues. His group, a recently formed organization representing the Reform and Conservative movements, has started a dialogue process with the National Council of Churches. Meanwhile, the ad was reprinted in Monday’s edition of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill chronicle. Twenty-five thousand copies were distributed to government leaders and other influential people on Inauguration Day. While Jewish participants in the meeting said they were not happy about the reappearance of the ad, they said it could not be used to judge the National Council’s future intentions because it was already in the works before their session. Leaders of Jewish groups expressed confidence that the ongoing campaign would not affect U.S. support for Israel, but one rabbi who participated in last Friday’s meeting said the ads could still be harmful. “In the Middle East, it encourages the anti-Israeli groups,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti- Defamation League. In a gesture of goodwill, Campbell suggested to representatives of the Conference of Presidents that they work together to issue a joint statement supporting the Middle East peace process and the Israeli- Palestinian agreements, known as the Oslo accords. The Conference of Presidents, which represents 53 Jewish organizations, expects to hammer out a mutually agreeable statement with the group that has long criticized Israel — and continues to. “I’m sure that we will come up with a statement that will be jointly accepted by the two parties,” Leon Levy, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said in an interview. He said the meeting with the leaders of the National Council of Churches “opened their eyes in many respects.” “I think the NCC will be more responsive than they have been,” he said. But Jay Rock, director of interfaith affairs at the influential Christian group, said the meeting with Jewish leaders “didn’t do a thing to change our mind about participating in the shared Jerusalem campaign.” “We have some feelings about wanting to do things differently, like consulting with people beforehand, but we don’t have a problem with the position of the ad,” he said, adding, “It’s well within our Middle East policy statement.” Rock said he would like to see a joint statement in which both parties agree to support “the peace process that is currently under way and particularly the central role the Palestinians and Israelis have in finding a negotiated solution for their own future.” Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, asked Christian participants at the meeting whether there were any conditions under which they would accept sole Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. After a lengthy pause, Campbell said there were not, according to participants at the meeting. She was not available for an interview. “They have a lot of trouble with Jewish power, and that’s very clear,” said one Jewish participant. “Once again it is the teaching of contempt of Judaism,” Klenicki said. “They are always denying our existence. Before it was our spiritual existence and now it is our physical existence in Jerusalem.” Klenicki said he was “fatigued” by the lack of progress after years of dialogue with the National Council. The National Council of Churches recently began reviewing its policies on the Middle East and, unrelated to the current imbroglio, is planning a fact-finding trip to Israel later this year, Rock said. While a more positive relationship between Jews and Protestants in the future is a possibility, it rests in the hands of Protestant leaders, Meyers said. “Will the Christians be somewhere else the next time we sit and talk? That’s the question.”