There is an excellent article examining “why Israel causes such difficulties in Christian-Jewish relations” in this week’s Church Times (29 June) by Edward Kessler, who is a leading thinker in interfaith relations, primarily Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim Relations, and Founder and Executive Director of the Woolf Institute.
Kessler observes that “Although there have been great changes in Christian teaching on Judaism, and especially in tackling the traditional ‘teaching of contempt of Judaism’, attitudes towards Israel continue to be difficult. It has been easier to condemn anti-Semitism as a misunderstanding of Christian teaching than to come to terms with the re-establishment of the Jewish state.”
Kessler also observes that not only is the church divided about Zionism, “Jews are also divided about Israel. In particular, the growth of settlements, the behaviour of settlers, and the occupation of Palestinian territories are resulting in what Peter Beinhart calls in The Crisis of Zionism ‘political corrosion’.
“A profoundly anti-democratic and aggressive culture is becoming pervasive among much of the Jewish population in the West Bank. It is undermining the vision of a Jewish and democratic state pictured by the founders of Israel. In my experience, it is hard, if not impossible, to engage with people who believe that they are the holy defenders of Israel.
“Nevertheless [Kessler continues], personal encounter is vital, and the temptation to restrict encounters, and even promote boycott, should be opposed. Meeting and interacting with people from different religious backgrounds moves beyond merely learning about each other’s traditions. Through encounter, one seeks to discover a shared humanity and to see beyond one’s own experience.”
Kessler goes on to mention the “consternation” in Jewish circles caused by Kairos Palestine, and the added “strain” of the “fact that the Churches do not act similarly regarding human-rights abuses and state violence in many other places, especially in the wider Middle East.” And he is deeply concerned by the binary, on the one hand, of those who “think that Israel can do no right”, and, on the other hand, of “those for whom the Palestinians are the cause of all the ills in the conflict.”
However, Kessler ends his even-handed analysis with an emphasis on what he calls “outbreaks of hope for peace”. And he concludes: “Hope is the vital ingredient that Christians and Jews thousands of miles away from the conflict must bring. An Israeli mother who lost her son, and a Palestinian mother who lost her brother in the conflict made this clear recently, when they told students in Cambridge: ‘If you don’t want to be part of the solution, don’t be part of the problem.’”