Face the interfaith elephant

By Angela Levin, December 29, 2010
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If anyone had asked me 10 or even five years ago if relationships between Christians and Jews could exist outside the Israel-Palestinian conflict my answer would have been "of course. It's barely relevant."

I am now nowhere near as sure. Whether we like it or not, Jews have become inextricably bound up with how our Israeli brothers and sisters treat Palestinians and how their plight is perceived.

Over the past year or two, I have noticed that, at otherwise polite dinner parties given by Christian friends, an increasing number of guests, when they find out that I am Jewish, now ask whether I am for or against Israel. Whether the enquirer is to the political left or right, the question always means trouble, not least because it offers no room for light or shade. It is not meant to be a starting point for a discussion on the problems in the Middle East. Instead, because of the way it is phrased, people asking the question only want to hear a negative view.

It is not easy to answer. I love Israel, will support it come what may, but don't always approve of how it behaves. But I know that anything positive I say will fall on deaf ears. The question is tinged with antisemitism. Usually, I mumble something, change the subject and try to have nothing more to do with the individual concerned without ruining my friend's party.

I know that anything positive I say about Israel will fall on deaf ears

In less polite society, there often isn't an attempt to bother with the facts.

Last summer, the members of the Methodist Church - formerly good friends of Jews - passed a motion at their annual conference to boycott goods from "illegal" Israeli settlements. It was based on an inaccurate and biased report and their action caused anguish in the Jewish community threatening to set interfaith relations back decades.

More recently, Clare Solomons, the radical 37-year-old president of the University of London Union, who helped co-ordinate the recent student protests against the rise in tuition fees, wrote the following on her Facebook site: "The view that Jews have been persecuted all throughout history is one that has been fabricated in the last 100 or so years to justify the persecution of Palestinians".

My concerns at the way Jews were being conjoined with Israel and the excuse this gives for antisemitism was one reason why, about a year ago, I became part of the advisory body to the Council of Christians and Jews. I asked David Griffiths, the CCJ's chief executive for the past six years, whether what I was experiencing was indicative of a general trend and if anything could be done to improve interfaith relations. He admitted he was worried and that Judeo-Christian relations are the worst he has known, specifically because of the Israel-Palestine question. He said that Jews and Christians seem obsessed with the question to the exclusion of other areas of our relationship and that views are hardening.

He added that many non-Jews who are active in interfaith work now make ominous comments like: "You would think that because of what happened to them in the Holocaust they wouldn't do that to the Palestinians". Or they believe it is pointless talking to Jews about Israel as "all of them support it".

On the Jewish side, many feel as awkward talking about Israel as they might about the black sheep of the family. Others bristle with self-righteousness and will not tolerate any comments from non-Jews that question Israel's actions.

So how do we deal with this enormous elephant in the room? We Jews have tended to fit in with the ways of the country we live in, and keep ourselves to ourselves.

Well, now is the time to open up a little. Israel is poor at explaining itself to the world at large, so perhaps we can help by discussing the situation with those non-Jews who want to listen. Our relationship with Israel can be as profound and personal as each of us chooses but it cannot define us completely. Nor can we afford to allow the suspicions of other religions to turn into hate. We were there 70 years ago and it must never happen again.

Angela Levin is a journalist and broadcaster

    Last updated: 3:00pm, December 29 2010