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Holy Land, Holy People

In September I took time off from my duties as an associate scholar at the Institute for Christian/Jewish Studies to represent the Alliance of Baptists along with 15 other Jewish and Christian leaders. We represented various religious communities in a peace mission to Israel.

The trip was part of an 18-month continuing dialogue table convened by Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations for the National Council of Churches, and David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs of the American Jewish Committee.

The group had been meeting for over a year. This dialogue table had recently invited the Alliance of Baptists to join. Of the five Baptist bodies in the National Council of the Churches, the Alliance has shown considerable interest in Jewish-Christian relations. Since none of the Alliance professional staff were free to join the dialogue table, our executive director asked me to represent us.

The group was composed of Jews and Christians who usually work together at the national level on peace and justice issues and interfaith dialogue, but who differ on Israeli-Palestinian matters. This difference has been exacerbated by talk in some of the mainline Protestant denominations about pressing corporations to stop providing military equipment and technology to Israel for use in the occupation of the Palestinian territories. If the companies do not comply, the denominations would vote to divest their stock.

My denomination is not one of those involved in the divestment controversy. I personally feel the notion of divestment is tragically misguided. In my judgment divestment will have no impact on Israeli policies, but it will seriously injure Jewish-Christian relations. The denominations would do well to invest in joint Israeli-Palestinian bridge-building ventures.

Speaker after speaker greeted us with, “Welcome to Israel; it’s a key time to be in Israel–the recent Gaza pullout, the (then) pending challenge to Sharon within the Likud party.” This was my sixth trip–every time I am in Israel I always hear, “This is a key time to be in Israel.”

Half our time was spent listening to voices chosen by American Jewish leaders, voices they thought American mainline Christian leaders should hear. Half our time was spent listening to voices chosen by the mainline leaders for Jewish consideration.

What difference did the trip make? I’m always suspicious of people who visit any country and come back as instant experts. Remember the old definition of an expert–“X” is an unknown quantity; and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure. I appreciate the complexity of the conflict and have an appropriate epistemological humility about how little we know. Our final press release spoke in an open-ended and somewhat guarded way about the outcome of our journey.

Perhaps minds were changed in our group. At the minimum there was an appreciation for other perspectives. The security barrier/fence/wall provides a good example of shifting views.

Mainline Christian leaders who have opposed the wall heard an Israeli father speak of the death of his teenage daughter at the hands of a suicide bomber in the Sbarro pizza restaurant explosion. We heard that where the barrier is in place, suicide bombing is down 99 percent.

Jewish participants were not unmoved when we visited in Anata a home knocked down three times by Israeli bulldozers or by hearing from Palestinians in Abu Dis and Bethlehem, where the wall isolated homes, family businesses, fields and olive groves.

There was a chilling moment when our bus approached checkpoints outside Bethlehem and Ramallah, and the Jews took off their kippas, explaining, “If the Israeli soldiers see us with kippas, they may not let us enter the Palestinian territory because they won’t be able to protect us there.”

Thankfully there were no major problems on the trip beyond the usual over-scheduling. A Christian visitor to Israel once said, “I thought I was going to ‘walk where Jesus walked,’ but our itinerary forced me to run where Jesus walked.'”

Since our return we have met once. We have learned that partly as a result of our trip the Episcopalian committee on investments has recommended against divestment from Israel. Rather the Episcopalians suggest using their proxies and leverage to influence ethical investing and investing positively in the Palestinian economy.

The dialogue table is committed to demonstrating “that Christians and Jews can work together to seek peace even when there is disagreement on specific solutions and policies.” Under consideration is a conference on two theological hot button issues: (1) the land, a challenging issue for some Christians and (2) liberation theology, problematic for some Jews. We are looking for projects in Israel which we can jointly support, mindful both of the importance of such a witness and of the sensitivities of our respective constituencies.

This was the first trip to Israel and Palestine by Shanta Premawardhana. Because our schedule was all business, he never got to set foot in a single holy place of any significance, much less in a gift shop. Unfortunately Christian visitors to Israel usually concentrate on the holy places to the neglect peace and justice issues on the ground.

Shanta, a Baptist originally from Sri Lanka, said, “When I get home, I’m going to preach a sermon about our trip and say, ‘I went to the Holy Land and never saw a holy place, just holy people.'”

We did meet some holy people, holy in the sense that they are set apart because they transcend the conflict and provide moments of hope.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, “We’ve come a long, long way, but we’ve got a long, long way to go.”

John E. Roberts is associate scholar at the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies in Baltimore. He is pastor emeritus of WoodbrookBaptistChurch and a past president of the Alliance of Baptists.

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