Christian Left Veers on Israel After Jews Helped in a Crisis

Christian Left Veers on Israel After Jews Helped in a Crisis

Rev. Campbell

National Council of Churches Sign Onto Campaign Against Jerusalem

It Wasn’t Our Money, Insists AJCommittee

By IRA STOLL
FORWARD STAFF

December 27, 1996

WASHINGTON – An advertisement placed by liberal Protestant groups calling for an end to Israel’s sovereignty over
Jerusalem is threatening to erode the interfaith cooperation that led to last summer’s fabled Jewish-Christian joint effort on the rebuilding of burnt black churches.

The general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, who signed the ad, appeared in June with Rabbi David Saperstein at a press conference in New York to announce that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations would assist in reconstructing the arson-damaged churches. Her organization, a leading voice for the Christian left, took out joint newspaper advertisements with the American Jewish Committee to draw attention to the church burnings, and in August she traveled with the AJCommittee’s Rabbi A. James Rudin and other religious leaders to rebuild a church in Tennessee with President Clinton.

Now those same rabbis are expressing disappointment at the Rev. Campbell, the National Council of Churches and the other Christian groups that placed a full-page advertisement in the Dec. 21 number of The New York Times. Under the title “Christians Call for a Shared Jerusalem,” the ad says, “Jerusalem at peace cannot belong exclusively to one people, one country, or one religion.” Jewish leaders say they were not consulted in advance of the ad. They warned that the statement might hurt the delicate Middle East peace process as well as relations between Christians and Jews in America.

“It is a major disappointment that erodes the level of confidence necessary to have really close, functioning, coalition relationships,” Rabbi Saperstein said.

He said the peace process now is at a precarious stage over issues like Hebron and Palestinian Arab autonomy. The parties to the process agreed to leave discussion of Jerusalem to the end of the talks, he said, and to inject the Holy City into the discussion now would be counterproductive. “Whatever one thinks of the merits of the message, the choice to put this message out right now is clearly ill-advised and likely to undermine the peace process,” Rabbi Saperstein said.

Rabbi Rudin also expressed dismay at the timing of the ad. “It’s aimed at the Netanyahu government, it’s aimed at an Israeli government,” he said. “It’s really a one-sided statement….It’s just very negative.” Rabbi Rudin said the ad’s signers were not calling for the internationalization of Jerusalem before 1967, when Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan. He emphasized that the

AJCommittee had donated no money to the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, and he said that, while cooperating with liberal Protestant groups on domestic issues, AJCommittee often differs with those groups on international matters. Likewise, the organization may cooperate with evangelical Christian groups on some international matters but differ on domestic policy.

‘Naive and Ill-informed’

“It certainly does not represent the views of all Christians,” said the secretary-treasurer of the National Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev. William Harter. The Rev. Harter, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Falling Spring in Chambersburg, Pa., called the views expressed in the ad “naive” and “ill-informed.”

The Rev. Harter said that in view of 1,900 years of Christian anti-Semitism and the effects of the Crusades against Jews,Muslims and Eastern Christians, “It is especially unbecoming for Christian leaders to be dictating to Jews and Muslims whatsolutions they should come up with.”

For his part, Rabbi Saperstein rejected the suggestion that UAHC donations to the council of churches’ restricted fund for rebuilding burnt churches had in any way subsidized the ad.

The ad includes a coupon to return to “Churches for Middle East Peace” and listed an address here for the organization in the same building occupied by the Washington offices of the National Council of the Churches, the American Baptist Churches, USA, Church of the Brethren, the Mennonite Central Committee, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Those groups signed the ad, as did the American Friends Service Committee, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men’s Institutes. Another signer is James Akins, who is suing the Federal Election Commission with a group of former American officials to force the FEC to take action against the pro-Israel lobby, Aipac.

The coupon says, “I believe the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee should raise and recommend the concept of a
shared Jerusalem during confirmation of the next U.S. Secretary of State.”

Rabbi Rudin described Churches for Middle East Peace as “uniformly unfriendly to Israel,” and he characterized the signers of the ad as “a heavily liberal Protestant group” that had little representation of the Catholic or evangelical Christians. “It does not represent the broad cross-section of all the Christian community,” he said.

The director of Churches for Middle East Peace, Corrine Whitlatch, said the ad was timed to coincide with Christmas, when people would be interested in a Christian perspective on Jerusalem. She said the ad was not intended to hurt the peace process or interfaith cooperation. “We hope that our Jewish colleagues can see this ad as a constructive step forward, one that does not threaten Israel’s interests and claims on Jerusalem,” she said.

Ms. Whitlatch said that the Rev. Campbell had been “personally very supportive” of the ad. She said that while many Jews might have preferred that her group remain silent on the issue of Jerusalem, such a posture was “just not feasible” because of pressure from Christians in the Middle East.

The Rev. Campbell did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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‘Confusion and Division’

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which also participated in the effort to rebuild burnt black churches, drafted a letter to all of the signers of the advertisement. “We are saddened that religious leaders who are charged with bringing spiritual understanding and healing to their communities and the world are now spreading confusion and division regarding this most sensitive issue,” wrote Mr. Foxman, who referred to the ad as an “unhelpful intrusion.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations huddled early Monday to craft a response to the ad. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference, called the ad “very disturbing,” noting that several member organizations have worked with groups that signed the ad.

The Conference plans no ad to respond to the one placed by Churches for Middle East Peace, but it does plan to develop talking points on the subject and to contact Senator Helms and the Rev. Campbell, said one president who participated in the call. The response will probably emphasize the ill treatment suffered by Christians when Jerusalem was under Arab control.