Monday, February 18. 2008
We went to what was billed as "A Taste of Interfaith Dialogue" last night, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in the suburban sprawl out west. Up front was a panel of 11 of 12 people who went to Israel in December. The group was "interfaith": three Jews (the rabbis of the Reformed and Conservative synagogues, and the executive director of the Mid-Kansas Jewish Federation, evidently also a rabbi and an Israeli citizen); two Muslims (a cop and an engineer who works for the city, the former a Sunni from Kuwait, the latter a Shi'a from Iran); Presbyterian and Methodist ministers, plus assorted Christian laiety. The trip was at least partly occasioned by the question of whether the Presbyterian church should divest from business involved in Israel's occupation of Palestinian Territories. The three rabbis who went on this trip spend much of their time here politicking for Israel. They raised funds for the trip. Given their prior experience in Israel, they should have been effective guides and minders.
The session started with two passes around the table, where each talked about their favorite moments during the trip. Most of the Christians talked about their awe at the holy sites, retracing the steps of Jesus. The rabbis, somewhat condescendingly, talked about being touched by the depth of the Christians' experiences, asserting their common religious experience -- one went so far as to describe Christianity as Judaism's "daughter religion." The muslims talked about the fellowship of the group, how they recognized that we are all one people. This polite, feel good facade fractured as soon as the first question was raised. It was: in your travels, were you able to experience anything that let you empathize with the state Palestinians find themselves in? The Arab-American policeman, who teaches Arabic and advises police departments throughout the state on Arab issues, who as he put it is "in the security business," spoke first, and that's all it took for the conflict to take over the discussion.
I didn't take notes, but I think only one subsequent question was not on the conflict. The rabbis did their best to hold their ground -- the Conservative one (originally from South Africa) was combative, the others conciliatory, one lamely arguing that there are only shades of gray in the conflict, the other (in a rare moment of self-examination) admitting his inability to hear the same human complexity from Palestinians that he easily discerned in Israelis. The discussion remained at a friendly level, with much agreement to disagree. What struck me wasn't the details, let alone the arguments, but the simple fact that the legendary Israeli hasbara, practiced in this case by skilled pros on a well-meaning but relatively naive group of mere Americans, had failed to work its magic.
In the end, the interfaith lesson is simple: getting us to agree that we are all the same under God is easy; reconciling that agreement with the Occupation is not.
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