Cardinal William H. Keeler demonstrated his diplomatic skills as well as his concern for amicable interfaith discussion in his March 13 meeting with a group of American Jews, invited to his Baltimore home after their explosive reaction to a statement he had signed the week before.
The climate for discussion was improved, but core disagreements remain unresolved.
The criticized statement was issued March 6 by the cardinal and seven other Christian leaders as a public appeal to President Clinton. It accused the administration of "failing to recognize and support Palestinian rights and interests in Jerusalem."
The letter asked the U.S. government -- in its role as "facilitator" in the Middle East peace process -- to place the future of Jerusalem "higher on its agenda."
It did not mince words about what the signers called "the creation of facts on the ground." The letter said: "In contravention of international law, more and more land is taken out of Palestinian hands and placed under Israeli control by annexation, expropriation, and private purchases, often coercive or of questionable legality."
The day that the letter was made public, the American Jewish Committee countered that "it is a seriously flawed, one-sided, and incomplete document, lacking in any context whatsoever, that does a disservice to the quest for an enduring Arab-Israeli peace."
The Christian signers were asked: "Where in the statement is the recognition of Israel's praiseworthy efforts to provide full access and care for all of Jerusalem's Holy Places -- Jewish, Christian and Islamic -- since Israel united Jerusalem in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War?"
Then the Jewish committee got to the heart of the matter:
"The statement falsely equates the Jewish religious devotion to Jerusalem with Christian and Islamic ties to the city. They are not the same. While recognizing the Christian and Islamic links to Jerusalem, the Jewish attachment to the Holy City is 3,000 years old -- the anniversary to be celebrated next year -- and the city, the eternal and undivided capital of Israel, is at the center of Jewish identity and faith."
It is an ancient and divisive refrain.
Tommy P. Baer, international president of B'nai B'rith, the
world's largest Jewish organization, accused Cardinal Keeler and the other Christian spokesmen of attempting "to insert themselves in the active and ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians" and said the Christians' statement was "itself an attempt to 'create facts' which can only work to the detriment of the peace process."
Into this caldron of ill will, Cardinal Keeler attempted -- as John Greenleaf Whittier might have put it -- to bring the still, small voice of calm.
Temporarily at least, the cardinal succeeded.
Immediately after his meeting with Jewish leaders, who included national spokesmen for B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee, the Baltimore churchman issued what he called a clarification of "the context" in which he had signed the original letter to President Clinton.
This clarification repeated previous public acknowledgments by the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic Conference of "the commitment of Israel to the peace process and the risks it takes to pursue peace."
The Jewish parties to the cardinal's reconciliation effort were pleased and somewhat mollified.
Typical was the reaction of New York Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, who said that Cardinal Keeler -- first at the Baltimore meeting and subsequently in his "Letter to Jewish Leaders" -- had rightly called attention to "the bravery of Israel" and its pursuit of peace.
But the rabbi added pointedly: "Why wasn't this included in the original statement?"
'Still out there'
Michael C. Kotzin, director of Chicago's Jewish Community Relations Council, while praising "the tone and thrust of the meeting" in Cardinal Keeler's Charles Street residence, issued a cautionary reminder that the original March 6 document signed by the eight Christian spokesmen "is still out there, and some people will be citing it."
Indeed, the signers themselves are citing it.
Despite the balm of March 13, the cardinal and his Christian colleagues continue to challenge Jewish assumptions.
On Monday, in a speech at Loyola College, Cardinal Keeler urged "greater sensitivity" to the concerns of the Christian minority in the Holy Land as the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks progress.
Against the background of the American Jewish Committee's insistent reference to "3,000 years" of Jewish attachment to Jerusalem as "the eternal and undivided capital of Israel" and "center of Jewish identity and faith," Cardinal Keeler spoke of 110,000 Christians in Israel and 60,000 Christians in the occupied territories whose forebears "have been there almost 2,000 years."
"And now," the cardinal said, "they feel neglected."
