Last February, I joined eleven Christian clergy, one Muslim lay leader, and six Jewish leaders on an interfaith mission to Israel sponsored by the Connecticut office of the Anti-Defamation League. I knew from our pre-trip meetings that the non-Jews among us—just about all of them politically liberal—had a rather superficial knowledge of Israeli life, and that the attraction of some to “liberation theology”—which focuses on Jesus Christ not only as the redeemer but also the liberator of the oppressed—predisposed them to identify with Palestinian suffering. And while they wished to be respectful of Jewish sensibilities, whenever they felt Israelis (whom some perceived as the modern incarnation of the people of the Bible) did not live up to a higher standard of moral conduct, they were not very forgiving of the Jewish state.
Could nine days in Israel change their preconceptions?
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On arrival, it became clear that the reality of Israel was very different than my non-Jewish colleagues had anticipated. Much to their surprise, they saw a thriving democracy with a very free press, independent judicial system, and a diverse and highly opinionated citizenry. Many of the Israelis we met were openly critical of their leaders. For example, Hirsch Goodman, former editor of the Jerusalem Post and now an author and fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, spoke to us with brutal honesty about the inexperience of the current Israeli government; its inept handling of the Second Lebanon War, conducted in haste and by generals behind computers rather than at the front with their troops; and its missed opportunities for dialogue with Palestinians. He was equally critical of the factionalized Palestinian leadership. Like others with whom we would meet, Goodman painted a very bleak picture of the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace as long as Hamas stays in power and there’s no one who can speak for the Palestinian side.
While every member of our group reacted differently to what they heard, as a whole they seemed unprepared for the self-analysis and open debate that is a hallmark of Israeli society. Unfortunately, the American media rarely broadcasts the diversity of Israeli opinion, preferring instead to quote government officials or those representing one “side” or another.
In Israel, the most visible symbol of the gap between Israelis and Palestinians is the so-called “separation barrier.” Before the mission, many members of our group had strongly opposed it. One of the group members, a Presbyterian, had no understanding of its defensive function, seeing it solely as a ploy by an occupying power to grab land and redefine the border. And he was proud that he had voted at the Presbyterian 2004 General Assembly in favor of a resolution that called for “a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” A subsequent Presbyterian resolution in 2006 softened the original one, but he stood by his original vote, saying “money talks,” and the original resolution “got Israel’s attention.”
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In Israel, our group heard more nuanced perspectives on the barrier. For example, Gidi Grinstein of the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, explained that for many Palestinians, killing Israelis is a justifiable means of resistance, and that the most immediate and least aggressive way Israel can defend herself is to separate her citizens from those who want to kill them. This point was demonstrated dramatically at the Ha’Emek Medical Center, where we met Tal Peretz, a young woman in her twenties, who on the first day of her new job as a security officer at a local mall was severely injured when she tried to stop a suicide bomber who had entered Jerusalem from nearby Jenin and then detonated his bomb. This attack had occurred before the building of the barrier, and her emotional story was a dramatic reminder of the vital role the fence plays in protecting Israelis from terrorism. As Tal pointed out, between 2000 and 2004, 900 Israelis were killed in 19,000 terrorist attacks. Since construction of the barrier began, we were told, the number of attacks has been reduced by 90%. Also, the group learned that the government’s decision to erect the barrier had caused considerable soul-searching among the populace—and that mixed feelings linger today.
Afterwards, I sensed a change in the group’s attitude. While they continued to show concern about the barrier’s impact on the lives of Palestinians, there was now a recognition that the disruption it caused needed to be weighed against the state’s obligation to protect its citizens. As for my Presbyterian colleague, in an article that he wrote for his local newspaper upon his return from the trip, he described the barrier in a way that was far more nuanced and fair than the views he had expressed at the beginning of our journey. It was a small but important step toward understanding the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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Other “aha” moments. One was a visit to the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv, where the group learned the story of the founding of Israel and the immediate attack on the fledgling state by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and a token force from Saudi Arabia. Israel’s history had been essentially unknown to the non-Jewish participants; now, here we were, in a relatively small room in a rather nondescript building where the new Jewish state was officially launched. I had seen the photos of Ben Gurion reading the Declaration of Independence with the portrait of Theodor Herzl behind him a thousand times, but when I walked into this room and saw it preserved as it was that day in May 1948, I burst into tears just thinking about what made Israel necessary and what this tiny state has accomplished despite the ongoing attempts to wipe her off the map. My clergy friends standing next to me were startled by my reaction, but as we began to talk about that place, their eyes filled with tears as well. At that moment, the reality of Israel and the struggle of her people for independence were no longer abstractions.
