Re: 'Repairing the breach' between Christians and Jews

It would help if rabbis offered more views on Israel and Palestine

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The opinion piece by Rev. Sheldon Sorge, a Presbyterian minister, and Rabbi James A. Gibson criticizing a recent Presbyterian (U.S.A.) publication entitled “Zionism Unsettled” (“Repairing the Breach,” Forum, March 2) merits a serious response, and I, a Presbyterian bystander, would like to offer one.

Let me explain why the purported “breach” is of interest to me.

I’ve spent three years living and working under Israeli military occupation: as a physician in a State Department-funded hospital in south Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion; as an internist in a church-run hospital in Gaza during the Palestinian uprising in 1988-1989 and as an “ecumenical accompanier” with the World Council of Churches in the West Bank in 2004. But it was an occupation shared with Jewish friends and allies. A book I wrote about my experiences in Lebanon was published in Israel.

In Gaza, I worked alongside a team of American surgeons that included a Southern Baptist from Oklahoma, a Muslim from Tennessee and a Jew from Massachusetts — our only pediatric surgeon. In the West Bank, I monitored a checkpoint on the road to Bethlehem with members of Machsom Watch, an organization of older Israeli women who choose to witness the occupation at first hand.

The publication of “Zionism Unsettled” is only the latest in a series of Presbyterian initiatives criticized by Jewish leaders. Condemnation of our church policies dates back to 2004, when Presbyterians began to consider divesting from companies that profit from Israeli military occupation. This initiative, and a similar one by the Episcopal church, were characterized in an editorial in The Jewish Daily Forward as a “failure of moral vision.”

In June 2012, when it seemed as if a divestment resolution might pass at the next Presbyterian (U.S.A.) General Assembly, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs spearheaded a petition signed by 1,300 rabbis urging church members and delegates to reject it. The petition, entitled “Letter in Hope,” alluded to the “suffering on both sides of the conflict” and criticized “singling out Jews for attack.” Strangely enough, to Christian eyes at least, it made no mention of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the impetus for the resolution! Evidently our concerns had eluded the rabbis who signed the letter.

Rather than arguing about the merits of these documents, I’d like address this gulf in perceptions.

Can we acknowledge that Christians and Jews may return from trips to the Holy Land with very different experiences? Anyone who has visited the West Bank may have witnessed, as I have, the incredible lengths that some Jews (Israelis and foreign) will go to so they can witness the occupation at first hand and show their support for their Palestinian counterparts. One can see their courage and determination in recent documentaries such as “Five Broken Cameras,” nominated for an Academy Award last year.

Contrast this with the unwillingness of so many rabbis in this country to allow Israeli peace activists to speak to their congregations. I’ve gone to many churches — Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist and others — to hear Israelis speak about how their experiences have shaped their beliefs, including draft-resisting high-school students, soldiers from the group Courage to Refuse, peace and human rights activists, writers and journalists — because no synagogue would open its doors to them.

A wide range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be heard at our Presbyterian (U.S.A.) 2012 General Convention in Pittsburgh. Dozens of Jews took part in a respectful, hours-long debate about divestment, to the delight (and consternation) of other Jews in the audience. Is there a Jewish religious forum in Pittsburgh where Christians can witness a similar exchange of views? If all rabbis of mainstream synagogues in Pittsburgh feel they must speak to us about the Israel-Palestine conflict with one voice, what chance is there for meaningful interfaith dialogue?

Fortunately, a spirited debate that mirrors our own seems to be growing elsewhere in the Jewish community: among Jewish peace groups, on college campuses and in the pages of Jewish publications. In The Jewish Daily Forward, for example, one can now find articles about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (some Jews support it), discussions of what constitutes “acceptable” debate about Israel and even a reexamination of Zionism (recent headlines include “Does Zionism Have a Future with Jews?”).

A rabbi I knew when I lived in Brooklyn declared that if the prophets of the Hebrew Bible felt free to criticize Israel, he probably should allow it, too. When more rabbis join his ranks, we can begin to address the breach.

Leila Richards, a public health physician, is a member of East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

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