Congregants from local church and synagogue to visit Israel together
In a set-up straight out of the corniest joke books, a pastor, a rabbi, and a fitfully observant Jewish journalist walk into an interview.
It’s a cold, blustery late spring morning, and Rev. Dave Grishaw-Jones, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation, and Rabbi Paula Marcus, a rabbi and cantor at the Reform Jewish Temple Beth El, have both made time in their exceptionally busy schedules to sit down together. As they settle into Rev. Grishaw-Jones’ book-lined study, the two clergy members, who co-lead an interfaith Middle East dialogue group, prepare to talk about their latest—and perhaps most challenging—project. On July 14, they will lead 25 of their congregants to Israel and the West Bank for two weeks, on what they agree promises to be both an enlightening and exhausting journey. “The itinerary is rather frightening,” laughs Rabbi Marcus.
The impetus for the upcoming trip was a December 2008 presentation the pair gave to the public after each had returned from separate trips to Israel; Rabbi Marcus had gone to the Middle East with the organization Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), while Rev. Grishaw-Jones was there during a six-week sabbatical.
“Once we were planning the event together, we compared notes, and, unbeknownst to each of us, we both had been writing poetry while we were there and having some parallel experiences,” says Marcus. “It was during that evening we looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we should do a trip together.’”
They hope that leading such a journey—with a focus on dialogue, reconciliation, and healing—can help support efforts to bring peace to Israel, as well as help create a more productive conversation at home.
“What we want to do,” Grishaw-Jones explains, “is expose our congregants to the kind of peacemaking that we think has a future.” He says he’s dissatisfied with the “mean-spiritedness” that often surrounds the Israel-Palestine debate in Santa Cruz, saying that the issue is frequently “a wedge” between activists who otherwise work together on issues like affordable housing and healthcare access. “The old politics of blame and rage and finger-pointing haven’t succeeded in the least,” he says. “Some sort of new peacemaking has to emerge.”
The timing of the trip does present unique challenges. Though supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process often means experiencing a sort of emotional whiplash, the last month has been especially tumultuous. Less than three days after Marcus and Grishaw-Jones were interviewed for this article, the Israeli Defense Forces boarded and seized six ships of a Turkish flotilla trying to break the Gaza blockade; the flotilla was supported by both the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). Clashes between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestine activists aboard the largest ship, the MV Mavi Marmara, left nine passengers dead and many more wounded, in an event that sparked both international outrage and furious debate.
More recently, Israel’s Foreign Minster, Avigdor Leiberman, speaking at a June 29 press conference in Jerusalem, expressed grave doubts that a Palestinian state will be established soon. “I’m an optimistic person, but there is absolutely no chance of reaching a Palestinian state by 2012,” he said. “One can dream and imagine, but we are far from reaching understandings and an agreement.”
Grishaw-Jones says that all of the participants are grappling with the logistical and psychological preparations necessary to visit such a disputed region. “This isn’t like going to Hawaii for a couple weeks,” he says. “There’s a tension that comes with this kind of travel, and [also] with doing it with folks from different traditions.”
The clergy members have made an effort to plan events that cover a broad spectrum of political and spiritual beliefs; the agenda includes a meeting with the Bereaved Family Forum, which is composed of both Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones to the violence, as well as planned conversations with Palestinian activists, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and even an Arab Sufi sheikh.
“We’re trying to hold a lot of paradox,” Marcus says. “We’re also committed to reflection time, prayer time, [and] journaling time so that people really do have the opportunity to start to understand what they’re experiencing along the way.”
For both the pastor and the rabbi, this journey is shaded by painful memories of their past trips. Rev. Grishaw-Jones recounts a meeting with a Palestinian woman in a refugee camp in the West Bank. “She had been detained that day for six hours at a checkpoint, sniffed up and down by dogs—just really humiliated,” he remembers. “She was ripping mad. On TV and even in books, the anger and the rage are hard for me to identify with. That night, I got it a little bit, as much as a white guy from Santa Cruz can get it. She was living with this kind of humiliation for decades. She’d grown up in a refugee camp. That was stunning all by itself, a woman living all her life in refugee camps.”
He also remembers meeting two Israeli brothers living on a kibbutz near the Golan Heights, another disputed territory. At that time, Syria and Israel were tentatively discussing a plan to return the Golan to Syria; the Israelis there stood a chance of losing their homes and livelihood in the exchange. These stories, he says, brought home “this real realization that peace is hard … It’s not going to be without a lot of pain and sacrifice. I try to keep those people with me, those stories.”
For her part, Rabbi Marcus also remembers visiting a kibbutz, and seeing that the children’s play areas were totally covered in concrete to protect from shelling. “It was right there in our faces, that this is how these children have to grow up,” she says. Later, RHR visited a Palestinian olive farmer whose trees had been burned down by Israeli settlers. “We were going to be replanting a couple hundred olive trees,” she explains. “He shared how much olive oil he had harvested from that orchard and how long those trees had been a part of his family’s future and inheritance and past.”
Even with all of these difficult remembrances, and fresh causes for pessimism and sadness, Rabbi Marcus and Rev. Grishaw-Jones still see rays of hope and a need for decisive action.
“This is a key moment for the two-state solution,” says Grishaw-Jones. “Who knows eight years from now where we’ll be? What the [U.S. presidential] administration will look like and what the Middle East will look like?”
Rabbi Marcus agrees. “Right now is an auspicious time because we have an administration that clearly feels a strong connection with Israel,” she says. “It’s a wonderful time for us to understand how we can support the president in moving the peace process forward.” She hopes firsthand experience will show the 25 trip members the vital nature of brokering a lasting peace: “People will, God willing, have a chance to see what a difference it would make if our administration is able to move these parties towards a two-state solution soon.”
Learn more about the group’s trip at interfaithjourney2010.blogspot.com.