Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Rome and Jerusalem

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Jeremy Jones


"Rome and Jerusalem", for many readers of this column, will evoke the groundbreaking work by Moses Hess published in 1862, which greatly influenced left-wing thinking on the re-establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel.

In December 2017, these cities each hosted a significant event, both of which would have been unimaginable 75, let alone 150, years ago.

The first took place in Jerusalem, where a delegation representing Orthodox Christian Churches met with the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC). The latter organisation was established in 1971 to provide the Jewish world with an appropriate body to engage with the Catholic Church when that body reached out after the Second Vatican Council.

The meeting with the Orthodox leaders marked the 40th year since the first high level encounter and was remarkable for a number of reasons, the first being that the meeting took place at all. The Orthodox do not have the structure, let alone doctrines, which would encourage a framework to allow an ongoing exploration of common concerns with world Jewry.

The second remarkable feature was the presence throughout the discussions of His All Holiness Pope Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Orthodox Christianity.

A towering intellect and a compassionate leader, he not only took part in the discussions but was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Hebrew University during the conference proceedings.

The subject matter was also significant - an in-depth study of the importance of Jerusalem in Judaism and Christianity - but perhaps the most remarkable feature was the atmosphere of genuine warmth and fellowship.

Tough issues were discussed, but always in a civil and constructive manner.

In informal discussions, a broad range of concerns was canvassed, including the position of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, trends in society militating against public expressions of religion and, given the coincidence of the meeting with Donald Trump's announcement on Jerusalem, the vexed question of how to bring about a better future for the peoples of the region.

It was refreshing to be in a dialogue where everyone seemed interested in what others had to say, yet no one came with the expectation that they were there to "win" an argument.

A smaller delegation of IJCIC representatives subsequently took part in a series of consultations in Vatican City.

Whether meeting Cardinals, Archbishops, Monsignors or other men of the cloth, an atmosphere not just of cordiality but of friendship was pervasive.

Serious issues affecting the relationship between Christians and Jews, and between people of religion and broader society, were canvassed, but tension was completely absent.

In some discussions the focus was on process and in others on policy - with the overall emphasis on the way in which the relationship had developed from one in which we were coming to know each other to one in which we were seeking active means of collaboration and cooperation.

After a series of high level meetings with senior Vatican officials, what was possibly the highlight of the December dialogues took place when we met with Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

After the Cardinal gave a beautiful homily on the need for us all to serve as lights in a time of darkness in world affairs, we convened for a ceremony to allow delegates to observe the first night of the festival of Chanukah. After the Cardinal lit the Shamas, the candle from which others are lit, and Rabbi Daniel Polish made sure the first of the candles was burning brightly, Rabbi David Rosen led the gathering of clergy, diplomats, Jewish leaders and friends of dialogue for a round of joyful singing and the consumption of traditional Chanukah foods.

As Rabbi Polish said, it is doubtful the grandparents of any of those present would have imagined not just the ceremony, but the atmosphere in which it took place. If nothing else, this is testimony of the important work of IJCIC and its dialogue partners.