The 15-member delegation of Jews, Christians and Muslims engaged in a series of high-level political and religious meetings in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, including with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and current Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, to hear a wide range of perspectives on peace, religion and politics and to share their own views about the role the three Abrahamic faiths must play in helping to shape a better world.
The group heard deep concerns, frustrations, and strong sentiments of distrust in the midst of a stalled peace process, but they were encouraged by countless signs of hope and optimism and they were galvanized to be part of the solution together.
They also met with leaders of grassroots initiatives – the Shades Negotiation Program, EcoPeace and Roots – that bring together Israelis and Palestinians to hear and learn from one another’s narratives, and to build a peaceful society in which everyone can prosper.
“We’ve built bridges this week,” said Jefferts Schori, “and we’re going to keep traveling those bridges, and exploring the chasms beneath them, and looking over the guard rails for new possibilities, until God’s shalom and salaam and peace prevail in the Land of the Holy One and throughout the oneness of God’s creation.”
However, she said, “this cannot be a zero-sum game” in which one side’s gain is equivalent to another’s loss. “When we can back off from ‘what are they going to take from us,’ we might begin to find the answers.”
Along with Jefferts Schori, the group’s co-leaders were Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), and Sayyid Syeed, national director of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Together, they represent about 15 million Americans.
“We have experienced the land and its people as they understand themselves. We leave with a sense of hope that people of faith, on the ground and in America, can truly be part of the solution,” said Gutow. “We heard from Israelis and Palestinians that our presence as religious leaders from three different faiths coming here at such a difficult time gives hope that our dream can come to fruition.”
Syeed said that there is no other solution “but to come up with an end to the present stalemate. It weighs heavy on everyone living in the Holy Land. We will continue to press our people and our government to resume the efforts for negotiations between the parties and help to build mutual trust and confidence. Faith leaders and congregations will continue to pray for success and do whatever we can to support these efforts.”
The visit was planned in response to Resolution B019, passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2012, that called for positive investment and engagement in the region and recommended that the presiding bishop develop an interfaith model pilgrimage that experiences multiple narratives. That resolution reiterated the Episcopal Church’s longstanding commitment to a negotiated two-state solution “in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable and secure state for the Palestinian people.”
ISNA and JCPA also endorse that vision of lasting peace in the Holy Land through an agreed two-state solution.
“When talking about peace, there is a tendency to look at the obstacles,” said Peres, 91, welcoming the delegation to a 45-minute meeting in Jaffa, Israel, at the Peres Peace Center, which he founded in 1996 to build peace through socio-economic cooperation and development.
“Great things in life cannot be achieved unless you close a little bit your eyes. You cannot fall in love and you cannot make peace unless you close a little bit your eyes. With open eyes you will see all the problems and you will be blind to the opportunities,” said Peres, who twice served as Israeli prime minister – once in the mid-80s and again in the mid-90s – and recently retired as president, largely a ceremonial figurehead role.
Peres, who won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the peace talks that led to the Oslo Accords, said that he believes “there is no separation between God and the spirit … In our land we want religions really to come together. The characteristic of a nation must be multi-cultural and multi-spirited.”
At the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah two days later, Hamdallah shared his desire for peace and reconciliation and described it as an “inspiration” that such a diverse group of religious leaders from the U.S. would visit the region and engage with the people and the issues head on.
U.S.-led peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders broke down in May 2014, with both sides blaming the other for failing to make adequate concessions on issues such as borders, the status of refugees, the sharing of Jerusalem, and the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
Then in July 2014 in the Gaza Strip, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against the militant Islamic movement Hamas after a surge in rocket attacks. The Israel-Gaza conflict, which erupted following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, and the retaliatory abduction and murder of a Palestinian youth, resulted in the death of more than 2,100 Gazans, mostly civilians, and 73 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes by Israel in the Palestinian Territories. Israel and the U.S. have strongly criticized the move, saying it undermines chances for a negotiated peace deal.
In early January, Israel retaliated by withholding the transfer of $127 million in tax revenues to the Palestinians.
“There’s a serious commitment not to resort to violence,” Hamdallah, who succeeded Salam Fayyad as Palestinian prime minister in June 2013, told the interfaith group. “We condemn all violent activities anywhere, whether in France or Israel, anywhere. We believe that these people who say they are representing Islam, they are not Muslims. Our theme is to achieve our goals through peaceful means.”
But Hamdallah told the religious leaders that he doubts whether the Palestinians could reach an agreement with the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other leaders throughout the week told the interfaith group that it is difficult to see how a peace deal could be reached between Netanyahu and Abbas because the two sides have become so entrenched in their positions.
One senior Israeli official, who asked not to be named, said that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “involves negotiations between two traumatized people, two people scarred by their past and fearful about their future. The essential aim in negotiation is to not only write your own victory speech but to write the other person’s as well.”
He said that the only way to shift from a zero-sum negotiation involves not just tolerating the other side “but being invested in their desired outcome just as you are in yours.”
The grave error in negotiations, he said, is that people “believe they must be involved in bringing the messiah, or in bringing justice and peace in some cosmic sense. Think a little bit less about bringing the messiah and a little bit more about making people’s lives better.”
During the meeting with Hamdallah, Syeed said that people of faith in the U.S. and around the world were hopeful when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry helped to restart the peace negotiations in 2013 but that they were troubled when those talks broke down a year later. Speaking on behalf of the interfaith delegation, Syeed said: “This is a unique alliance – Muslims, Christians, Jews together, having the same vision, having the same commitment, and expressing our solidarity.”
