WASHINGTON (JTA) — A Reform movement leader, Rabbi David Saperstein, said a statement to a rabbi by Catholic League chief Bill Donohue could be construed as "threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church."
Donohue had a heated email exchange with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, after Waskow published a column on The Huffington Post website on June 11 criticizing the U.S. Conference of Bishops for its opposition to the Obama administration’s mandate requiring access to contraceptive coverage for employees of religious-run institutions like hospitals and orphanages.
In a statement June 20, Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted that Donohue ended the exchange with Waskow with a quote from former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who is Jewish, "in a manner that can be read as threatening to American Jews who differ with the Church."
Donohue’s second email to Waskow ended with "Ed Koch, my friend, once said that Jews had better not make enemies of their Catholic friends since they have so few of them. Think about that the next time you feel compelled to attack my religion."
Saperstein said that "the importance of both the health care rights of women and the social justice passion of the Catholic nuns who serve on the front lines of our neediest citizens’ struggles for economic justice deserve a more respectful response."
In a June 21 statement, Donohue said he was quoting an address by Koch in January to a Jewish group in which the former mayor said, "We’re 13 million Jews in the whole world — less than one-tenth of 1 percent. And we need allies. The best ally we can have is the Catholic Church.”
Koch, in his own statement on the matter, said Donohue had misconstrued his remarks.
"My comments have always been about fostering good feelings between Jews and Catholics toward mutual understanding of our shared interests," Koch said. "However, I certainly do not believe that Jews, or Catholics, should be threatened for making critical remarks, nor should my name be used when doing so. While I do have a high regard for Bill, his references to me and my remarks were inappropriate and different in substance and tone than what I said on an earlier occasion."
Donohue’s reference to what he saw as Waskow’s "attack" on Roman Catholicism appeared to refer to Waskow’s criticism in his column of the Vatican for strictures it imposed recently on an American nun’s conference, Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Church leaders have tasked three male bishops with overhauling the group, alleging it had de-emphasized opposition to abortion in favor of social justice issues.
In his statement, Donohue said he had taken particular offense to Waskow’s claim in his Huffington Post column that for the bishops, "religion happens in the genitals."
In his first email, Donohue asked Waskow whether it is "the business of any religious leader to condemn the strictures of another religion."
In his release to reporters, Waskow attached only Donohue’s second email, with the Koch quote, and omitted the first, which makes it clear that Donohue is taking offense more at Waskow’s comments on the nuns than his dealing with the issue of contraceptive coverage.
The Catholic League’s spokesman, Jeff Field, told JTA that Donohue regarded that omission as "despicable."
Waskow, in his comments on the exchange, noted a New York Times interview with Donohue last week that described the Catholic League leader as having moved from representing the church’s right wing to its mainstream.
"Now we will find out whether that includes threatening Jews for disagreeing with the Church hierarchy," Waskow said in a release.