A pre-assembly conference Friday on peace in the Middle East helped set the stage for the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“Shalom, Salaam, and Peace: One Hope, Two Peoples, Three Faith Traditions” brought together perspectives on the Middle East from diverse faiths practicing in context.
“We gather as a people of deep faith,” said the Rev. Dr. Ronald L. Shive, chairperson of the Middle East Study Committee (MESC). “We gather as a people who have a persistent hope for a just peace in the Middle East.”
The purpose of the conference was to discuss the conflict from three faith traditions (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) who are bound together and who have strong traditions, including social justice, said Shive, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Burlington, N.C., in Salem Presbytery.
The evening event was sponsored by the MESC. The committee was authorized by the 218th General Assembly (2008) “to prepare a comprehensive study, with recommendations, that is focused on Israel/Palestine within the complex context of the Middle East” and to report back to the 219th General Assembly (2010).
The committee’s 172-page report with recommendations is entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” and will come before the GA’s Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee.
In addition to presentations by speakers, the pre-assembly gathering included a dialogue between the presenters, a question-and-answer session with attendees and dinner.
Avraham Burg, who formerly served as a member and speaker of the Knesset, as an Israeli Cabinet minister and as chairperson of Jewish Agency for Israel, opened the discussion. Among his points was that a competition has developed between Israelis and Palestinians over who has suffered more traumas.
On one side, “We are always the eternal victims,” Burg said. Yet at the same time, the other side talks about humiliating occupation, the effects of colonialism and other traumas, he added.
Instead of respecting the pain of the other, the parties negate it, he said. They “do not recognize the suffering of the other.”
Yet if the attitude is warm and embracing, “I believe that something else can come out of it,” Burg said.
The first stage, he said, must be recognition of the situation, which includes acknowledging a responsibility for the problems of Palestinian refugees. Action must be taken by the civil society to encourage political change.
There also must be a move from “trauma to trust,” Burg urged. “There are people out there ... who are my partners.”
“We need a different paradigm,” he said.
The Rev. Mitri Raheb, the second presenter at the conference and a Palestinian Christian, shared candidly about the plight of Palestinians. His own teenage daughter had to be smuggled into Jerusalem after being denied a permit to enter. The high school student needed to apply for a visa to the United States, where she had been granted a scholarship to study.
“We cannot even move within our own country,” said the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, West Bank, and founder and president of the Diyar Consortium and International Center of Bethlehem.
The West Bank is being converted into “Swiss cheese” where Israel gets the cheese and Palestinians are pushed behind walls into the holes, said Raheb, who said he looks outside every day to see settlements encroaching into Bethlehem.
“The facts on the ground, they speak much louder than all of these peace talkers,” he said. “The conflict is not a philosophical conflict ... it’s existential.”
Ironically, one of the three speakers scheduled to participate, Palestinian Muslim Dr. Allam Jarrar, was not able to attend because he was not given an opportunity for a visa interview at the United States consulate in Jerusalem, meeting attendees were told.
However, in printed comments for the conference, Jarrar reiterated some of the principles that have guided Palestinians’ efforts toward comprehensive and permanent peace.
“Peace requires respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of both nations and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries, free from threats or acts of violence or force,” he wrote.
Further, he wrote, “A sustainable peace should be based on justice and equality.”
Raheb said Israel’s implementation in Palestine of a system of segregation, building walls in order to keep the best resources, and creating reservations mirroring those used in the U.S. with American Indians “are actually making peace totally impossible.”
The reality is depressing, Raheb acknowledged. Still, “because of the deadlock, we have to speak out ... to speak words of faith, hope and love.”
“There is so much to be done,” he said. The Middle East Study Committee report, Raheb said, “is for me a sign of hope.”
One of the options he discussed was creative, nonviolent resistance – specifically the use of boycotting as a tool, mentioned in a document Raheb and other Palestinian Christians authored.
While Burg shunned boycotting, he offered his own participation in a mass hunger strike at the separation barrier as a nonviolent option.
“This is real Ghandi-style civil disobedience,” Burg said.