I’ve just returned from a few days in Washington, where I attended a conference entitled, “For the Peace of Jerusalem”, based upon Psalm 122 which states, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May all who love her prosper” (Ps 122:6-9, paraphrased). The conference was put on by Churches for Middle East Peace (www.cmep.org). This is a group of many churches in the United States in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), my denomination, is very active. Our keynote address featured Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour from Ibillin in Galilee, who has established a model high school for Israeli and Palestinian youth to attend together. Archbishop Chacour is a refugee of the displacement of the Palestinian people in 1948, but despite being cruelly driven from his home along with his entire village at a young age, from the beginning he has led a life of peace and has worked hard to model and teach reconciliation. You can read his story in the books, Blood Brothers and We Belong To The Land. We also heard about the Arab Spring and many other aspects of this complex and difficult situation, hearing from both Jewish and Palestinian speakers and gaining depth of perspective.
Tuesday was our day “on the Hill”. Our conference culminated in a day in which we visited our Senators’ and Representative’s offices to share our concerns about the situation between Israel and Palestine. Sometimes circumstances collide in strange ways; it just happened that our day to make these visits was also the day that Benjamin Netanyahu came to make a speech to a joint session of Congress. The conference also just happened to be at the same time as the Jewish Lobby (AIPAC) conference and other conferences focused on peace in the Holy Land.
Mr. Netanyahu’s speech came in connection with his visit to President Obama. Prior to Mr. Netanyahu’s arrival, President Obama had stated his opinion that peace between Israel and Palestine would need to be based upon the 1967 boundaries between Israel and Palestine, with some negotiated land swaps. Mr. Netanyahu responded that this would be untenable. Although Mr. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress received many ovations, much of its content is disturbing. What was most distressing to me about Mr. Netanyahu’s speech were the statements that any two-state solution would leave Israeli settlements inside the West Bank, would require all of Jerusalem for Israel’s capital city, and would insist on continued military control of the Jordan Valley. I fear this position does not leave a lot of room for our Palestinian friends to live in. Mr. Netanyahu also emphasized that Jerusalem under the Israelis is open to all faiths, but in fact it is nearly impossible for most Palestinians in the West Bank, including pastors and priests, to even enter the city for worship, and more and more Palestinian neighborhoods are being demolished in Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu also expressed unwillingness to negotiate with the newly reconciled Palestinian coalition of Fatah and Hamas.
The analysis that follows is from my observation and participation in the conference and the lobby day. These are my own understandings and not an official statement of CMEP. That being said, something we discussed was the hope that members of Congress might wait and see what this newly-reconciled Palestinian government will mean. One benefit in this new development is that the Palestinian people are working toward speaking their truth with one voice. How things will play out within this internal Palestinian dialogue remains to be seen. Support for the unity effort is explicitly not support for terrorism or violence, but it is the hope for the possibility of a dialogue that includes all parties in the conflict.
There is a resolution currently in the House suggesting that US funding to the Palestinian government should be reexamined because of the unity initiative (H.Res. 268; I understand a similar bill may be emerging in the Senate). But the CMEP discussion included concern that withdrawal of financial support from the Palestinian Authority now would likely be detrimental to the peace process. In my own opinion, the financial support the United States gives Palestine is very small indeed compared to the massive amount we provide to Israel. There is no equity here. Palestinian aid is carefully controlled and directed, and supports development of that government and its security forces as well as providing funding for UNRWA (the United Nations Relief Works Agency, which offers education, nutrition and other support in Palestine). Having toured some of the refugee camps where many of the poorest Palestinian children attend crowded UNRWA schools, I know that these schools are operating with less funding than they need. Withdrawal of support for the PA now would be a blow to the hopes and dreams of the Palestinian people and cause them increased hardship in education and in many other areas of daily life.
Our Iowa delegation went to see staffers at the offices of Representative Tom Latham and Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin. We felt that our comments were given a careful hearing. In the case of the senators, the staffers took notes on our meeting to share with the senators. It was great to learn more about how to participate in the process of entering into these kinds of conversations. This is only my third time lobbying, and CMEP provided excellent guidance and support.
In addition, I felt proud to demonstrate and pray with a group of Episcopalians led by Bishop John Chane, praying and demonstrating on a street corner by the Capitol on behalf of Bishop Dawani, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, who has had his Jerusalem residency permit and visa revoked. This is just one example of the many ways in which the current political situation creates hardship for the Palestinian people, by limiting their ability to move freely, to work, and to live in Jerusalem.The Episcopal group was one of many groups demonstrating in the Capital, some praying quietly and holding signs, some chanting, some using microphones to address the crowds. The day was interactive and lively.
All in all, my time in Washington was an opportunity to participate in some of the most cherished freedoms in the world including the right to free speech and open discussion about how our government ought to act in the world, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of grievances. It is for these sorts of rights that people in the Arab world have been demonstrating. At the end of the day, as I returned to a friend’s for a meal and a good night’s sleep, I reflected on how much rests upon whether we make good use of these gifts of freedom, entrusted to us in order for us to be active in the cause of justice and peace. The end of Psalm 122 says that we seek Jerusalem’s peace for the sake of our friends and kin. We are all connected. In my opinion, no one experiences full human dignity, safety, self-determination, and freedom, until everyone does.
Peace and Good,