Keeler, Jewish Leaders and Jerusalem

March 26, 1995|By FRANK P. L. SOMERVILLE

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."

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