While much of the meetings centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the stalled peace process, and the role of religion, some of the conversations turned to more philosophical and reflective topics and included a number of lighter moments and shared laughter.
“The optimist and pessimist are passing away the same way, so why spend your life as a pessimist?” Peres said. “It’s not the brain that provides us with thoughts and dreams. It’s the other way around. It’s thoughts and dreams that cause the brain to adapt…
“Science has changed the way that people view the world. Science can overcome violence, so you don’t need wars. Science doesn’t have borders, so you cannot establish borders in science. Science cannot be controlled,” Peres added.
Jefferts Schori, a former oceanographer, told Peres that “it is a great blessing to hear you talk about the gift of science and it is leading us to new places. People of faith come with a different kind of knowing and I do not believe that it is different to the kind of knowing that science can offer. But when they come together they invite people to look far more deeply into the heart of reality, to see the connections that emanate from the center and that we cannot survive without one another. It is the driver for peacemaking.”
In other high-level political meetings, the group met with U.S. Ambassador to the State of Israel Daniel Shapiro; U.S. Consul General Michael Ratney; Ruth Calderon, an academic and a member of the Knesset, the Israeli government’s parliament; and Kholoud Al-Faqih, judge of the Sharia Court of Ramallah and the first female sharia judge in the Palestinian Territories.
Al-Faqih spoke to the group in Ramallah about her personal and professional journey, which involved eight years of determination and repeated visits to legal decision-makers until they finally accepted her pleas to enter the judicial training process. It has led to her being ranked by CEO Middle East magazine as number 10 of the 100 most powerful Arab women in the world.
Jefferts Schori relayed the biblical parable, told by Jesus to his disciples, of the persistent widow seeking justice from a judge. “What she does is go and knock on his door every day and bother him until she gets justice,” Jefferts Schori said. “You have done the same thing. You are a wonderful example to us. Thank you.”
Shapiro, who has served as ambassador since July 2011, welcomed the group during a meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel. “The fact that all of you – busy people in your communities – took the time to come and engage in a deep way, is really something I strongly appreciate. It’s a tough set of issues, but it won’t get less tough without people of goodwill throwing themselves into it,” he said.
“There are unfortunately other approaches. Some people turn away from it altogether. Some people choose to attack one side or the other and make it about a point-scoring exercise. Neither of those approaches is going to achieve our goals, which is a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians,” he added. “An approach that says we need to come, we need to listen, we need to engage, we need to help create linkages between ourselves and both sides and, of course, across the divide, is to me the only approach that has the chance of succeeding.”
Calderon, a Yesh Atid party member who has served as a member of the Knesset since 2012, said that she believes that religion is often “much more creative than diplomacy.”
“This is the place of God, so how can we think that it’s ours or theirs? The whole talk about whom does it belong to always makes me uncomfortable because we know it belongs to God,” she told the group in Tel Aviv. “If I can say that there is one thing that God has taught me it’s that I don’t own things. I’m here on rent, maximum, and that is so simple for us to understand, but so difficult for us to say in parliament … I think there is in the religious language a way to solve the most painful problems … One of the things that I’ve learned in the last three years in parliament is that you cannot leave it to politicians.”
JCPA’s Gutow thanked Calderon for challenging the group to think about what it is that God would want. “If we take that as the measure of how we look at things, I think we’ll really come up with something beautiful.”
In connecting with grassroots organizations, the group met with leaders from the Shades Negotiation Program, which provides future Israeli and Palestinian leaders with constructive problem solving skills and resources to identify and create opportunities for a peaceful and prosperous future in the region.
The interfaith group traveled to Gush Etzion, where the leadership of Roots comprises Palestinian leaders from adjoining villages with Israeli settlers who, despite disagreement on some core issues, believe it is imperative for the communities to put aside political retrenchment and divisive actions and rhetoric in order to begin sowing the seeds necessary to make an eventual peace agreement take hold.
“Without building trust, the suspicions between us will suffocate the political peace agreements,” said Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a project coordinator for Roots.
Their grassroots organizing includes engaging local leaders, non-violence workshops and religious dialogue.
“We know that there is great disagreement over many issues – over the facts of the past and even about the reality of the present – but we believe that effective dialogue is the secure place for argument and deeper understanding,” according to Shaul Judelman, a project coordinator who has lived in Gush Etzion for the past 13 years. “It is in this space that solutions can be built.”
And in Tel Aviv, the interfaith group heard from EcoPeace Middle East, which brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists through cooperative efforts “to protect our shared environmental heritage. In so doing, we seek to advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in our region,” according to the organization’s website.
The initiative has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the demise of the Jordan River, which is drying up and has been polluted with untreated sewage over the course of the past 50 years.
“The problems we saw seemed intractable and a two-state solution felt like a faraway dream,” said Gutow. “But when we met with people on the ground, we saw people who believed in that dream and were in an effort to find a solution to the problems in the land.”
Other members of the delegation were:
• Bishop Prince Singh of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester
• The Rev. John E. Kitagawa, rector of St. Philip’s in-the-Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona
• The Rev. Charles K. Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop
• The Rev. Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations
• Alexander D. Baumgarten, director of public engagement and mission communication
• Sharon Jones, executive assistant to the presiding bishop
• Rabbi Leonard Gordon, interreligious relations chair for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs
• Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs
• Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, director of social justice and interfaith initiatives for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington
• Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, director of the Hickey Center for interfaith studies and dialogue at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York
• Azhar Azeez, president of the Islamic Society of North America
• Mohamed Elsanousi, director of external relations for Finn Church Aid
— Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.