Daniel Rossing

Most of the dramatic changes that produced the vast improvement in Jewish-Christian relations in the last half-century have taken place on the Christian side. In light of the historic record of Western Christianity’s teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, it is understandable that until the publication of Dabru Emet in 2000, the dialogue in the West was essentially a one-way street, at least concerning the rethinking of traditional attitudes and teachings. Christians, and in the most far-reaching ways the Catholic Church, stopped judging Jews and Judaism according to exclusively Christian criteria and endeavored to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.

Interfaith dialogue in Israel has followed the prevailing patterns and paradigms of the dialogue in the West. To turn the words of the medieval Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevy on end: We are in the East, but our interfaith hearts and minds are in the West. Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Israel has been conducted mainly between expatriate Catholic theologians, members of the clergy living in the Holy Land and a small group of Jewish scholars, nearly all of them of Western background. During the last decade, the dialogue has been enriched by the active participation of an increasing number of Orthodox Jews. Most recently, formal conversations have been initiated between a delegation of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and representatives of the Holy See from abroad; and in January, Israel’s Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis paid a formal visit to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

The Jewish-Christian dialogue in Israel has produced special insights and achieved deep levels of mutual understanding. Indeed, the dialogue has been of the finest export quality and has had considerable impact abroad. Regrettably, it has not sold well in the local market. Few representatives and members of local Christian communities, including the local Latin and Eastern Catholic communities, participate in existing frameworks and forums for Jewish-Christian dialogue. The vast majority of Israeli Jews have no contact with local Christians and no awareness of the historic changes that have taken place in churches in the West.

In Galilee, where a majority of the Christians in the land live, there are contacts, both in daily life and through the many organizations that promote Arab-Jewish co-existence. There is also fruitful cooperation between the personnel of the scores of Catholic educational, medical and social welfare institutions throughout the country and Israeli Jews working in these fields. However, these contacts have been characterized by, and are indeed often premised on, a conspiracy of silence regarding anything that touches upon religious faith and identity, and thus cannot be counted as interfaith dialogue.

Why has this land remained so underdeveloped relative to the advances in Jewish-Catholic interfaith relations in other countries? Certainly the prolonged political hostilities and the absence of a shared language and culture have been major stumbling blocks to dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab Christians. But even Israeli Jews who are aware of the unprecedented changes in the Western churches and are committed to interfaith endeavors have yet to enter into earnest dialogue with local Christians. Initiatives have been sporadic and seldom sustained. Worse yet, we Israeli Jews often blame the indigenous Christians for the dearth of interfaith dialogue, accusing them of being medieval and lacking any notion of pluralism, or faulting them for politicizing relations. When it comes to the Christian communities, even those of us with years of experience in interfaith relations seem to abandon the most elementary rule of authentic dialogue and true pluralism: The other, and particularly the other who is the weaker partner, must be allowed to define himself or herself.

Let us again recall that the key factor that produced the turnabout in Jewish-Christian relations in the West was a fundamental change of heart and attitude on the part of the majority faith community. I believe that there will be no significant breakthrough in Israel in the area of Jewish-Christian relations in general, and Jewish-Catholic relations in particular, until there is a similar rethinking and reaching out on the part of the dominant Jewish community. We Israeli Jews must undertake a number of vital steps to open the way for an honest and fruitful indigenous Jewish-Christian dialogue. The undertakings that I emphasize reflect similar steps taken by the Catholic Church over the last four decades in order to pave the way for constructive dialogue with Jews and Judaism.

First, we must study in depth the particular historic experience of the Christian communities in the Holy Land. Israeli Jews are familiar with many details of the history of Christianity in the West, but know nothing about the radically different historic experience of the local Christian communities. Since the seventh century, Christians in the Middle East have lived as dwindling minorities on the margins of the dominant Arab Muslim society, valiantly struggling for linguistic, cultural, religious and, in more recent centuries, even physical survival. The discovery of the remarkable parallels between our respective histories should suffice to make clear that the paradigms and present agenda of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the West are inappropriate to the pursuit of better Jewish-Catholic relations in Israel.

Second, we Israeli Jews must be sensitive to that which offends or threatens local Christians. The temptation will be great to focus on our own deep pain or to enumerate the injuries caused to Christians by Muslims, rather than to confront honestly the ways in which we insult or wound Christians. We must scrutinize the subtle anti-Christian terminology and practices that have become engraved in our tradition in the course of, and in reaction to, the long centuries of Christian teaching of contempt. We need to examine carefully what is, and especially what is not, taught about Christians and Christianity in Israeli schools.

Third, we should appreciate the manifest plurality that characterizes the Christian presence in this land, including the plurality of Catholic churches. To dismiss this plurality as nothing more than the product of petty premodern squabbles does injustice to the rich diversity of Christian communities, which confronts us with a type of pluralism that might raise questions about some of our cherished Western notions and norms of pluralism. If, for example, we measure the quality of pluralism by how smoothly things are going, then indeed the interaction of the six different Christian groups in the close quarters of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher might not always receive high marks. But if we judge pluralism by how fully each unique group is able to preserve its particularities, then the situation in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher will score as high as, if not higher than, much of what passes for multiculturalism in modern, enlightened Western society.

