On an interfaith mission to Israel, a local rabbi said her commitment to fostering peace in the region was tested in ways she and the other Americans on the trip had not anticipated.
Rabbi Amy Small of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit was one of three rabbis who took part in a peacemaking trip to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank led by the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative.
The 15 delegates, all from the United States, included two high-ranking Catholic clergy, a Greek Orthodox priest, four Islamic leaders, and ministers from four different Protestant denominations.
The trip, held Dec. 16-23, included moments of intimate bonding among the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, “who often live in their own worlds,” Small noted last week, back in her synagogue office.
But those ties were tested when the delegates met in Ramallah with Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian political leader. He is a distant cousin of the imprisoned Al-Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is now serving five life sentences for murdering Israeli civilians.
Mustafa Barghouti’s presentation “was given as if it were a college lecture, very detached, which is why it was so unnerving. For the Jews, it was a difficult session,” said Small, a veteran peace activist.
His slide show depicted what she described as “the progression of Israeli control over access to roads and towns, with the idea that Israel really never intends to give back the West Bank.”
Small complained that Barghouti portrayed the violence in the West Bank and Gaza “as having been Israel’s fault. He didn’t take responsibility for any Palestinian mistakes or failings. In the Jewish community, we know his view is only part of the story. We could have shown pictures of children blown up on buses — but we didn’t.”
Barghouti’s words created “some division and some distress within our group. The Jewish three of us were very pained and concerned about what happened,” but, she said, “some of the Christians didn’t understand why Barghouti’s message was a painful one for the Jews to hear.”
Throughout the trip, said Small, she sought to balance the need for making peace between Israel and its neighbors — and acknowledging the pain suffered by those neighbors — while also defending Israel and her own belief that Israel is “the only place on earth for the realization of Jewish civilization and Jewish dreams.”
Small said she believes that “the Palestinian demands” of ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank, closing down settlements in the West Bank, and halting Jewish real estate development in eastern Jerusalem “are one half of the puzzle.”
The Israeli demands for a safe and secure Jewish homeland “are the other half,” she said. “Because we love Israel, we see it as our responsibility to engage in whatever conversations will help promote a path toward a stronger Jewish future — and peace obviously is a strong component of that.”
Creating new reality
Combing diplomacy and religion, the travelers shared one another’s worship services, starting at a shrine in Jericho where Muslims commemorate the life of Moses.
“It is beautiful there,” said the rabbi, “and it was a way to conceptualize the sharing between our different religious traditions. The Muslims honor Jewish biblical heroes — our prophets — as their prophets as well.
“That is a sweet kind of sharing.”
A day later, Small said, she escorted the group to a Shabbat service at Kol Haneshama, a Reform synagogue in western Jerusalem. “At the end of every service they do a prayer for peace that includes words in Arabic,” said Small, who is past president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly.
Later, in east Jerusalem, the group met with the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land — Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Israel and the West Bank whom the Americans considered their counterparts.
“They deal with difficult issues together. We took back with us a sense that we are part of something larger than being just Americans,” she said.
They also met with the Bereaved Parents Circle, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones during many years of conflict.
The clergy received a briefing from Danny Seidman, an American-born Israeli who heads a group called Ir Amin, an Israeli nonprofit working toward a Jerusalem “equitably shared by [its] two peoples.”
“He clearly said what is obvious to a lot of people and they don’t want to accept: Jerusalem is not a united city,” said Small. “Dividing the Jewish neighborhoods from the Arab neighborhoods is not a difficult thing to do. There is already a clearly definable border.
“But the Israeli government has not accepted this. It is allowing Jewish building to go on in east Jerusalem, just pouring salt into the wounds,” added Small. “There has to be a way that each religious community has control of its own holy sites under a shared arrangement.”
Following the trip, the delegation issued a statement calling for “active, fair, and firm U.S. leadership” in restarting negotiations toward a two-state solution, an end to occupation, and “security for Israel and Palestine.”
Small came away firm in her belief that both sides must hear each other’s story if that solution is to be achieved.
“My mission is to reach beyond my comfort zone to other Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are reaching beyond their comfort zone to try to reach others to find a way out of this mess,” she said. “It doesn’t mean to disregard or not acknowledge the pain so many of our people have suffered, but to create a new reality out of that pain.”