IT HAS been a long and bumpy journey. Over two
millennia, interactions between Christians and Jews have
fluctuated greatly, and often been strained and hostile.
The past 60 years have been dominated by twin
burdens: first, learning to accept that religious differences in
Western societies are now a civic matter, since in these societies
Christianity is prevalent, but no longer the main defining force
for social norms; and second, re-establishing positive relations in
the aftermath of the Holocaust. In Britain, the facilitatory work
of the Council of Christians and Jews has made a significant
impact, engaging to various degrees with all strands of Jewish
A particular challenge now is to move interfaith
dialogue and action from the realm of leaderships to grassroots
collaboration. An outstanding example of such an initiative is
the annual Mitzvah Day: it takes place this coming weekend.
It started within the Jewish community in 2005, and
encourages participants to perform amitzvah, a commanded good deed
towards others. Underpinning Mitzvah Day is the Jewish concept
oftzedakah. Like Christian charity and Muslimzakat, it is based on
the premise that a portion of a person's wealth and effort must be
devoted to assisting those in need.
While donations to charity are a form oftzedakah,
Mitzvah Day is a call for action over and above financial support.
It has burgeoned, and now involves 25,000 people around the
Mitzvah Day's expansion has been fuelled by these
joint values, and participation now extends across a range of
religious groups. For instance, in Hendon, north London, members of
a synagogue and a mosque have again jointly organised the
distribution of items to homeless charities. In
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a church and a synagogue visited a hospice
together.DESPITE these uplifting examples of co-operation,
theological and political challenges affecting the relationship
between Christians and Jews in Britain cannot be ignored. Once,
flashpoints primarily concerned theological claims to
supersession, the validity of scriptures, or the very damaging
denunciations of Jews as Christ-killers. Today, core tensions have
moved towards primarily political issues relating to Israel and the
Occupied Palestinian Territories.
A concern of many British Jews is that Churches'
justice work, rightly concerned with the situation of
Palestinians, may be now extended by some so that it is a
euphemism for suggesting a new form of invalidation. In the
past, Judaism was seen as being made invalid because of claims of
exclusive truth by some Churches. This time, the invalidation is
of Jews' relationship with Israel as a source of
Against this background, I find it encouraging that
surveys repeatedly say that the majority of British Jews support
the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside Israel, which
suggests that both Jews and Christians have a mutual interest
in a lasting peace in the Middle East.
When it comes to issues that both religions consider
important, such as Israel-Palestine, it is all too easy to take the
soft option, and proceed with good deeds, while ignoring
potentially divisive topics. Initiatives such as Mitzvah Day are
important, but their importance needs to be contextualised.
Jews and Muslims are justifiably concerned about
their status as members of religious minorities in a State with
an Established Church. Trevor Philips, the former chairman of the
Commission for Racial Equality, said to me that, as some 95 per
cent of the UK population say they have never met a Jewish person,
misunderstandings between Jews and Christians often arise from the
one possessing a basic wariness of the other.
Bringing different groups together for one day a
year is effective only if we take advantage of the opportunity this
provides to nurture more meaningful relationships, which are strong
enough to withstand conversations about controversial issues.
LAST WEEK, I visited Belfast with Christian, Jewish
and Muslim religious leaders to participate in a seminar on
conflict-resolution and reconciliation; it highlighted faith
leaders' ability to mediate between politicians and the grass
roots. This was an educationally and emotionally transformative
experience based on touring Belfast, text study, and, movingly,
meeting activists from both sides of this conflict.
Belfast is providing a springboard to a more
challenging, and I hope even more fruitful, interfaith encounter
in Israel-Palestine, at which the same group will discuss topics
such as: conflict-resolution, and the significance of faith leaders
in bringing about peace in the region. As a rabbi, I believe that
religious leaders from all faiths can use our mediating capacities
to take risks to help others to move towards decisive change.
The kind of interfaith activity that we truly value
relies on joint experiences, such as Mitzvah Day, being
legitimised by interaction between communal and religious
leaderships. Such experiences can, on the one hand, be theoretical,
from theological discussions and learning about a topic through
text study, to talking through the social and political issues that
affect different communities.
On the other hand, faith leaders can collaborate in
the nuts and bolts of community-building, developing skills such as
pastoral training and community-organising that are essential to
all religions. These two levels of interfaith work - shared
experiences and interfaith communication - can underpin dialogue
that is resilient enough to confront jointly even the issues that
are divisive. They may provide the suspension bars that can soften
our occasionally bumpy journey.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is a Senior Rabbi of
Reform Judaism, and chairs British Friends of Rabbis for Human
Rights. Ben Crome is a researcher in Jewish History at Reform