I believe strongly that a two state solution is the only real path to peace. But such a solution can only come about when there is real grassroots, person-to-person interaction. It is an essential precursor to building the trust necessary for peace. For me, the importance of co-existence and interaction cannot be understated. When I think about co-existence, I always return to the wise words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In his book The Dignity of Difference, and then again in his more recent and compelling book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Sacks provides the theological foundation for co-existence.
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One of the next battles over BDS will be fought in a little more than two weeks, when the 222nd General Assembly begins in Portland, Oregon. Portland was site of the recent United Methodist Church’s General Conference, which rejected BDS efforts at divestment, and even saw the Methodists end ties with the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation”, an umbrella organization of BDS groups in North America. The UMC is a much larger Church than PCUSA, and I am hopeful that we Presbyterians can learn from the wisdom of our Methodist brothers and sisters. The BDS Movement has targeted the PCUSA for more than a decade. It includes a relatively small, but extremely vocal and effective group of activists who have worked very hard to get the Church to adopt social witness policies promoting the goals of the BDS movement, while often masking them in claims that the policies being sought are not about BDS, but about justice for Palestinians. Two years ago, they succeeded in getting the Church to selectively divest from three companies doing business in Israel – Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola Solutions, while claiming that divestment was in no way an embrace of BDS. Boycott. Divest. Sanction. How could anyone ever think that divesting from these companies was related to BDS?
Freedom is a precious thing. Freedom for Israelis is freedom from terror. Freedom for Palestinians is self-determination. The two state solution is the path to freedom. And freedom is the path to peace. Read more from in my op-ed blog in The Times of Israel
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been tied up in the politics of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel for more than a decade, culminating in a narrow four-vote majority in the 2014 General Assembly to divest church funds from HP, Motorola, and Caterpillar because of those company’s products being allegedly used to violent ends by Israel in the Palestinian territories. The GA tried to claim that its vote to divest was not about joining the BDS movement, but was a statement on socially responsible investment. This was wishful thinking because within 30 minutes of the GA’s vote, the New York Times reported that the Church had become aligned with the BDS Movement.
Now, two years later, another PC(USA) General Assembly approaches. This time, the BDS agenda is a bit more nuanced. A task force was commissioned by the GA in 2014 to examine the continued viability of the Church’s commitment to a Two State solution. Responsibility for this study fell on the Church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), which recently issued a report titled "Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Justice Peace." The ACSWP seeks to have their report endorsed by the GA this summer in Portland, Oregon, when it meets in mid-June. It should surprise no one that the report that was written mimics many of the Israel-targeted BDS arguments that have been used again and again.
I returned home from two weeks in Israel three days ago. My trip was a university-sponsored one, to do the planning for a peace studies study abroad class, and a personal one, where I was on a fact-finding mission to gain my own perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had heard the narrative that the pro-divestment proponents had put forth at GA, and wanted to see Israel on my own terms.
In the time since I returned to Illinois, I have spent a lot of time looking at and sorting through the more than 5,000 photos I took and re-reading the daily blogs that I wrote. So many things jumped out at me. This was a trip unlike anything I have ever done. Ever. This is my first take at summarizing my experiences.
Going to Israel was way outside of my comfort zone. I am talking thousands of miles outside of it. Forget the fact that I do not like flying, this was going to a country in one of the biggest hot spots of the world, where just seven months ago a war was going on. So, Israel was way out of my comfort zone, yet going there somehow resulted in considerably expanding my comfort zone. There was not a single moment when I was in Israel or on the West Bank when I felt unsafe. I never had a panic attack, I was totally comfortable with my inability to understand more than a handful of words in either Hebrew or Arabic. It simply did not matter.
Along the way, something incredible happened. I came to see the diverse cultures and people that live in Israel, the beauty and diversity of the land, and the religious significance and sense of the sacred present in the holy sites of the Abrahamic faiths. I saw the green rolling terrain of the Galilee (which to my biblical-influenced mind looked nothing like it), the snow-covered terrain of the Golan Heights, the beauty of the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to Ein Hod to Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the hills of Jerusalem, the desert-like features of much of the West Bank (which more closely resembled my biblical images), the green of the Jordan River valley at Jericho, and the classical desert of the Dead Sea and Masada. All within a few hours of each other. All different. All Israel.
The 221st General Assembly ended with mixed feelings. While I was profoundly disappointed in the divestment vote, which I viewed as well-meaning, but misguided, I was somewhat satisfied that I had convinced the GA to approve my commissioner's resolution declaring that “Zionism Unsettled" does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My own perspective had been shaped by efforts developing interfaith discussions in my congregation last winter. The local rabbi taught a well-attended four-week class on “A Taste of Judaism.” I knew that upon returning home, I needed to reach out to her, explain what we did and did not do in Detroit, and build bridges towards an interfaith dialogue. Very quickly, it became clear that a group of us in the Presbytery of Great Rivers had similar views. We were disappointed in the divestment vote for various reasons, but wanted to turn lemons into lemonade. We wanted to find a way to build relationships, and develop interfaith dialogues, rather than create or exacerbate divisions.
The efforts initially began in a decentralized way. Throughout the presbytery, people began to reach out to the local Jewish community. A group of us drove to Springfield to have lunch with the Jewish Federation. I met with the local rabbi in Bloomington, and we decided that I would speak to her congregation at a Shabbat service about what we did and did not do in Detroit, and more importantly, how we might work together. Similar things occurred in Peoria and the Quad Cities. Inspired by the work going on to our north in Chicago, we moved to have the presbytery establish an interfaith working group.