A faculty member at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Rev. David Garber, a Baptist, traveled to Israel last month, during the height of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, feeling troubled by the “asymmetrical power structure in the current conflict and the asymmetrical loss of civilian life.”
But following formal study sessions in an interfaith study program sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, based at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and informal discussions with a wide range of Israelis and some Palestinian Arabs, Rev. Garber returned home with what he called a more balanced view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I am still troubled by this asymmetry,” he said, referring to some estimates that half to three-quarters of the nearly 2,000 Palestinian deaths have been civilians, while 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in the month-long fighting. “But I have a deeper sense of the complexities that give rise to the conflict.”
Middle East politics are not an official part of the Christian Leadership Initiative, which was launched seven years ago to bring Christian clergy and lay leaders to Israel annually for an intensive grounding in Jewish theology and Jewish traditions. But this year’s program, set against the backdrop of the Gaza war, gave CLI participants a more personal, and sometimes more sympathetic, view of life in Israel.
With the Israel-Hamas fighting paused this week as the latest cease-fire appeared to take hold, Israel can count increased empathy from the recent Christian visitors as one unexpected victory. That empathy is significant, especially given that the national leadership of some mainline Protestant denominations has grown increasingly distant from Israel in recent years, largely the result of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. CLI participants told The Jewish Week that their 10 days in Israel, while not erasing their questions about Israeli treatment of Palestinians, gave them insights into how Israelis deal with issues of the “occupation.”
The CLI program, which took place a month after the Presbyterian Church of the United States voted in favor of divestment from three U.S. corporations that do business in the West Bank, is part of an ongoing effort among several Jewish organizations to combat a growing antagonism toward Israel among U.S. Protestants. (American Evangelicals tend to be very supportive of Israel and its West Bank policies.)
“The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is not usually central to the [year-long] program’s first phase, but this summer was extraordinary,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “Nearly every session and experience inevitably included both the complexity and nuance of Israeli moral response. CLI fellows come from intellectual environments in which criticism of Israel can be significant.”
“The opportunity to enter into real, deep dialogue was very attractive to me,” said Fr. Javier Viera, dean and professor of ecumenical and pastoral theology at the Drew University Theological School in Madison, N.J. “The depth of the complexity of the issues … in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became clearer. It is so easy to take sides from far away, to pass judgment at a distance, but when conversations are taking place in person that changes everything. It made our conversations more real, more raw, and truthful.”
For Brian Rainey, an assistant professor of Old Testament at the Princeton Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, last month’s trip was his first visit to Israel. “My sense was that most of the CLI fellows see a great deal of blame falling on both Palestinian and Israeli actors in this conflict, and I am not sure that changed much.
“A fairly liberal Christian,” Rainey continued in an email interview, his “sympathies [in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] were in the trajectory from extremely critical of Israel to critical of Israel” before he went to Israel. Now it’s a more empathetic criticism of Israel. I understand better the Israeli viewpoint. I got a sense of the fear and terror people in Israel are living under.”
Rainey suggested how that new empathy might be employed.
“At CLI, an environment that encouraged frank discussion and debate, some participants criticized Israel and this operation in Gaza harshly,” he said. “I would not necessarily say the same things in the same way publicly in the U.S. because the U.S. and Western Europe are different discursive environments. In a world in which anti-Semitism exists and in which synagogues are being attacked, critics must be careful about the way they criticize Israel.
“My own overall political views on the region did not change a great deal,” Rainey added. “What did change was my view of Israelis … every Israeli I spoke to said the occupation is unsustainable and, more importantly, unjust. These Israelis, while disliking the occupation, feel stuck and are fearful that independence for Palestinians will result in another hostile state next door that wants to destroy Israel.”
Rainey’s comments were typical of the CLI participants.
“It is very hard to measure attitude change” — toward theological issues, or the Middle East conflict — “in the short term,” said Emily Soloff, AJC associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “Attitudes evolve. What we hope to see is changes in teaching/preaching that reflect a more accurate and honest portrayal of Judaism as Jews understand ourselves. … We hope to see a more nuanced understanding of the modern State of Israel.”
During the visitors’ time in Israel, no sirens sounded in Jerusalem, though a day trip to Tel Aviv was cancelled because of the frequent Hamas rocket fire aimed there. The participants closely followed the news, heard first-hand reports of Israelis of past Arab uprisings in the country, and saw IDF-manned checkpoints, where Palestinians’ identity papers were reviewed, on a Friday excursion through the Old City.
“Most people [in his group] were aware of the fact that they were sheltered from the real terror in the south,” where most of the Hamas-fired rockets were falling and the Hamas terrorists were infiltrating through tunnels from Gaza,” Rainey said. “We were in relative safety.”
Bogdan Bucur, associate professor in Duquesne University’s department of theology, said, “The surreal atmosphere obliged everyone to ‘get real’ … to abandon the ivory tower and to address the reality of the day. No question was off topic.”
Bucur, who is a priest in Orthodox Christianity’s Antiochian Archdiocese (with jurisdiction over Syria, Lebanon and the wider Arab world), said, in an email interview, that “our hosts at the Institute and their partners from the American Jewish Committee offered frank answers to our probing questions. I came back with a sense that the very complex and nuanced situation in the Holy Land obliges one to what one of our Jewish friends called ‘epistemological humility’ — in other words, it is not easy to grasp the situation, much less to find solutions.
“One of our teachers invited us to a rally for peace, organized by a Jewish-Palestinian organization,” Bucur said. “There was no doubt that the [teacher] represented a very minority view.
He said he took part in a church camp for Syrian-American youth when he came back to the States. “After the first several days at camp,” where many adult volunteers have “relatives in the Holy Land,” Bucur said he realized the importance of sharing “the personal dimension” of what he had experienced in Israel. “For many Israelis the commitment to the existence and security of Israel as a Jewish state … does not necessarily exclude awareness of and moral anguish about the suffering among Palestinians.”
That message may well get amplified over the course of the next year.
Rev. Garber, whose theology school is affiliated with Mercer University, which has Baptist roots, said the CLI participants “will educate hundreds of ministers each year, write about our experiences for various audiences, and inform many congregations and denominational gatherings in the normal course of our work.” As part of the 13-month CLI program, which will include monthly distance-learning sessions during the next year, the participants are to return to Israel next July.
Will Rainey go back in 2015?
“Yes,” he said. “I will have reservations,” because of Israel’s always-precarious security situation, “but I’m still going to go. I definitely would like to see Tel Aviv.”