Islamic anti-Semitism is increasing. Roman Catholic leaders are eerily silent about Mel Gibson’s filmed Passion play and its negative portrayal of Jews. Southern Baptists are reaffirming their call to convert Jews.
Stepping into this current state of interfaith affairs comes David Elcott, who this week assumes the post of U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
But Elcott, a 54-year-old California native who has spent most of his career in Jewish communal work, says he’s excited to assume the post, which has been vacant for a year.
"I didn’t need this job in my life, but it feels like a calling," Elcott said during a phone interview Monday.
Husband to Shira Milgrom, a prominent Reform rabbi in Westchester, Elcott spent from 1975 to 1984 developing Jewish and interfaith programs at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, home to noted Reform Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Elcott, whose mother was hidden by a righteous German during Kristallnacht, was academic vice president at CLAL, the Center for Learning and Leadership, between 1984 and 1999.
Most recently he was an organizational consultant for Jewish institutions.
Elcott studied Islam at UCLA and wrote a master’s thesis on Arab nationalism at Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in political psychology in 1981.
He plans to spend his first weeks meeting new colleagues and building relationships, but he shared his thoughts on the renewed importance of interfaith dialogue in the world.
"When I was I graduate school the consensus was by the year 2000, religion would be an insignificant factor in political life," he explained. "Needless to say they were all so profoundly wrong. The collapse of all other systems has left religion as being hugely important" for Islam, Hindus, Evangelicals and Jews.
He touched on several complicated interfaith issues facing the Jewish community.
Regarding Islam, Elcott acknowledged the intense internal debate within AJCommittee over which Muslim groups are legitimate to dialogue with, and under what conditions.
"It’s an issue of how cautious you need to be. I’m fundamentally committed to the state of Israel, so those who would seek its destruction ÖI don’t know what type of dialogue I can be in with them.
"We may find no one with which to speak," which he said would be ultimately self-defeating.
Regarding religious violence, he said one "can’t counter fundamentalist religion with secularism. You have to counter it with a massive outpouring of religious goodness."
On Gibson’s movie, "The Passion," Eclott says some Jewish leaders may be overreacting. "How many people are going to see a movie in Aramaic and Latin? To some extent we have to let the Christian community battle this."
On Evangelical Christians, Elcott said Jews "have much to learn from them in terms of faith and community building. Their support of Israel has been marvelous," and despite the conversion issue, "the fact is there has been an enormous love for Jews."
Elcott says he wants to expand relations with the fast-growing Mormons. "It’s critical. They have reached out to the Jewish community in a whole variety of ways."
He also plans to build relationships with various American ethnic groups through their faiths: Latinos, through Catholicism, African Americans through Baptist churches.