And there was our trip to Yad Vashem. Frankly, I’d been somewhat apprehensive about visiting the national Holocaust Memorial Museum. Would the Christian clergy think we were trying to change their views on Israel by using guilt tactics? In addition, I did not want them to come away with the inaccurate and problematic conclusion that Israel was the good that came out of the Holocaust. Thankfully, Yad Vashem helps visitors understand that a homeland for Jews became an urgent necessity after World War II. As so often happens when visiting such a place, one tends to walk though Yad Vashem in silence. As we neared the end of the exhibits, one member of our group asked me, with tears running down her cheeks, “What would have happened if there had been an Israel before the Holocaust? How many Jews would have been saved? And, what would have happened had there had been no place for the survivors to go after the war?” She continued, “Now I understand what it means to have a place where one can feel safe and is free simply to ‘be.’ To me, that place is what one calls ‘home.’”
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Interestingly, the three African American clergy on our trip were the first to understand the need for a Jewish homeland. Arthur Miller, a deacon in the Hartford Diocese of the Catholic Church, told our group that his difficult experiences as an African American growing up in Chicago convinced him that he does not have a homeland in the United States. His family tree includes a Jew, an American Indian, and ancestors from Africa; this lineage, coupled with the discrimination he witnessed growing up, causes him to ask what place is truly his home. Where will he be fully accepted? He has not yet found that place. It is for this reason, he said, that even though he remains deeply concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, he understands the need for a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel and says he will do all he can to support the beleaguered Jewish state.
At first, the Rev. Shelley Copeland found it difficult to understand the passion of the Zionist perspective “because for African Americans the idea of having a God-given home is something we can’t fathom,” she said. “In Black theology we are taught that we do not have a home here on earth.” She came to see that “there is something inherent in Jewish faith and culture that gives a person a love and rootedness in the land and that does give you a certain soulful security. That is a beautiful thing.”
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One of the more difficult aspects of planning this mission was how to help participants grasp the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being in dialogue with Palestinians. Traveling to the territories is, at present, almost impossible for a group, and yet we wanted to hear from Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Also, we wanted the group to better understand that what Palestinian leaders say in English is often far different than what they say in Arabic.
In Israel’s north, we met with Hanna Sweid, a Knesset member and a Christian Arab from Nazareth. Sweid candidly explained the complex relationship between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, who see themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel. He was very critical of the Israeli government, which he told us has done little to correct the growing disparity in funding disbursed to Jewish communities and Israeli Arab villages. At the same time, he found fault with the Palestinian leadership for its corruption and for turning more and more toward radical Islam. He, too, saw little hope for peace in the immediate future, but insisted that Israel must act immediately to close the economic gap between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, lest the former turn to radical Islam.
We were also able to meet with Elias Zananiri, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who has worked with Yossi Beilin on the so-called “Geneva Peace Initiative” and one of a relatively small group of Palestinians actively working to bring about peace between the two parties. He told the group outright about the true intentions of the Hamas leadership: despite what they may say publicly to the world, in Arabic they preach hatred of Israel and call for the destruction of the Jewish state. He also explained that for many Palestinian leaders a two-state solution is only the first step toward driving the Jews out of “greater Palestine.”
