By Rev Dr Matthew Wilson, Co-Convenor UCA-ECAJ Dialogue
The National Dialogue of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) has met 45 times since 1991. The Dialogue was established when tensions arose between the Uniting Church and the Jewish community in relation to the political situation in Israel-Palestine. Then Chief Rabbi of the Sydney Great Synagogue, Raymond Apple, and then President of the Uniting Church Rev Dr D‘arcy Wood thought it would be of benefit for representatives of the two communities to sit down and talk through their concerns together, and so the National Dialogue was born.
For the past decade or so the usual practice is two meetings a year, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, as these are the cities with the two largest Jewish communities. Meetings are hosted alternately by the ECAJ and UCA. The UCA dialogue group has consisted of 6-8 people appointed through the Assembly. The Jewish group is appointed through the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and over the years has consisted of officers and life-members of that Council as well as Rabbis and Jewish community leaders from Sydney and Melbourne.
Over the years, discussions have included a range of issues of interest to the Jewish and Uniting Church communities. Often meetings include studying scripture – most frequently Hebrew bible texts which we share in common, but in recent years we have also begun looking at New Testament texts which relate to both communities.
This has led to growing awareness both of what we share in common, and of our different understandings of text, ranging from a very similar understanding of stories like Jonah and Ruth, to vastly different interpretations of texts like Genesis 3. Being able to appreciate how differently we can view the same texts has helped to understand how our communities can find ways to work together in our differences of opinion.
The Dialogue has also discussed a range of contemporary issues in Australian society – including the role of religion and state, Indigenous relations and experience, issues relating to terrorism, asylum-seeker policy, anti-discrimination legislation, same gender marriage and religious freedom in Australia. Alongside this, is a continuing discussion of the experience of antisemitism in Australia, the relationship between Christians and Jews (and increasingly in the past 20 years Muslims), and the ongoing concerns over Israel and Palestine.
Over the years the experience of the Dialogue has contributed directly or indirectly to a number of statements and policies of the Assembly including Jews and Judaism (2009), Living with the Neighbour who is Different (2000), Friendship in the Presence of Difference (2012). The shared experience of conversation and the mutual understanding and commitment to building relationships has contributed to ongoing discussions and statements regarding Israel/ Palestine. This issue in particular has often been a source of tension and difficulty in the ongoing life of the dialogue, however the relationship between the two communities has grown and matured over the years to a point where our differences of opinion and feeling can be heard and respected – if not agreed with – within a relationship of mutual trust and respect.
The Dialogue can is challenging at times. Often there is great conversation, but little in terms of definable results. However, the greatest contribution dialogue continues to make is building relationship between the UCA and the Jewish communities. It is also a formal and informal conduit for communication. While the relationship can be impacted actions or statements of governments and organisations, the dialogue provides a channel of personal relationship, mutual respect and trust that allows tensions to be diffused, griefs to be heard and information to flow. Serving on the dialogue as member and convenor has been, and continues to be a privilege.