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AJCommittee weighs forming Episcopalian-Jewish pro-Israel group

Washington Jewish Week Online
April 25, 2002
by Aaron Leibel
WJW Staff

Sparked in part by a recent "one-sided" letter to President George W. Bush on the Arab-Israeli conflict from the local Episcopalian bishop and assisting bishop and inspired by the recent formation of The Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel in Boston, the American Jewish Committee Washington-area director is "exploring the possibility" of forming a similar group here.

The premise of the proposed group, said David Bernstein, "is that I strongly suspect there is a disconnect between the bishop and parishioners in the church, who are much more supportive of Israel."

Bernstein said the AJCommittee has worked closely with the Episcopalian clergy in the past and hopes the formation of a new group would not poison those relations. "I would hope that the leaders would see this as a good-faith effort to develop an alternative voice on Israel that reflects the diversity of the church," he said. "We're more than willing to engage them [Episcopalian leaders] in further dialogue."

Lacking more details, Assisting Bishop of Washington Allen L. Bartlett Jr. would not comment on the possible new group, except to note that he hoped for a continuing "constructive relationship with the Jewish community."

The March 5 letter to Bush from Bartlett and Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon urges Bush to support Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan, which would trade Arab recognition of Israel for a complete withdrawal to the pre-Six Day War June 1967 borders.

That plan, write Dixon and Bartlett, "addresses the root cause of most of the Palestinian violence: the occupation and the expanding Jewish settlements. Without the settlements, there would be no need for home and agricultural demolitions; separation of Palestinians into isolated areas, and military checkpoints with their associated daily humiliation of the Palestinian people."

In response, Bernstein, who just learned about the letter last week, writes that the AJCommittee agrees the Saudi plan is a step in the right direction.

However, his organization "strongly disagrees" that Palestinian violence is caused by the settlements and occupation. In addition, he notes that it is "inconsistent and morally incoherent" to condemn Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians (as the bishops' letter did) while "at the same time, hold[ing] Israel responsible for such acts. Moreover, you do a great disservice to the Palestinians to suggest that, unlike Israelis and us Americans, they do not have the free will to resist evil."

The AJCommittee leader said he has found "many voices among the clergy and the laity in the mainline Christian communities who do not accept the anti-Israel line."

However, Bernstein concedes that more evangelical Christian groups tend to be more pro-Israel, while more mainline groups -- like the Episcopalians -- tend to be less pro-Israel.

Reacting to Bernstein's letter, the two Episcopalian leaders, while noting that they have a different view of Israeli settlements, write, "we surely agree with you that any encouragement or blessing of suicide bombing is a perversion of religion."

The letter continues: "Violence on either side makes more difficult the road back toward the negotiations which we all support. We strongly support the existence and security of the state of Israel."

The Episcopalian leaders also invite Bernstein to attend an Interfaith Prayer Vigil for Peace in the Middle East at the Washington National Cathedral on May 5.

Bernstein said he is considering attending the prayer vigil.


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