Toward the end of our trip we met with Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli writer and senior fellow of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research and educational institute. It’s important, he said, for Israelis and Palestinians to understand the “narrative” of the other and to relate individually to one another. One of our group members asked him what the Christian community can do, and he encouraged the Christians present to speak out on Israel in a nuanced way. Currently, he said, Christians tend to fall into two extreme camps—those for whom Israel is the reincarnation of Nazi Germany and those for whom Israel can do no wrong—and neither position is helpful. “Open your hearts to the suffering on both sides,” he said, “and do so without accepting simplistic and often false explanations, such as both sides are responsible for the current situation.” For example, he said, it is easy to accept the Palestinian charge that the world has ignored them. In reality, they have had more support than almost any other people in the world. We must ask: what has been done with that aid? No hospitals have been built, no schools have been constructed, and little of the funding has helped ordinary people—instead, the bulk of the money has gone to support terrorism and into Swiss bank accounts.
Listening to Elias Zananiri and Hanna Sweid, coupled with the Israeli assessments, my colleagues began to see the Palestinian situation as it is: multifaceted and extraordinarily complicated.
Indeed, our group experienced firsthand the complex, volatile political landscape of Israel. As we stood on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University and looked out over the Old City, we heard what sounded like gunfire amidst frantic voices broadcast from loudspeakers atop many of the neighboring mosques. Quickly we learned this was a protest regarding excavations at the construction site of a new bridge leading to the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount. What had started out as necessary construction to replace a bridge which had collapsed under the weight of winter snow turned into an international incident, with Palestinians accusing Israelis of trying to undermine the Temple Mount itself. The sounds we heard were the pops of teargas guns and Muslim clerics calling the faithful to defend their holy site. It was a striking lesson for our group—how the simplest matter can become so convoluted in this troubled part of the world.
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Spending time together driving through the countryside and walking the streets, we saw Israel as a real country…populated by real people trying to live their lives as normally as possible, from shopping in the crowded outdoor markets to participating in Shabbat services at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. Ordinary people such as these have accomplished amazing things. The Israeli economy is flourishing. Israel is home to some of the best educational and research institutions in the world, its scientists are discovering cures for diseases, the desert has been made to bloom, and Israel holds the second highest number of patents per capita in the world—all in only sixty years, and despite not having lived a day without the threat of a terrorist attack. This was the “real” Israel the clergy had never known.
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Our group returned to Connecticut and each of us resumed our lives. Several weeks later we met to share our thoughts, impressions, and reflections. We were handed a stack of pictures and asked to choose one that best expressed a significant moment or memory during our travels together. While many participants picked photographs of Christian religious sites, the choice of others was a pleasant surprise—the woman and child at the outdoor market, an Israeli soldier standing at a bus stop, an overview of Yad Vashem. Group members spoke of their newfound understanding of the complexities of Israeli life, why Israel is so important to Jews, and why the country must remain strong and vibrant. I was astonished by the lack of any criticism and their acknowledgment of Israel’s accomplishments.
Much to the surprise of my fellow travelers, when it was my turn I chose a picture taken in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the Old City—the site where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified. In all my many trips to Israel, I explained, I had never visited the Christian sites. I was moved to tears listening to one of my Christian friends read the “Sermon on the Mount” (which Jesus of Nazareth had delivered to his disciples and a large crowd on a mountainside) as we stood on the Mount of Beatitudes and looked out over the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. And when my Christian colleagues sang Gospel music on the shore of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist had baptized Jesus, I found myself singing along. Though the singing was spontaneous, those leading it were careful to choose old and very inclusive African American music. And for both the group’s only Muslim (Dr. Saud Anwar, a lay leader) and I, the group’s song helped us to understand what this ancient Holy Land means to Christians and how so much of our history is theirs as well.
Being in Israel changed the way my colleagues perceived the Jewish state, and seeing Israel through their eyes changed me, too. I have come to realize that God dwells among us when we create an opening for God. And traveling together in the spirit of person-to-person dialogue in a land sacred to us all is an extraordinary first step in understanding the inner religious lives of the other.
Robert Orkand is senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut and associate treasurer of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The author wishes to acknowledge David Warren, executive director of the Connecticut office of ADL, for conceiving and planning the trip, and Ezra Korman of ARZA World Travel, who guided the group through Israel.