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LOUISVILLE—What would Jesus make of Jerusalem today?
Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), raised that question during the opening worship service of a recent conference on peace in the Middle East—and his question in some ways spun itself through the entire event.
What would Jesus make of Jerusalem?
And how should Presbyterians view Israel?
Presbyterians came to this conference to try to better understand why the PC(USA) stands where it does, particularly on the controversial question of possible divestiture in some companies doing business in Israel, in protest over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The idea went something like this: Presbyterians in cities across the country are having to explain to angry Jews, and sometimes to angry Presbyterians, what the PC(USA) is doing and why. To do that, they need to better understand what the General Assembly did last summer when it voted 431-62 to pursue a process of phased, selective divestiture in some companies doing business in Israel.
So more than 200 Presbyterians—representing all 16 synods and about half of the 173 presbyteries—came to Louisville Feb. 10-12 for a crash course in Middle Eastern history, in Christian Zionism, in the divestiture action, in the realities of daily life for Palestinian Christians.
They did not hear from Muslims or from Jews (except for one) or from folks who disagree heart and soul with the General Assembly's vote (the purpose, the organizers explained, was not to rehash the assembly's decision, but to help people understand what the assembly did.)
But some in attendance did criticize the presentations as being one-sided and even anti-Israel. "I'm saddened that we don't have Jewish representatives here to give their side . . . It is a multi-faceted problem," Patrick Wrisley of Central Florida presbytery said on the gathering's first night. In an interview he added: "How can we learn and understand if those voices are absent? How does one discern truth when critical voices are gone?"
Marthame Sanders, a PC(USA) missionary-in-residence who has lived on the West Bank, was one of the conference organizers. "This is a chance for Presbyterians to get together and understand what it is we have said (about Israel) since 1948 and to understand why," Sanders explained. "It's not the appropriate place to review the decision-making process. That has its own place."
But that conversation has already begun—the debate about whether the assembly was prophetic and courageous in pursuing justice, or went down the wrong road—and will continue in the months ahead. While the General Assembly won't meet again until 2006, it's expected there won't be any shortage next year of overtures involving the PC(USA), the Palestinians and Israel.
And while this meeting didn't involve direct conversation with Jews, Jay Rock, the PC(USA)'s coordinator of interfaith relations, flew straight from Kentucky to Florida to meet on Feb. 12 with national leaders of the Anti-Defamation League.
So what should Presbyterians think of Israel today?
Complicated question, and different folks have different answers. Here's some information, from this meeting, that was presented to help Presbyterians figure that out.
Gary M. Burge is a New Testament professor at Wheaton College near Chicago and the author of the book, "Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and The Palestinians." He started the conference off by presenting an historical overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ("Talking about Israel and Palestine gives you a wonderful opportunity to talk about religion and politics at the same time, and make everybody upset about you," Burge said.)
Among the points he made:
Burge said a fundamental question posed by the conflict is this: "Does biblical promise trump historic residence?"
The Presbyterians also heard, via a phone connection from Jerusalem, comments from Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, a group working in Israel on justice issues. Ascherman described his own work—protecting access of Palestinian farmers to their fields, planting olive trees, trying to keep the Israeli military from demolishing Palestinian homes, working to make the government adjust the route of the security barrier—and said he sees Palestinians and Israeli Jews as both being victims and victimizers.
"We are like two roosters in a ring being forced to play," Ascherman said. "It's kill or be killed."
Ascherman said he has seen movement in people's views in recent years—for example, regarding the security barrier. At first, people were either for or against the barrier, he said—there was no room for neutrality, or to argue that the barrier was needed to stop suicide bombers but that the path chosen for it was wrong and cut off too many Palestinians from their land and people.
As the father of young children, "I want my government to protect me," Ascherman said. "If that means a barrier, I'm not opposed to a barrier personally. But the route of the barrier is another matter."
And Ascherman said: "The issue of hope and what will give Israelis and Palestinians incentive to move forward is at least as important as anything else we can discuss." Polls show, he said, that a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis favor some sort of negotiated agreement, but that they also believe "there's nobody on the other side that thinks the same way. We want peace, they don't."
Ascherman declined to explain what he thinks of the PC(USA) divestiture vote, saying "we have already expressed some of our concerns." But he said Presbyterians should keep in mind, as they make decisions, the question of "what is going to increase hope on both sides, a belief that things could be different."
Presbyterians at the gathering spoke some about what they've experienced, what they're frustrated about, what they want to understand. For example, Walt Davis of San Francisco presbytery told Ascherman that some Jewish leaders in the United States make the case "that Israel is a Jewish issue, it is not for others, for Christians, to get involved with," and that Presbyterians have been called anti-Semitic for criticizing Israeli policies.
Jay Rock, who's been involved in high-level interfaith discussions about the divestiture action, said dialogue involving Christians, Muslims and Jews can be very difficult to construct, and on this issue "the Jewish community has very high emotions. This is a visceral issue for them." The assembly's divestiture vote feels like "an attack on the state of Israel which translates in their minds and hearts as an attack on the Jewish people which translates to attack on them," Rock said.
Some Jews feel frustrated and betrayed, and "Presbyterians are often not very good at dealing with strong emotions," he said.
