Interfaith dialogue is not exactly a top agenda item for most Israeli Jews. With the exception of a few orchestrated and ceremonial occasions, Christians and Jews generally do not sit down together here for a frank exchange of views.
That's what made a meeting in Jerusalem last week all the more remarkable. Three international evangelical Christian organizations and a grassroots group of British Jewish immigrants got together to exchange ideas and discuss how best to promote Israel's interests. The event took place at the imposing German Colony villa that serves as headquarters of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). More than 100 English-speaking Jews and Christians gathered to clear the air about their perceptions of the other in a refreshingly open discussion.
The Christians represented Bridges for Peace, Christian Friends of Israel and the ICEJ. The Jews were all members of the British Israel Group (BIG)--an organization founded nearly two years ago to utilize the talents and connections of British-born Israelis in the media and political hasbara battle. BIG members, Norman and Lola Cohen, were the impetus behind the meeting. The Cohens who live in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo are longtime neighbours of Bridges for Peace director, Clarence Wagner. As members of a tiny Jewish community in their old town of Leamington Spa in England, the Cohens were active in interfaith activities, and have long bemoaned the lack of interchange in Israel. Wagner and his colleagues were eager to have the opportunity to reach out to the English speaking community in Israel.
Avi Lehrer, founder and president of BIG opened the evening, by reiterating BIG's commitment to a safe and secure Israel living in peace with its neighbours. Members of the press had been invited but with the exception of BBC bureau chief Simon Wilson, those who did come mumbled their excuses and left before the speeches.
First to the podium was Bret Stephens, editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. Stephens, an American who attended graduate school in London, chose to frame his remarks in the context of his personal experiences with Christianity. He spoke of his childhood as the son of secular Jewish parents growing up in Mexico. While his parents chose not to give Stephens any kind of formal Jewish education and no bar mitzvah, they did instill in him an awareness of his Jewishness. While the family never told anyone they were Jewish, relationships with their Catholic neighbours "were not amicable," Stephens divulged. "It was a hostile environment for Jews," he said.
Stephens saw Catholicism as practised in Mexico with its heavy pagan influences as "primitive." Christianity was regarded with fear and contempt and as a Jew, Stephens felt a sense of superiority over those who practised the primitive faith. His views changed when he moved out of Mexico and began to learn about his Jewish heritage through university courses on Jewish texts. "As I acquired an education in Jewish tradition, my negative attitudes toward Christianity diminished," he said.
Stephens met Christians who were thoughtful and serious about their faith. "It was a revelation to me that you could be a sincere Christian and not be a peasant," he asserted. Stephens related that he eventually put aside his "sniggering" about Christianity--a phenomenon endemic to Jewish leftist intellectuals and their admirers. As he became more committed to Israel, it was hard not to notice, he said, that it was Christian conservatives who were amongst the most supportive of Israel.
AIPAC (the America Israel Public Affairs Committee) doesn't deliver the votes for Israel, Stephens contended, "it's the Christian Coalition."
Stephens recounted several anecdotes about his encounters with Christian supporters of Israel in the southern United States. He remarked on the turnaround in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Israel in recent years: "It's a huge reservoir of support," he noted, that the Jewish community would be "stupid to spurn, especially when we don't have so many friends and allies."
Stephens did caution Jews to make certain terms and conditions clear to pro-Israel Christians. "You may support us as Israelis and Jews, not as cogs in some grand design," he asserted. "Then we can have a dialogue."
Responding to Stephen's remarks, ICEJ executive director, Malcom Hedding, an articulate South African who has lived in Israel for seven years, noted that "there's something very genuine in this gathering." Hedding delivered a speech that served to reassure many of the Jews in the audience who harbored lingering doubts about the true agenda of Christian Zionists. He told the audience about the history of Christian Zionism--going back to the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.
Confronting Jewish discomfort right on, Hedding acknowledged Christian silence during the Holocaust. "We lament that," he said, "But we're here now." Hedding reported that the Christian Zionists endure "considerable hostility" from Jews, despite their efforts to be considered "genuine friends of Israel."
"Christian Zionism is not based on an apocalyptic belief system. We'll let God fill out the agenda," Hedding stated. He says that the core of Christian Zionist belief is that everything connected to Israel is based on God's promises. "God has been faithful to the Jews and Israel is a fulfillment of God's promise. Thus, a central tenet is the belief that God did bequeath the land to Abraham. This in clear contrast to Stephens, who admitted to a level of discomfort with the notion of Jewish choseness and rejection of the idea that Israel's claims to the land are predicated on a deed from Abraham. "We take the word of God seriously," Hedding emphasized.
Israel's legitimacy is also based on historical facts, Hedding continued. "No other people have had a 4,000 engagement with this land," he asserted. Despite their complete support for Israel, all the Christian organizations operate social assistance programs in the Arab sector since they "recognize the suffering of all peoples in this land." But the main agenda of the Christian Zionists operating here "is to comfort and bless Israel," Hedding said.
Theologically, Hedding says Christian Zionist ideas aren't so different from orthodox Jewish ideas. He told of a discussion with the chief rabbi of Australia (sic) who informed an astonished Hedding: "You know the Messiah is coming and the current conflict heralds that."
To sustained applause, Hedding concluded: "Although we turned up late after centuries of anti-Semitism, we are here now, as your friends."
At the catered kosher reception after the formal program, BIG members mingled with their Christian hosts and exchanged ideas for future joint projects. Next time, they won't need an icebreaker.