Fourth, Israeli Jews must recognize that the local Christian communities struggle daily to discern their path in a complex maze of relationships with the Islamic world, with the Western Christian world, with Jews in the context of a sovereign Jewish state and with a biblical heritage that is often confusing for them in a setting in which the Bible is used to buttress political arguments. The different Catholic communities additionally have their relationships with one another and with the various Orthodox churches in the Holy Land. Local Christians face a mind-boggling six-dimensional chess game, in which a wise move in one dimension can spell defeat, or even disaster, in another dimension.

Fifth, we have to realize that in such circumstances Christian identity will of necessity always be complex and fluid. Israeli Jews must allow Christians to define their identity and decide which element or elements to stress. If, for example, they choose to emphasize their intimate attachment to a particular land that is for them a kind of fifth Gospel, or to emphasize a national component in their identity, we must respect this in the same way that we expect others to accept and understand similar components in our identity.

These five steps are preparatory in nature and should be viewed as a mandatory cleansing of the heart and mind before entering the sacred space of dialogue. They will, one hopes, benefit the local Christian minorities, but we Israeli Jews must undertake them principally for our own spiritual and moral well-being as an empowered majority.

Local Christians, on their part, need to recognize that a total reversal of minority-majority roles relative to Jewish-Christian relations in the West is not possible. Although there are elements of a teaching of contempt in our tradition, we Israeli Jews do not bear the burden of having persecuted Christians for centuries. Furthermore, Israeli Jews also struggle on multiple fronts. We are the majority in Israel, but on all other frontsin the region and worldwidewe, like the local Christian communities, are a tiny minority that is dependent on the understanding and good will of dominant majorities, among them the billion-strong Catholic Church.

Our dialogue with the worldwide Catholic Church takes place against the backdrop of a history of contempt and conflict, which has dictated the main themes of that dialogue: anti-Semitism and its theological roots, the legacy of the Holocaust, God’s continuing covenant with the Jewish people, the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Jewishness of Jesus, the significance of Jewish peoplehood, the centrality of Jerusalem and the land of Israel in Jewish collective memory and of the state of Israel for the Jewish people today.

The Catholic minorities in the Holy Land should note the importance of that dialogue to both Jews and the worldwide church. Keeping abreast of developments in the dialogue in the West will help them to understand us better in the context of our struggle to secure a place among the faiths, cultures and nations of the world. It will also help to explain why it has been difficult for us to reach out to the local Christian communities.

More significantly, studying the Jewish-Catholic dialogue in the West might help the Catholic churches in the Holy Land avoid the grave errors of the past that produced the tragic history of Christian demonization of Jews. That sad story had its beginnings in the early centuries of Christianity, when Christians were a persecuted minority enmeshed in a struggle for identity and survival in the midst of a then dominant Greco-Roman religious-cultural-political worldview that had little tolerance for Christians and Christianity. In the course of that struggle, early Christians slowly distanced themselves from Judaism and increasingly demonized Jews. The anti-Jewish theological tenets that were formulated in the early centuries of the church were carried over into a polity in which Christianity was the majority faith, which had dire consequences for Jews and for Christianity.

In many respects, Christians in the Middle East, and particularly in the Holy Land, find themselves today in a situation similar to that of the Christians in the first centuries of the Christian era. The Greco-Roman world has been replaced in the region by a Muslim-Arab religious-cultural-political worldview within which Christians struggle as minorities, as they have for centuries, to secure their place. Recently, a Jewish-Israeli religious-cultural-political worldview has re-established a presence on the local scene. As Palestinian Arab Christians write their theologies, they should follow closely the Western Jewish-Christian dialogue, so that, with the benefit of its findings, they may have the strength and wisdom to avoid the direction taken by early Christians in the formulation of their theological views on Jews and Judaism.

Several recent pioneering initiatives enhance hopes that a unique indigenous Jewish-Christian dialogue may finally blossom in the Holy Land. In May 2003, Archimandrite Emile Shoufani led a group of 150 Israeli Arabs and 150 Israeli Jews on a historic joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz. This widely publicized journey initiated by a prominent local Arab Greek Catholic (Melkite) priest has opened the hearts and minds of many Israeli Jews and aroused a healthy curiosity about the man and his community, which is the largest Arab Christian community in Israel today.

In November 2003, the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations was inaugurated to explore systematically the issues and substantively confront the challenges that arise from the unique encounter of Jews and Christians in the Holy Land today. The center is working with all segments of Israeli-Jewish society and the full range of indigenous Christian communities to combat ignorance and prejudice and to foster understanding and empathy between the Jewish majority and the local Christian minorities.

Finally, in December 2003, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, whose faithful include a majority of Arab Catholics and smaller numbers of Hebrew-speaking and expatriate Catholics, issued a document entitled Reflections on the Presence of the Church in the Holy Land. The section on Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel affirms that the official teaching of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church regarding Jews and Judaism is also the teaching of the patriarchate, noting that this teaching has to be applied and lived in the unique contemporary circumstances of the Holy Land in which Christians meet Jews as a dominant and empowered majority. The authors express regret for the attitudes of contempt, the conflicts and the hostility that have marked the history of Jewish-Christian relations and look forward, as I do, to the fraternal dialogue that can and must develop between Jews and Christians in the Holy Land within the specific context we share.

Daniel Rossing, an Orthodox Jewish educator and interfaith activist in Jerusalem, is currently director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.