And Rock said Presbyterians need to think through how they will respond to arguments he's already heard from Jews, such as, "If you love me, you'll know what causes me pain," or "If you love me, you will agree with me."
Rock argues that "we cannot give up our own ethical positions" to keep others happy—that Presbyterians need to acknowledge that the assembly's action has caused pain for some Jews, but also say that "there must be some room for both of us to feel and think the way we feel and think."
His advice for Presbyterians involved in local discussions with Jews? Do your homework. Be accurate in describing what the assembly did (it's not wholesale divestiture, for example, and it's a slow, deliberate process, targeting companies with some clear connection to the political difficulties.) Acknowledge where the PC(USA) has fallen short. Talk about Palestinian terrorism as well as Israeli policies. Get Jewish and Presbyterian congregations talking together. When Jews and Presbyterians meet, take the time to pray.
Some in the crowd spoke of their own experiences—pastors, for example, who got phone calls or e-mails from Presbyterians in their own congregations unhappy that they first heard about divestment from their angry Jewish friends, not from their own church, and they didn't know what to say.
Carroll Meyer of Muskingum presbytery told of what he thought had been a good relationship with a Jewish colleague being cut off suddenly and completely when the colleague said, "I won't talk to you again" because of the divestiture vote. Meyer said he now realizes how many things they never talked about—how much lay submerged under the surface.
Kirk Perucca of Heartland presbytery said a man he'd worked with for years accused the Presbyterian church of being the enemy, of being anti-Semitic and "out to destroy Judaism," of wanting to proselytize Jews more than Buddhists or Muslims.
And Jan DeVries, executive of the Synod of the Southwest, said she's been troubled by seeing how many Presbyterian churches are paying no attention to the divestment discussion and by the difficulty of an assembly being asked to vote on such a complicated matter after relatively little discussion—a concern, she said, that's not limited to just this issue alone.
One panel revisited how the divestment question came up before the assembly and how it's played out at the local level.
Glenn Dickson, a pastor from Gainesville, Florida, was the overture advocate at last summer's assembly for the divestiture action. Dickson said he started out years ago as a strong supporter of Israel, but changed his mind after traveling to the Holy Land and seeing what's happened over the decades to the Palestinian people.
"We did not call for divestment out of a spirit of hate for Israel or a desire to destroy Israel," but to strengthen the voices calling for peace, Dickson said. "We called for divestment with a sense of profound sadness. We knew it would cause controversy."
Bruce Gillespie, a pastor and moderator of the assembly committee that debated the divestment overture, said, "nothing was rubber-stamped. It was very carefully, thoughtfully discussed" and was done out in the open.
But "the question is, `Was it hospitable to our neighbors?' " or could Jewish leaders have been given more warning in advance that such a controversial matter was being considered, said Peggy Thomas, the PC(USA)'s former coordinator for interfaith relations. "It seems to me that's the kind of thing we weren't very good at at that moment. Maybe I'm wrong."
In the end, some folks came away from the conference understanding more, some frustrated, some with a new appreciation of how complicated these issues are. For example, Jerry Tankersley, a pastor from Laguna Beach, California, spoke of how the attitudes of many Presbyterians in his area are colored by Christian Zionism and the "Left Behind" series of books more so than General Assembly positions.
Some at the conference clearly wanted to hear a broader range of voices, particularly that the stories of oppression and humiliation that five Palestinian Christians told on the first night of the conference should have been balanced by hearing from Jews as well.
"I never heard one word of criticism of Hamas (the Palestinian terrorist group) in the presentations," only criticism of Israel, one man said.
"I knew the Palestinians were suffering. I know the Israelis are suffering . . . It seems like all we've heard are very moving accounts of suffering," another person said during a workshop.
But Douglas Dicks, who lives in Bethlehem and is the PC(USA)'s regional liaison for Israel, Palestine and Jordan, responded that "I personally am convinced that we as a church are doing the right thing . . .If nothing else, we've got the discussion going. People are finally talking about this and want to know. I find that very positive."
Nancy Holt, a pastor from Philadelphia, said in an interview that she came to Kentucky hoping to get more clarity about how the assembly decided what it did, and was leaving feeling better equipped to go back and explain that decision to others.
"My way of looking at Israel-Palestine, my way of thinking about it, has been challenged," said Elise Dormond, a laywoman from Philadelphia. "I don't think that's a bad thing. I know I'm biased . . . If I can't look at it from other dimensions, I really can't go back and be a peacemaker."
Patrick Shaffer, pastor of First Church in Tequesta, Fla., traveled to Israel in December with a group that included Jews, Catholics and Protestants. He said he learned on that trip to see beyond the extremes—by visiting, for example, a hospital that has treated both a suicide bomber and that bomber's victims.
In Jerusalem, "most of the people we talked to understand the plight of the other side," Shaffer said. "They are not in favor of humiliating people. It may be the government's position—but the man on the street, not at all. That surprised me, how much empathy I heard."
Across the church, the conversations continue.
Burge said he sees five alternatives for every question asked, and added: "I keep a supply of antacids."
Ascherman said this: "We're always planting seedlings. We don't know how many will grow."
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