This afternoon 75 people from four congregations - two Jewish and two Presbyterian - got together to speak honestly and directly with each other about Israelis, Palestinians and peace. Our time together was divided into three parts - a continuum exercise (more on that in a moment), small group conversations and then lots and lots of food for our shared picnic dinner.
The background for the gathering is this: last year the Presbyterian Church USA narrowly voted to divest from three companies that do business with Israel in the West Bank. The decision was widely seen in Jewish circles as supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement. This is problematic for many Jews because significant elements of the BDS movement seem stridently anti-Israel, and more recently have even taken positions that are anti-Jewish. Because Temple Beth Zion, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Congregation Shir Shalom and North Presbyterian Church have a grassroots history of neighborliness, we thought it important to have a conversation together. Our purpose was to better understand each other in order to strengthen our communal bonds and also to solidify our commitment to a secure and lasting peace. We did not seek to create a joint policy statement, but rather to listen and learn from each other.
We began with a continuum exercise, in which participants were asked to line up between two poles to physically demonstrate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of progressively provocative statements. After each statement, a few individuals from different places across the continuum were asked to explain why they held the positions they did. Anyone could change their position at any time if they were moved by what someone else shared.
Here are just a few of the lessons we learned from each other today:
1. Presbyterians are split on how to understand this issue
2. Jews are also split on this issue
3. There are many thoughtful nuances to the various positions we have taken
4. Many of us are passionate in our concerns for Palestinians, Israelis or both
5. There are two competing narratives that frame either Palestinians or Israelis as 'bad' or 'evil.' This viewing each other as 'other' creates an enormous barrier to developing the trust that is necessary to eventually achieve peace.
6. We don't know as much as we think we do.
This is only the beginning of our conversation. We plan to invite several scholars and academics with expertise to share their broad perspectives with us over the course of the year. And with a little luck, we hope to travel together to Israel -- to meet with Israelis and Palestinians, and to deepen our geopolitical understanding -- and also to experience the land that all three Abrahamic traditions hold as holy,
Today is Tu B’Av, a day for lovers in Jewish tradition, a day filled with weddings! Tomorrow morning for Shabbat we will chant the Shema and V’ahavta from parashat Va’Etchanan, the quintessential passage from Torah about our love for God.
It makes sense that both of these happen soon after Tisha B’Av, our painful commemoration of many of the worst tragedies that our people have faced throughout our history, and survived. We must acknowledge our pain, andlet ourselves grieve, but then we must pick ourselves up and embrace life. Grief, anger and pain cannot be the building blocks of our lives, or of our civilization. Rather, light should follow darkness, and our response to our suffering should be love. For us, that is the purpose of this time, the cultivation of love for each other and for our God.
We were heartbroken by the news from our beloved Israel this morning of several heinous acts of hatred and murder committed by extremists who are also Jews. Yesterday, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem. This very same man attacked marchers at the 2005 Pride parade, and was just released from prison.
Then, at four o’clock the next morning, two Palestinian homes were firebombed in the West Bank village of Douma. The words “Long live Messiah the King” and “Revenge” were painted on the walls. An 18-month old baby was burned to death, and his 4-year old brother and both parents are in the hospital, his mother in critical condition, burns covering most of their bodies. The language on the wall makes it clear that people who claim to be religious also committed these crimes.
We condemn these senseless acts of violence and terror, and repudiate their perpetrators. They have cultivated hatred in place of love, and have chosen destruction, assault and murder as a result. We are outraged by their twisted acts, mourn for the dead, and sit in solidarity with the victims. They DO NOT represent Judaism or the Jewish people, and in committing these crimes they have violated us all.
In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to love God, but just before that we are commanded to listen, with the Shema. Love begins with listening, with allowing room for another (whether it is God or a person or group of people) in our lives. We cannot commit violence against anyone we love; violence requires disassociation, the separation of ourselves from the other. We all have been suffering for far too long, and the cycle of hate and violence is only repeating and intensifying. And it is not just in Israel – racial tensions continue to grow here in the United States.
Without listening to each other, we will never be able to heal. Without healing, we will never be able to love. Without love, we will have no future.
Shema Yisrael! Listen O Israel! Let us love God with all of our hearts, our strength and our souls! And let us begin today – not tomorrow – with love for each other.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras