Protestant ‘Empathy’ For Israel Is War Gain

Protestant ‘Empathy’ For Israel Is War Gain

Interfaith visit to Jerusalem during Gaza conflict yields more nuanced views from some U.S. clergy, lay leaders.

A faculty member at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Rev. David Garber, a Baptist, traveled to Israel recently, during the height of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, 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 jointly sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — hosted at the Institure — 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, “but I have a deeper sense of the complexities that give rise to the conflict.”

In effect, he’s more sympathetic to the Israeli side.

Middle East politics are not an official part of the Christian Leadership Initiative, which was launched seven years ago and brings a group of Christian clergy and lay leaders to Israel annually to give them an intensive grounding in Jewish theology and Jewish traditions. But this year’s program, set against the backdrop of two unique factors — tension in Israel because of daily rockets fired from Gaza, and often-deteriorating Jewish-Christian relations in the United States because of increasing hostility to the Zionist cause expressed by some mainline Protestant denominations — gave the CLI participants a more personal view of life in Israel.

With the Israel-Hamas fighting apparently over, as Egypt tries to negotiate a long-term peace agreement, Israel can count increased empathy from the recent Christian visitors as one unexpected victory, especially in some mainline Protestant circles whose national leadership has grown increasingly distant from Israel in recent years. 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.”

Rev. Garber and other participants in the CLI program, while reluctant to make specific criticisms of Israeli policies or of the Israel Defense Forces, or to disclose specifics of the questions they raised with CLI staff members and guest lecturers, said they had some negative perceptions of Israel before they went there — many for the first time — last month.

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 that several Jewish organizations conduct to combat a growing antagonism toward Israel among U.S. Protestants. (Evangelicals here tend to be very supportive of Israel and its policies on the West Bank.)

“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.”

“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,” said Brian Rainey, an assistant professor of Old Testament at the Princeton Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.

“A fairly liberal Christian,” Rainey said 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 last month, for the first time.

“Now,” Rainey continued, “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.

“At CLI, an environment that encouraged frank discussion and debate, some participants criticized Israel and this operation in Gaza harshly,” he told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “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 mu 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 balanced 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,” a week after the program ended, 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.”

The group’s formal itinerary, featuring lectures and chavruta review with Jewish learning partners, covered such topics as concepts of God, prayer and “sacred time.”

During the visitors’ time in Israel, no sirens sounded in Jerusalem. But 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.

During their time in Israel, the Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox Christians studied at the Hartman Institute from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., walked a quarter hour every day from their hotel to the institute, visited the Old City of Jerusalem and an Arab educational institution in East Jerusalem and the Galilee region up north. A daytrip to Tel Aviv was cancelled because of the frequent Hamas rockets aimed there.

“It was fairly quiet” in Jerusalem, Rainey said, adding that he frequently heard the sound of army helicopters patrolling the sky overhead.

“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,” he said. “We were in relative safety.”

“The surreal atmosphere obliged everyone to ‘get real’ … to abandon the ivory tower and to address the reality of the day,” said Bogdan Bucur, associate professor in Duquesne University’s Department of Theology. “No question was off topic.

Consequently, the discussion, especially outside of classroom, veered toward the social, political and economic aspects of the current conflict.”

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 … 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.”

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.

Rainey said he had reservations about taking part in the CLI program. “I absolutely was worried” about the security situation, he said. As the departure deadline for the CLI group approached last month, a week after the war against Hamas began, “we were sure they would cancel because it just felt crazy to them to come,” said Marcie Lenk, the Hartman Institute’s director of Christian Leadership Programs. The Christian participants, scared by media images of the violence in Israel, would all back off, she thought.

“I was surprised when I heard they were all on the plane,” Link said. None of the participants cancelled their reservations, none left early — all stayed two extra days when the FAA temporarily prohibited U.S.-based carriers from flying to or from Israel.

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.”

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