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,
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