Friday, August 17, 2007

Common Ground News Original Features

Reclaiming Christian values
By Corinne Whitlatch

WASHINGTON - The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the broader schism between Israel and Arab states, is of deep concern to a great many people who have no personal connection to either side. While Arab and Jewish Americans are on the front lines of citizen advocacy regarding US policy toward the conflict and peacemaking efforts, secular and Christian Americans are also involved and consider the conflict important to their lives and to the United States. Many people of all three faiths hold a profound attachment to the Holy Land.

As an example, Christians grieve the severing of the natural and historic connection between their holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem by Israel's separation barrier.Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) is a coalition which seeks to influence the US Congress and Administration to adopt polices and take actions that would resolve the conflict and ease human suffering. The coalition brings together Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant national churches, denominations, and agencies to speak to the government with one clear voice, calling for justice and peace.

The goal of CMEP is a negotiated agreement that would bring recognition and security to Israel and a sovereign viable state to Palestinians, with Jerusalem being shared by the governments and the people.Not all Christians in America agree with us. Some hold a theological attachment to Israel and the Jewish people, interpreted as a directive that Israel should not give up any land -- even for the sake of peace. Most of these so-called "Christian Zionists" belong to non-denominational churches that often rally around charismatic preachers. News reports of Christians demonstrating passionate and exclusive support for Israel and of anti-Muslim diatribes by Christian pastors are known throughout the Arab and Muslim world. These reports distort the reality of American Christian sentiment.

Regrettably, the moderate peace and justice language and actions of traditional churches are rarely considered newsworthy, making these voices within the Christian community rarely heard.Some churches and denominations in the United States have direct partner ties with Palestinian churches and to churches in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Israel. All feel a strong attachment to the Holy Land and long for peace and reconciliation with all members of the Abrahamic family of faiths -- Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In meetings with US policymakers, CMEP addresses the situation of Palestinian Christians, namely how the ongoing occupation and conflict leads to their emigration, further depletion of their already small numbers and the erosion of the historic Christian-Muslim nature of Palestinian society.Our concern is not only for the Christians of the Holy Land, but for the whole of the Palestinian people, as well as the citizens of Israel. CMEP strives to be a balanced advocate for the common good of Israelis and Palestinians -- both victims of epic tragedies and repeated wars and violence. Neither has grasped the suffering of the other, and peace-making efforts by the United States and the international community have thus far been inadequate.

CMEP does not work alone on Capitol Hill and enjoys warm cooperative relationships with both Jewish and Arab organizations. Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek V'Shalom, Israel Policy Forum, Arab American Institute and American Task Force on Palestine have quite similar policy positions to the churches in the CMEP coalition. We visit Congressional offices and arrange meetings at the State Department knowing that our message will be reinforced by Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian.

As we bring our message to policymakers that this is not a zero sum game -- that the US must be a friend to both Israel and the Palestinians -- we find a growing understanding that unending conflict is not good for Israel or for America.This is certainly a time of deep despair among all who work and pray for peace and reconciliation. The fracture of the Palestinian society and governance, along with weak US and Israeli leadership dampens hope of progress and raises fear of spiralling violence. Yet, we keep in mind that last summer and at numerous times in recent decades fighting has raged and pessimism ruled. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation is of such intense importance to so many people globally, that peacemaking is irrepressible.

The Arab League Initiative offers new opportunities. We are now urging the US Administration to breathe life into the President's declared vision of a viable Palestinian state, including assurance that Jerusalem will be a shared city, the capital of Palestine and of Israel.

###* Corinne Whitlatch is the Executive Director of Churches for Middle East Peace, This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at Common Ground News Service, 16 August 2007, Copyright permission has been granted for republication.


An opportunity to experience

George A. Gorayeb

ARNOLD, Maryland - In November, 2002, sixteen people, half of them Jewish- and half Arab-American, met an hour north of New York City for a weekend dialogue workshop. Most of them had not dared anything like this before. When they gathered Friday evening for introductions, anxiety was visible on all the participants' faces. The mistrust was palpable.

One participant had served in the Israeli Army decades ago.

It seemed to some of us that his only previous conversations with Arabs had been while he was holding a rifle and they were answering his questions. The introductions caused some nervous laughter and an amazing process began. Seldom in our lives had we been compelled to more directly face our own prejudices.

A few months prior, I agreed to have dinner with a man named Zachary Berk. He is Jewish and I am of Syrian/Lebanese ancestry. We met to discuss creating an organization to promote Mideast peace. We were not sure whether we could overcome our suspicions and be able to collaborate, but nonetheless quickly became friends. We are both businessmen and were anti-Viet Nam war activists in college. We discussed our mutual admiration for Martin Luther King and non-violent movements like Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to free India. We ultimately decided that we would take the risk and organize our first peace retreat.

He would recruit Jewish participants and I would recruit Arab participants. It proved more challenging than we anticipated. Most people were either too uncomfortable or rejected the idea as a waste of time that would lead to nothing. Committing to spend a weekend with a group of strangers, half of whom you might really dislike, is not most people's idea of fun.

But we ultimately coaxed enough participants to attend and we found ourselves uncomfortably sitting in a circle to hear each other's life stories on a Friday evening at a Girl Scout Retreat Center. Most participants found the interaction very stressful. I was not sure if this social experiment would explode into a screaming match lacking all constructive communication. If that happened, the opinions people held would just be reinforced.The attitudes that evening reflected years of frustration with the other side.

The Jewish participants expressed anguish at suicide bombers, religious extremists consumed by blind hatred and years of Arab rejections to Israeli overtures of peace. The Arab participants complained of the suffering, oppression, and humiliation endured by the Palestinians and Israeli rejections of Arab overtures to make peace.

Much of the interaction was exactly what we would all expect of such a group. It seemed unlikely to change any minds or hearts.

We broke for dinner and ensured that there were an equal number of Jewish and Arab guests at each table. As we broke bread together, the dialogue was more civil. People described their families, and even childhood memories. There was laughter, and with it, a miraculous process began to unfold. On Saturday, we broke into small groups and did role reversal exercises. We created scenarios in which Arab participants would play the role of an Israeli soldier, or settler. The Jewish participants would assume the role of a Palestinian teenager in a refugee camp, or a Palestinian parent struggling to find work and raise a family.

We did other exercises that exposed private inner feelings and by that afternoon, many had gotten emotional. Some described hardship and suffering endured by their parents and tears were shed. People became increasingly honest about their feelings as they opened up to the group. Our common humanity was becoming evident to everyone involved.By Sunday afternoon, as we said our goodbyes, the transformation was shocking. Miraculously, somehow we had all become sincere friends.

Many joked, hugged and made plans to gather for dinner reunions. Most agreed that this weekend had changed them profoundly. After that success, we held several more weekend retreats with similar groups. The results were consistently encouraging. The lesson was clear: given an opportunity to experience another person's life and views in a non-threatening, safe environment, most people's prejudices are mitigated.

Negative stereotyping becomes much harder to accept when you have good friends who contradict that stereotype. It seems obvious to us that if real Mideast peace is ever realized, it will come when we can acknowledge and address our common hopes and fears.

###* George A. Gorayeb lives near Annapolis, Maryland and still promotes Jewish-Arab dialogue. He can be reached at This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 16 August 2007, Copyright permission has been granted for republication.**********