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Covenant of conversation

Earlier this year when I read about — and then read — the “Zionism Unsettled” report on sources of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I knew that it would cause more hard feelings between Presbyterians and Jews.

The report from the Israel-Palestine Mission Network did just that. So before the General Assembly met in Detroit in June, I asked a rabbi friend and a Muslim friend to come to my congregation to talk about their views of the Middle East.

I asked them not to focus on the new report, though clearly it was the occasion for our gathering. They came and it was helpful to hear the perspectives of two people with differing views who, nonetheless, respect each other.

After the tight General Assembly vote to divest from three U.S. companies that the adopted resolution said were profiting from “non-peaceful pursuits” related to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, I knew the Jewish community would react with some anger and distress. That happened, too.

What I didn’t expect was that a Jewish friend would call me and ask for a chance to talk with him and another Jewish friend about an idea he had that related to all this.

So we talked. But he didn’t want to talk about “Zionism Unsettled.” He didn’t want to talk about the continuing Israeli-Palestinian troubles or Hamas or Jewish settlements in occupied territories or anti-Semitism among Presbyterians. Instead, he wanted to talk about finding ways for Jews and Presbyterians to get together on a regular basis to get to know one another and to understand each other’s faith traditions and beliefs better.

There have been some efforts at that in the past in the Kansas City area, where I live, and they’ve born some good fruit. But those efforts involved mostly pastors and rabbis, not folks in the pews.

This time my friend wanted members of Jewish and Presbyterian congregations to have a chance to look each other in the eye and talk from the heart about what they held sacred and why.

So we’ve started down that road. And I tell you this because my hope is that you’ll explore a similar path.

We’ve met with our presbytery executive and have drawn from him words of support for the concept. And we’ve sought the help of a fabulous Jewish scholar who has experience in creating this kind of conversation between Jews and non-Jews.

How far we’ll get I cannot tell you, but I’m glad we’re making this effort and my hope is that it will give both Presbyterians and Jews a chance to understand each other better.

Will it mean, after a year or two of conversations, that members of both groups will resolve all differences between them? Of course not.

But it may mean that when Jews hear about Presbyterians at the national level doing this or that, they’ll have a better idea about our polity, our internal differences, our hopes. And, in turn, Presbyterians will understand more fully how together and how divided the Jewish community can be about some matters. In the end, maybe we’ll regard each other simply as fellow human beings.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at