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Interfaith Trip to Holy Land Mends Ties Between Jews and Protestants

A mission to Jerusalem by national Jewish and Protestant leaders may not have changed minds, but it seems to have opened hearts. The five-day “Jerusalem Peace Pilgrimage,” which ended Sept. 22, took place against a backdrop of tense relations between Jews and Protestants due to Protestant churches’ consideration of economic sanctions against Israel.

But the faiths have found renewed cause for cooperation, issuing a joint statement upon the trip’s conclusion.

“We have demonstrated that Christians and Jews can work together to seek peace even when there is disagreement on specific policies and solutions,” the statement reads. “As a result of these days, we will now be even more effective advocates for a secure, viable and independent Palestinian state alongside an equally secure State of Israel, affirming the historic links that both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have to the land.”

Those words went a long way toward soothing Jewish officials and keeping the door open for dialogue.

The Presbyterian Church USA first took up the issue of divestment last summer, proposing to drop holdings in companies that profit from Israel’s West Bank security barrier or its presence in the territories, or that support violence against innocent civilians on either side of the conflict.

The move surprised and outraged Jewish officials, who called the act a misguided and unfair peace strategy. It also paved the way for other mainline Protestant churches to consider divestment from Israel.

As a result, Jewish-Protestant dialogue has intensified over the past year, culminating in last week’s mission, the first to bring such broad representation of Jewish and Protestant groups to Israel.

It also came on the heels of a weeklong trip to Israel for local Jewish and Protestant leaders from across the United States, sponsored by the United Jewish Communities’ federation umbrella group and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The national mission drew 17 leaders from eight Christian denominations and six Jewish organizations, comprised of defense groups and religious movements.

Stops included visits to a Jerusalem café that had suffered a suicide bombing, Israel’s Supreme Court, Yad Vashem, the security fence and meetings with Christian leaders and Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Protestants and Jews split the programming responsibility, allowing for a more inclusive narrative, participants said.

“I think we all came away with a sense that we’re working with colleagues who have open minds and who are willing to talk about the situation and all of its really hard human realities,” said Jay Rock, coordinator for interfaith relations for the Presbyterian Church USA.

The trip served as “a reminder of how complicated the whole situation is,” he said.

“Conversation hasn’t been very easy, and this trip actually made it possible for us to sit on the bus together and have some conversations together,” Rock said. “Where that will lead us, I think it’s too soon to tell, but I certainly feel positive about it.”

The purpose of the trip was to improve communication, not to reverse divestment, which will continue to be a source of conflict, said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

The Jewish delegation gained a better understanding of Palestinian suffering, and the Christian leaders appreciated Jewish ties to the land of Israel and “the difficult choices that Israel has to wrestle with every day,” Foltin said.

One meeting in particular captured the essence of the friction between Jews and Protestants. That was an encounter with Naim Ateek, who directs the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, which the Anti-Defamation League has called the driving force behind the divestment movement.

“Those people and those churches that use Sabeel’s writings and theology to support their political point of view potentially may be considered accessories in the advancement of anti-Semitic theology,” the ADL said in a statement after the meeting.

Ateek told the group that a Jewish homeland should have existed in Germany, not in the Holy Land, according to Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL’s director of interfaith affairs.

That “cuts to the core of who we are,” Bretton-Granatoor said, referring to the Jewish people’s historic and religious ties to the land of Israel.

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, has a different take on Ateek, who he said advocates non-violence and is open to dialogue with the Jewish community.

“I think it’s a mistake for my Jewish colleagues to try to isolate and discredit Naim, and I hope that they won’t do that,” he said. Calling Ateek a “respected voice” among Palestinian and American Christians, Winkler said “he is not anti-Israel, and it’s unfair to make him out to be.”

But Sabeel’s brand of “liberation theology,” which presents a stark picture of Palestinian victims and Israeli oppressors, exemplifies the reliance on simplistic analyses of complex problems, Bretton-Granatoor said. Most participants on the trip came to realize that simple answers like divestment won’t fix complicated problems, he said.

As part of the group’s joint statement, they agreed to expand interfaith dialogue and work together to press for a two-state solution.

According to Winkler, “Most of the people on the trip already had significant personal experience or background with the situation there, and so I don’t think that there was probably for most of us any dramatic transformation,” he said. “What I had hoped for, and I think happened for me, was quantity and quality time to deepen personal relationships with friends and colleagues, both Jews and Christians.”

While the trip for national leaders helped repair tension, the weeklong trip preceding it, sponsored by the JCPA and the UJC, may have gone further toward influencing the opinions of less seasoned participants.

Take the experience of the Rev. Mark Baridon, pastor of Louisville’s Central Presbyterian Church. Baridon initially thought divestment seemed like a good idea, but the trip to Israel reinforced his feeling that investing in education and economic development for the region makes more sense.

Baridon said he now will be more outspoken against divestment.

“We don’t have to follow what our denominational leaders say anyway,” he said. “We need to be more balanced in realizing that there’s been some real suffering on both sides and to appreciate the strides that Israel has made in making an inclusive democracy.”

Additionally, Baridon realized for the first time that some people oppose the existence of the State of Israel. After seeing how Israel has provided a homeland for refugees, he wants churches to make stronger statements of support for Israel’s existence and policies, he said.

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