Even in his March 13 Letter to Jewish leaders, Cardinal Keeler reminded them that "what occasioned the Christian statement remains the substance of the issue."
It is, he said, "the increasing fear expressed to us by Christians in the area that certain 'developments on the ground' in and around Jerusalem might preclude vital aspects of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Thus, it was to preserve the peace process being carried out by the principals in the region that we felt we had to raise our voice within the American arena."
The March 6 signers -- who included Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos and American Friends Service Committee director Kara Newell -- made it clear that they would stand by the original statement. There has not been total support in the Christian group for the cardinal's unilateral concessions to the Jewish leaders.
After the March 13 meeting, the cardinal wrote: "The respect Israel has shown over the years for the religiously pluralistic nature of its citizenry, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, as embodied in its adherence to the traditional status quo and most recently in the language of the Fundamental Accord between the Holy See and the State of Israel, is to be praised."
Commented the Rev. Brian Grieves of the Episcopal Church, an adviser to Bishop Browning, "We would have real problems with that."
A New York spokesman for the Episcopalians reissued a commentary by Bishop Browning, originally written a little over a year ago, in which he said in part: "While I condemn extremism and violence on all sides, Israel cannot justify a policy that arms settlers, creating a paramilitary force in the territories. . . . The truth is that Israel has a shameful human rights record through its years of occupation. I know it, my government knows it, the world knows it and it is a disgrace to deny the offer of international protection for one more day."
The Rev. Mark B. Brown of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs in Washington, an adviser to Bishop Chilstrom, said he was "quite comfortable" with Cardinal Keeler's clarifying letter -- up to a point.
Pastor Brown said "the context" of the March 6 letter to President Clinton, as described by the cardinal, is incomplete. It should include, the Lutheran spokesman said, alarm over U.S. government moves -- in concert with Israel -- to deny the legitimate claims of Christians and Muslims to Jerusalem.
The pastor referred to a letter to the president last October, signed by 279 members of the House of Representatives, in which they stated flatly, "Jerusalem is the capital of only one country, Israel, and we urge you to implement a policy that does not in any way support a Palestinian claim to the city."
The only member of the Maryland delegation at the time who did not sign this letter was Democrat Kweisi Mfume.
Pastor Brown said continued support by heavy majorities in both the Senate and the House for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to 14 leased acres in Jerusalem was another example of back-door efforts to preclude future Christian and Muslim roles in governing the Holy City.
Such congressional interference with the the peace process could derail it, the Lutheran pastor warned.
Jerome Chanes of the National Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, who had a key role in arranging the March 13 meeting at Cardinal Keeler's residence, said its chief accomplishment was the re-establishment of a spirit of Jewish-Christian friendliness and cooperation.
Despite an honest realization that the two sides are far short of agreement on the future of Jerusalem, Mr. Chanes said, the Jewish leaders were justifiably upset over the lack of consultation with them before issuance of the Christian statement.
This prompted Father Grieves of the Episcopal Church to ask: "Do the Jewish leaders sit down with Christian groups before issuing statements or lobbying?"
But Cardinal Keeler's efforts were seen on all sides as a commendable contribution toward interfaith good will. He said his motive was a hope shared with the other Christian leaders that "when finally the settlement comes, Christians will have a voice with respect to their own civil and religious rights."
Jews and Christians have a long way to go. The March 6 statement is clear evidence of this.
Describing themselves as "representative leaders of Christian communions and organizations in the United States with strong ties to the Middle East," the eight signers told the president, "Israel's assertion that Jerusalem will remain the 'eternal and undivided capital of Israel' is widely interpreted as a claim of exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the city that pre-empts genuine negotiation."
The other signers were the Very Rev. Gerald L. Brown, a Sulpician priest who is president of the Roman Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes; Metropolitan Philip Saliba of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and Robert A. Seiple, president of World Vision.
Frank P. L. Somerville is the religion reporter for The Baltimore Sun.