Today is the first day of Christian festival Greenbelt, which similar to Limmud for Jews, provides an opportunity for Christians to come together, share ideas and debate issues. Taking place over four days in Gloucestershire, there was one speaker on the bill in particular that caught our attention.
Mark Braverman, an American Jew, is the author of the book Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land. One of the points he makes in his book - and has elsewhere - is that Christians involved in dialogue with Jews on the issue of Israel-Palestine have made a 'fatal embrace' as it were. Christians in the mainstream dialogue with Jews on this issue Palestine have, he thinks, sold out to an agenda of injustice.
The content of Dr Braverman's book goes much deeper than just discouraging dialogue between Christians and Jews, and this is by no means a critique of the entire book.
One point he makes for example, that it is not antisemitic to question the actions of the State of Israel, is scarcely controversial. But for the Council of Christians and Jews, Dr Braverman's proclamation that Christians should only discuss Israel-Palestine with Jews who share his own outlook is his most dangerous.
Dr Braverman will speak at Greenbelt today and tomorrow, and the CCJ, who have been committed to Jewish - Christian dialogue for over 70 years, felt it important, that the Festival's organisers were offered an additional speaker to provide an alternative perspective to Dr Braverman's position on dialogue and "selling out." Having only one voice represented, runs the risk of marginalising other views, especially, but by no means only, Jewish ones. Unfortunately our offer was turned down.
We genuinely question why no alternative voice was given an outlet at the Festival, particularly as Greenbelt understands itself to be 'where arts, faith and justice collide'. Surely natural justice demands a 'right to reply'? But that was not possible this year. The rejection or dismissal of other voices is disappointing. We sincerely hope it will be possible in 2014 and stand ready to advise Greenbelt's organisers on this.
Discouraging dialogue between Christians and Jews who have different views on the issue of Israel-Palestine is both unwise and dangerous. Dialogue alone will not solve the conflict, but it will open up otherwise impossible opportunities for creative engagement, increase understanding of why the issue is so important to both of us, and allow all sides to be heard. Dialogue at every level is vital if a peaceful resolution is ever to be realised.
Furthermore, by devaluing dialogue between Jews and Christians or suggesting its uselessness because of the Israel-Palestine conflict, serves no one's interest. It will close the door to diverse and creative ways forward for Jews and Christians to present their concerns, longings and unique insights. The two religions will slide into a relationship of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and accusation. Views on both sides will be marginalised and polarised. That cannot be the way forward.
For now, it needs to be said that the absence of an alternative perspective alongside Dr Braverman is regrettable and, were his views adopted by the mainstream Christian community, it would place great strain on Jewish-Christian dialogue, and possibly other interfaith dialogues too. In this instance, the potential for misunderstanding and the polarising of positions is enormous.
The content of Jewish-Christian dialogue takes most of us out of our comfort zone, one way or the other, whether it is ideological or theological discussion, or just people challenged to remain patient when discussing issues of passion and deeply held difference. Moreover, we are increasingly faced with a need to justify the dialogue in the first place. There are many critics who think it has either failed, run its course, become too political or works to silence radical voices.
Dialogue takes on depth and purpose when it engages with those with whom we disagree. Genuine dialogue takes time and trust and it takes a sustained effort to truly listen to 'others' especially when patience seems to be in short supply. This is, then, a call for Greenbelt and the Christian community to take risks with dialogue and to be open to more engagement, not less, with Jewish perspectives and anxieties.