Last week’s vote by the Episcopal Church of America to reject divestment from Israel didn’t simply happen in a vacuum. It was the culmination of renewed efforts by Jewish organizations to engage the mainline Protestant churches.
Last month I traveled to Israel with a group of Christians for the first time. The experience has convinced me that interfaith missions not only can turn the tide against divestment, they can also serve as a springboard for strengthened Jewish-Christian relations and effective advocacy for peace in the region.
The joint trip, organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, was no ordinary interfaith visit. Our 13 Christian companions were all mainline Protestant clergy from communities throughout the United States, each of them paired with a Jewish community-relations professional or lay leader. Unlike evangelicals, whose support for the Jewish state is virtually automatic, these Christians belong to the liberal denominations that, as the Episcopalian vote indicated, have been considering divestment as a means of pressuring Israel to remove its security barrier and withdraw fully to the 1967 borders.
Notably, some of our fellow travelers admitted they were hesitant to visit Israel on a trip sponsored by a “Zionist” organization; two of the Presbyterians were even chastised by members of their own congregations for allowing themselves to be “propagandized.” After the first couple of days, however, any doubts among these Protestants about the integrity of the program seemed to have been erased.
True, we heard the “Israel has no peace partner on the Palestinian side” perspective — a view progressive Christians tend to dismiss — from Yossi Klein Halevi, foreign correspondent for The New Republic, and Yossi Ben Aharon, former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Yitzhak Shamir. But in stark contrast to these voices on the right was a cogent presentation by Naomi Chazan, a former left-wing Knesset member now teaching political science at Hebrew University.
Chazan’s talk was followed by a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinish, who emphasized the need for Israel to strike a proper balance between national security and civil liberties. (As if to underscore the point, the next day a panel of Israeli justices ruled for the second time that the government must reroute a section of the security barrier that, in the court’s view, has imposed undue hardships on Palestinians living in the area.) Our group also met with Israeli Arabs in Umm El-Fahm who complained of being relegated to “second-class” socioeconomic status and with Palestinian academics in Jerusalem who claimed that a majority of their people are ready for true reconciliation with the Israelis.
Not only were our Christian colleagues struck by the bewildering diversity of perspectives to which they were exposed — including a few that we Jewish participants found unsettling — they were also learning firsthand that Israeli democracy, while far from perfect, is as vibrant as our system back home. After all, where else in the Middle East can the citizens of a county so freely and openly debate their government’s policies?
Most importantly, the first-timers in our group were seeing and hearing things that challenged some of their preconceptions about the conflict. Traveling north on Highway 6, for example, they were able to observe that the “separation wall” is, in fact, mostly a chain-link fence and that a formerly porous border with no fence meant a suicide bomber could literally walk from the Palestinian town of Qalqilya to the Israeli town of Kfar Saba in 15 minutes.
A subsequent discussion on the Israeli disengagement from Gaza also proved to be especially enlightening. During a private dinner at Kibbutz Ein Gev, the head of the Disengagement Authority, Yonatan Bassi, empathetically portrayed the evacuated Gaza settlers not as the wide-eyed fanatics seen routinely on CNN, but as fellow human beings struggling with a personal tragedy. For some in our group, it was only at that moment that they finally understood the anguish of the families that had been uprooted.
One need only listen to the Christian leaders’ thoughts on their visit to realize the value — and necessity — of reengaging Protestant denominations in dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I arrived to the point where I realized how little I really know about the situation here — it’s humbling,” remarked Carol, a Lutheran pastor from San Jose, Calif.
“I was pushed to consider the many opinions offered and wasn’t allowed to settle for shallow complacency,” added David, a minister from South Florida and the only Methodist in the group. Several of his fellow travelers admitted they would be processing the conflicting images and voices for a long time to come.
And as for their views on divestment? Two Presbyterian pastors who supported divestment before the trip confided in me that they now questioned the wisdom of such a one-sided strategy. David, a clergyman from St. Louis, went even further, calling the United Church of Christ’s recent vote in favor of divestment “a serious mistake.”
But none said it better than Mark, a pastor from Louisville, where the pro-divestment Presbyterian Church (USA) is based: “Better to invest in the peacemaking process than do something punitive.”
And better, I would add, for the American Jewish community to invest in similar interfaith missions to Israel than downgrade our relations with the mainline Protestant churches.
Robert Horenstein is community-relations director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Ore.