1998 NCC News Archives

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by Alexa Smith*

WASHINGTON, D.C. ---- With a fragile agreement in place and potentially volatile talks yet to come, national Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders convened here to show support for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and for continued U.S. involvement in peace negotiations.

Though there is little clarity -- and even downright disagreement -- among members of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East about what peace ought to look like, there is real commitment to demonstrate that a carefully negotiated peace is what the majority of Middle Easterners and their U.S. constituencies want -- not unilateral pressure or extremist actions.

Just to make the point, leaders from the National Council of Churches (NCC), the American Muslim Council, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and others gathered Nov. 22 at the Foundry United Methodist Church, the congregation where President Clinton and his family worship when they are in Washington.

NCC General Secretary the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, one of the Interreligious Committee’s national co-chairs, said peacemakers in interfaith circles have been "slogging it out for years and years" on Middle East peace issues. She said that mainstream Protestants have a strategic role to play in pushing the administration to stick with peace negotiations, because the Jewish community is so small. "Without [our] voices," she said, "the government will not put as much energy into the peace process."

During her formal remarks, Dr. Campbell said that the group was gathered for "a very

simple reason: to give energy, strength and courage to all those who are peacemakers." She said that a rabbi once told her that the term "neighbor" is not "a geographic term" but "a moral term." She closed by saying: "So let us go forth and love our neighbors as ourselves."

"This administration – and other administrations before it – has been committed to helping the peace process proceed," said Ronald J. Young, the committee’s executive director, citing vocal lobbies ranging from Christian fundamentalists to the well-established American

* Pro-Israel Political Action Committee voicing sole support for Israel. "But there are pressures on the administration, pressures [from] the Congress that are almost overwhelming . . . and almost all the pressure is, essentially, to adopt the position of the Israeli government and get the Palestinians to accept it."

Use of such pressure is not how his committee wants to see the negotiations run. Begun in 1987 to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together for dialogue, education and peace advocacy, the organization defines itself as working to build bridges between faiths that share the Abrahamic tradition and to work for peace as a moral imperative.

"We’ve got no real political clout. We’ve got a voice, a significant voice," said Albert Vorspan, a vice president emeritus of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations who is one of the committee’s three national interfaith co-chairs. "We’ve got a voice that says the U.S. has to play a leadership role in the peace process, no matter where we may come out individually on the issues ... and we come to understand each other."

"This is the only platform I’ve heard of where people of all religious faiths come together to share one commitment to peace in the Middle East. We never reach across bridges to the other groups."

How hard that is was exemplified by the committee’s program where two speakers – one a retired Israeli military officer, the other a female Palestinian politician and activist – articulated widespread support for peace within their constituencies in a painful 40-year sovereignty battle.

But on the sticky questions – such as control of Israeli settlements deep in Palestinian territory and on how to stop terrorism – common ground was harder to find, let alone, develop.

Startling some in attendance were remarks by Shlomo Lahat, mayor of Tel Aviv and president of the Council for Peace and Security, an organization with 80 percent of Israel’s senior retired military officers as its membership. He proposed that peace, which is necessary for Israel’s security, includes: giving the Palestinian state its 1967 borders and, in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, withdrawing from the Golan Heights. Peace, he said, also includes a commitment from Israel not to interfere in the return of refugees to the new state – ideas that go beyond what the Netanyahu government is offering. Lahat insisted that the Palestinian government minimize terrorism, that settlements, exempting isolated ones, remain within Israeli hands, and that Jerusalem be the capital of the state of Israel, with guarantees of religious freedom for people of all faiths – freedoms that, Lahat said, exist now for the three faiths.

Stepping up next to the podium, former Palestinian National Authority minister Hanan Ashrawi countered a Jerusalem that includes two different capitals for two separate states in one city is a possibility and not "a pipedream."

"We must find a solution to do justice to Jerusalem ... and not reduce it to a spiritual place where people worship," she said, arguing that the city – despite Israeli rhetoric – is not open to people of all religions because of permits often denied to Palestinians and military checkpoints. "It must be a place where people can live."

- Ashrawi articulated what she called a "sense of outrage" that is "destroying the peace process" when the international community – most particularly, the U.S. – overlooks how Israel not only annexed the historically Arab section of Jerusalem, but continues to build settlements on Palestinian land. She said violating human rights to curtail terrorists will not end terrorism, but further the injustices and abuses experienced now by Palestinians and erode trust in the new Palestinian government.

Likewise, the two leaders spoke differently about the U.S. role in future negotiations. Lahat said the U.S. can take several roles in the coming negotiations, from aiding the Palestinian state in development to interfering when agreements are violated, but Ashrawi was more circumspect. "So far, the perception is that the U.S. has taken sides," she said, urging that what has become a dangerously slow peace process should include Europeans and Arabs.

"The need for an active, determined U.S. role in the coming months is absolutely clear," said Young. He added that whatever differences were articulated by the speakers, neither disagreed that a "morally logical, politically realistic" peace is wanted by majorities on both sides of the political divide. "And, we cannot assume that the U.S. will play a role unless we demonstrate – as unitedly as we can – that’s what we want the administration to do.

"Nor are we cheerleaders for one side or the other. We are Americans," he said. "Our role is to push and support the administration to play an active [role] in helping the parties negotiate solutions ... that remain acceptable to majorities on both sides."

The errors and abuses of all three faiths were singled out during remarks by Atif Harden, executive director of the Washington-based American Muslim Council, who asked each community to look at its own record during the centuries each took control of Jerusalem. "Just as individuals are judged for how we live our lives, I also believe communities are judged ... and one of the tests is: did we treat one another with justice?," he asked, using Jewish, Muslim and Christian history to raise questions about the future in what he called "holy land."

"Whose reign," he pushed, "was most just, most righteous ... and who kept the land and the city of Jerusalem a city of peace?"

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Moderator the Rev. Doug Oldenburg told that gathering that the role of religious leaders is to "keep hope alive" in the midst of a process that tempts North Americans "well-insulated from the problems" to be discouraged or worse, apathetic. "We’ve seen history open with unexpected surprises," he said, citing as the foremost example the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "And we must keep hoping and praying that the God we worship will bring about reconciliation. Our job is to keep hope alive."

That energy has been Young’s point since he founded the committee 11 years ago. "We’ve got to hear each others’ points of view. We’ve got to adopt positions of advocacy that are sensitive to each others’ concerns ... [and the government has] to help the parties work toward a solution, the outlines [of] which are beginning to emerge."

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