The Rev. Liddy Barlow had never before visited Israel, but what she witnessed and learned while traveling the land with Rabbi Jamie Gibson — and a cohort of 13 other interfaith pairs from across the country — has changed her perspective of the Middle East.
“I think my own views have been made more complicated,” said Barlow, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, a coalition of more than two dozen Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant denominations that issues policy statements and promotes church unity. “I am now able to engage the issues with more depth and nuance than I had before.”
Barlow and Gibson, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, and the other pairs of clergy were in Israel from April 28 to May 5 on a trip sponsored by Interfaith Partners for Peace, a community of Jewish and non-Jewish faith leaders committed to a two-state solution and to helping their respective congregations learn about Israel, its history and its people.
The trip had three components, according to Peter Petit, associate professor of Religion Studies at Muhlenberg College and a co-convener of the trip: text-based study to explore what Israel and its people mean to both Jews and Christians; encountering diverse voices across Israeli and Palestinian communities; and witnessing several grassroots projects of Israelis and Palestinians working together toward coexistence and peace.
“The way that American Christians and American Jews think about and engage with Israel is almost necessarily divergent,” explained Petit. “For Christians, Israel is a question of holy sites, history and peace in a troubled part of the world. But for American Jews, ‘This is part of my story.’ This is the Exodus in the Haggadah. This is not about them back then, ‘It’s about me today.’ Christians just don’t have that sense.”
One aim of the trip was to open up the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Petit said, and to demonstrate there are more than two perspectives to that conflict.
That the conflict is not black and white became evident to Barlow during the trip.
“There are shades,” she said. “There are true narratives on every side.”
This was the inaugural trip for IPFP, which was launched about six months ago. It is currently being organizationally incubated by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, but organizers are aiming for it to become an independent nonprofit, according to Rabbi Leonard Gordon, a co-convener of the group and the spiritual leader of Congregation Mishkan Tefila near Boston.
The pairs of clergy came from 14 different cities from throughout the country, including San Francisco, Boston, Indianapolis and Harrisburg. The pairs spent eight days together in study, worship and listening to the voices of those living the conflict on the ground. They spent one day studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
The group visited several sacred sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Western Wall, both in Jerusalem.
“For me, to walk through the Galilee with Christian ministers was very powerful, very moving,” said Gibson.
The rabbi, who has been to Israel 24 times, said this most recent trip was “one of the most fulfilling and enriching trips I’ve ever taken. I had a sense of seeing Israel through eyes that were different than my own.”
A critical element of the trip, Gibson noted, was being exposed to a diversity of voices and the consequent realization of some of his colleagues that “Palestinians are not of one voice on all issues.”
For example, he said, it became obvious that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is not universally endorsed by Palestinians.
“Over and over from the Palestinians, we heard, ‘Invest [in programs promoting peace], don’t divest,’” Gibson said. That message “strengthened the hand” of those clergy members who are opposed to BDS in their efforts to edify their congregations back home.
The rabbis on the trip came from diverse backgrounds, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, while most of the Christian partners were from mainstream Protestant and Episcopalian denominations.
“There was a really strong Presbyterian presence on the trip,” Barlow observed. “And some of them had very mixed feelings about the action of their General Assembly last summer.”
It was at the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that a resolution to divest church funds from three companies doing business in Israel won approval by a slim margin, 310-303.
Trip participant Todd Stavrakos, pastor of the Gladwyne Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia, acknowledged that some of his Presbyterian colleagues are persuaded by the “particular narrative” promoted by BDS supporters.
But he saw for himself during the trip that “the BDS agenda is not representative of the Palestinian people as a whole.”
“There is a sense of fairness that BDS appeals to,” Stavrakos said. “But if someone looks at the facts on the ground, it’s not accurate.”
A central aim of IPFP is to “create teams of rabbis and Christian clergy throughout the country committed to study together, and to travel together,” said Gordon, who hopes to expand the program to include additional partner pairs and convene four interfaith trips to Israel a year.
Despite the turmoil in the region, Barlow came home optimistic, she said.
“They were exposing us to a complexity and richness of the problem, and the richness of possibilities for hope,” Barlow said. “I am not without hope.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.