Episcopal protest on Palestinian issue highlights Christian-Jewish divide over Israel

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2001

BOSTON (AP) -- The pro-Palestinian rally outside the Israeli consulate was as notable for the protesters as their message.

Three Episcopal bishops, holding crosses and wearing purple vestments, joined 60 people in October carrying signs that read ''Christian-Muslim solidarity in the face of Israeli invasion'' and ''Destruction in Bethlehem.''

Boston-area Jewish leaders were outraged. They felt critics were ignoring that Israelis also have been killed.

The exchange was one example of how -- as violence in the Mideast has intensified -- long-simmering tensions between some Christians and U.S. Jews over Israeli treatment of Palestinians have become more public.

The Christian-Jewish dispute ''has an acid affect,'' said Rabbi James Rudin, who formerly oversaw interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee.

The current unease between Jews and mainline Christians has roots that go back decades. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel annexed the West Bank and Gaza, the view of Israel in the eyes of some Protestant groups changed from oppressed country to aggressor, said Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

''It's no longer David vs. Goliath, but Goliath vs. David,'' Cunningham said.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the 1980s and the failure of last year's peace talks were two other watershed events that made policy differences more public, Rudin said.

Churches for Middle East Peace, formed in 1984, supports the right of Israel to exist, but has also lobbied for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the territories and for a Jerusalem governed by Palestinians and Israelis. The group includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The World Council of Churches, a fellowship of some 340 Christian churches in more than 120 countries, has repeatedly voiced concern for victims of violence on both sides while seeking an Israeli withdrawal from the territories. In September, the council endorsed a boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Their efforts took on more urgency this October, after Israel occupied Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ.

Pope John Paul II's envoy to the Holy Land and several Christian bishops led thousands of Palestinians in a march for peace that month in Bethlehem. The Episcopal bishops protested in Boston around the same time, saying they felt their concerns were being ignored.

''Frustration was a major issue there,'' said the Rev. Kenneth Arnold, spokesman for Boston's Episcopal Diocese.

Christian critics say Israeli occupation of the territories is illegal under international law, and many consider the expansion of Israeli settlements theft of Palestinian land. They back United Nations resolutions calling for the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders.

''How long would you expect people to live under these circumstances and not do what they can to get out of it?'' said Peter Makari, a global ministries executive for the United Church of Christ.

Evangelicals and conservative Christians have a different view, staunchly supporting the government of the Jewish state, partly because of the end-times theology of dispensationalism, which sees the return of the Jews to Israel as an essential step before Christ's return.

Some Jewish leaders accuse more liberal Christians of employing a double standard, excusing Palestinian atrocities while condemning actions Israel takes in its own defense.

Robert Leikind, New England executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Christians refuse to acknowledge that some Palestinians support the murder of innocent Israelis. Critics also don't understand the realities of life surrounded by enemies, Rudin said.

''Would that Israel was in western Canada, it would be very nice,'' he said. ''But Israel is in a very tough neighborhood.''

Despite their differences, dialogue between Jews and Christians continues. The protest by the Episcopal bishops has sparked new rounds of talks in Boston, even as it highlighted the stark contrast in their positions.

''We still work together,'' Rudin said. ''But it's getting tougher.''


On the Net:

Churches for Middle East Peace: http://www.cmep.org/

American Jewish Committee: http://www.ajc.org/

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