TORONTO — A retired Lutheran pastor recently told this story to a largely Jewish audience: For many years, a husband abused his wife badly. Finally the two parties agreed to a divorce. Years later, the wife became embroiled in a property dispute with her neighbour that ended up in court. Unexpectedly, the ex-husband appeared on the scene and volunteered to testify – on behalf of the neighbour against his wife.
“That testimony is tainted by that ugly past no matter how much the abusive husband says he’s changed.”
An interesting tale, no doubt, but Rev. Glenn Nelson, wasn’t actually talking about a domestic dispute. He was raising the analogy to illustrate the way some Christian churches have turned against Jews in their conflict with the Palestinians.
“Christians like to think they’ve changed, renounced pogroms, Good Friday prayers for the perfidious Jews…That ugly history, that mindset still taints us,” he said. “Frankly, I feel like the abusive husband, that our history against the Jews means we can’t be trusted. Not yet.”
Rev. Nelson made those comments during an Oct. 18 panel discussion on “Boycotts, the United Church and the future of interfaith dialogue,” at Beth Tikvah Synagogue.
He was joined by Beth Tikvah Rabbi Jarrod Grover, as well as Steve McDonald, associate director of communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and Barbara Boraks, executive director of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto. Israeli Consul General D.J. Shneeweiss delivered opening remarks.
Each of the speakers discussed the implications of the decision by the General Council of the United Church of Canada to pass a resolution at its most recent convocation in August calling for the boycott of Israeli goods produced on the West Bank.
Rev. Nelson said, “Christian churches, as institutions, have no credibility. Our history disqualifies us.”
Advocating a boycott hinders the ability of the churches for self-examination, doesn’t hurt Israel and sows discord at home, he said.
He suggested that on an individual level, Christians could raise concerns about Israeli policy, but at the institutional level, “I feel it’s just plain wrong.”
Boraks, who’s served as executive director of Christian-Jewish Dialogue for more than 20 years, said the two sides had worked hard to develop trust over the years. “I understand that the United Church boycott is very difficult for the Jewish community, including the silence of other Christian communities. It’s reminder of other silences that took place.”
Members of Christian-Jewish Dialogue were present at the United Church con-vention and worked behind the scenes in an attempt to derail the boycott resolution. Those attempts had been successful at previous conventions but failed at the most recent one, she said.
“Despite the failure, we learned there were a lot of people that didn’t support it,” she said.
Boraks called for continued dialogue between Jews and the United Church. You can’t stop talking, she said. “If you have a vacuum, it will be filled by people not necessarily of good faith.”
A different perspective was offered by CIJA’s McDonald. CIJA attended the United Church conference and lobbied to keep the boycott resolution off the table, to ensure “the parameters of the discussion never goes off the edge,” he said.
But CIJA’a arguments “went in one ear and out the other.”
Afterward, CIJA consulted with Jewish federations, rabbinic organizations and others across the country and decided it would end dialogue with the United Church at the national level. Talks would continue with local churches.
CIJA believes the way to address future anti-Israel positions in Canadian organization is not through talking points or position papers, but through the cultivation of friends who share similar views, he said.
Rabbi Grover said the United Church boycott resolution was only part of a larger, disturbing development in which liberal churches are taking direct aim at Israel.
Liberal Protestant churches in the United States “picked Shmini Atzeret, when they knew Jews were engaged in other business, and without prior notice, petitioned Congress to stop all foreign aid to Israel,” he said.
“They did this behind the backs of their Jewish counterparts that they’d been working with on dialogue for all this time.”
The Protestants’ letter was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ. Afterward, mainstream Jewish groups unilaterally pulled out of an annual Christian-Jewish roundtable meeting, saying the forum was no longer viable.
Rabbi Grover said the letter to the U.S. Congress was part of “an effort to delegitimize Israel and target aid to Israel, which is really taking root in liberal Protestant churches.
“We’ve got a real serious problem,” he stated.
Rabbi Grover said these developments put into question the value of interfaith dialogue.
“I’m feeling there are others who don’t want dialogue with me. They’ve decided their priorities and they’re not interested in what we have to say,” he said.
With files from JTA