Helen Blier, an educator from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has returned from a mission to Israel with a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but remains “no less convinced that the military occupation of Palestine is horrifying and results in the deep suffering of so many.”
The trip, which was for leaders and scholars of divinity schools from across the country, was organized and funded by Interfaith Partners for Peace, a program that is incubated and supported by the Israel Action Network. The IAN is a project of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Air fare, hotels, meals and security for eight full days of touring Israel were provided to the 26 divinity school educators from mainline Christian seminaries. Participants were required to pay just a “goodwill token fee” of $500, according to Blier.
Blier is the director of continuing education at the PTS, a graduate theological school of the Presbyterian Church (USA) located in East Liberty.
As continuing education director, Blier has provided opportunities for interfaith dialogue at the PTS. One such event in 2016 featured Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai and Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, following a trip they took to Israel together two years ago — along with 13 other interfaith pairs from across the country. That trip was also sponsored by Interfaith Partners for Peace.
While the PTS is a school of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Blier is Catholic.
The relationship between some segments of the Presbyterian Church and some Jewish organizations has been strained as a result of the church passing a resolution in 2014 to divest from certain companies doing business in Israel. Moreover, at its General Assembly in 2016, the church passed a resolution calling on Presbyterians to “prayerfully study the call from Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel.” The Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith were among the Jewish organizations that openly criticized the church for passing resolutions “demonizing” the Jewish state.
One of the aims of the mission to Israel for divinity school scholars was to “show people the complexity of the situation in the Middle East, that there are multiple narratives, the situation is complicated, and to come back with a sense of that complexity,” according to Rabbi Leonard Gordon, co-director, along with the Rev. Peter Pettit, of Interfaith Partners for Peace.
“One of the things we do is try to introduce them as much as possible to people doing shared society work, to people doing co-existence work,” Gordon said. “There are some amazing organizations — whether it’s environmental work, like EcoPeace [Middle East], whether it’s settlers and Palestinians working together like in the group called Root — we try to introduce these academics to the people who are building the basis for coexistence between the Israelis and Palestinians on the other side of a treaty. So, even if the political echelon today is a little stuck, here is what things may look like. And that is a big part of our trip.”
In some Christian denominations, Gordon continued, “there might be a conversation about boycotts or divestments, so we are trying to build a cadre of people who will say, ‘You know, rather than divest from certain corporations or boycott certain products, let’s invest some of our resources in supporting these coexistence groups.”
A goal of the mission is for participants to “recreate a centrist discourse that understands complexity, to meet with and learn about the coexistence groups, to leave with a sense of hopefulness in difficult times and then to be able to propose to their host communities — whether it is who they bring to their colleges to speak, or what they say in their denominational meetings — here is something you may want to invest in rather than divest.”
When asked about her views on the BDS movement both before and after the trip, Blier declined to comment. She was, however, moved by what she saw in the coexistence projects.
The country, she said, “is a place of equal parts great hope and deep lament, and great celebration and great suffering. And the places where I saw the most hope, of all the folks we met — and let me tell you, we met people who were at top levels of administration and government, and journalism — was in the people-to-people programs.
“The deepest cynicism and resignation to imperfection and the possibility of there being no solution, were the people who had spent a lot of time dealing with the conflict at high levels,” she continued. “The people who seemed to have the greatest hope were the groups who were ordinary participants in people-to-people programs, whether it was Kids for Peace, or an organization called Shorashim Roots in the West Bank.”
Her perception of the Middle East also was expanded, she said, by learning the deep effect of the second intifada on the psyche of Israeli society.
“What became very clear was the trauma folks continue to have as a result of the second intifada,” she said. “I don’t think that before this trip I understood how deeply the PTSD runs in Israeli society.
“I came out of the trip with a much deeper appreciation for the deeply entrenched trauma on both sides,” Blier continued, “and I do think the only hope is the people-to-people programs. But they do need to be supported institutionally with policies that allow people to have the space to be with each other.”
In an email following the interview, Blier sought to clarify her remarks.
“I can appreciate the persistent trauma of the second intifada on Israeli consciousness and the ways in which it re-invoked the trauma of the Holocaust that we know lingers for generations,” she wrote. “AND I can be opposed to the exercise of violence and discrimination by those, especially hardliners, on the Israeli side.”
One of the things that participants learned on the trip, she said, was there was “no real consensus among Jewish participants and presenters about a solution to the conflict — indeed, we heard much about the disagreements within the Jewish community, about everything from occupation and settlements to the viability of a two-state solution and to the core of Jewish identity — peoplehood? Book? Land? Nationality? And so on. So, if the purpose of the trip was to complexify participants’ understanding of the conflict, it surely did this — as regards the Jewish and Israeli experience. Because we had little access to a diverse array of Arab and Palestinian voices, we did not have the same opportunity to complexify those narratives.”
Blier noted the lack of exposure to Arab and Palestinian voices, which may have been a shortcoming of the trip, admitted Gordon.
“One of the things we thought of in preparing the itinerary of the trip is that the participants would have already been familiar with the Palestinian narrative to a greater degree than the Israeli narrative,” Gordon said, “so the trip might have been skewed a little bit more toward the Israeli narrative than usual, and we recognized in retrospect that that was discomforting and probably not pedagogically effective.”
Gordon’s co-chair, Pettit, who received his master’s of divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary and is on faculty at both the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Muhlenberg College, agreed.
“I think the assumption that was made that was inaccurate, that didn’t prove to be well-founded or effective, was that the mainline Protestant seminary faculty and leaders would be pretty intimately familiar with the Palestinian experience and perspective, because we’ve see how the Palestinian voice has been present in so many church-wide assemblies, publications, etc. in the last decade or so.
“So, what ended up happening was the trip focused mostly on filling in the Jewish-Israeli side of the picture expecting that the Palestinian side was already well in place, with the intention of providing the kind of complicated, fuller, non-simplistic, non-advocacy experience that in fact is the goal of Interfaith Partners for Peace.”
Pettit learned, he said, that “you can’t only present one part of a picture assuming that people are presented the other part and claim you either have an understanding or an empathy for the whole complicated picture, because all people are hearing you talk about is the one part you are presenting.”
Gordon acknowledged that the news of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., to which the participants returned following the trip may have further complicated their processing of the trip.
“Coming back from one of these trips into the very, very difficult situation in America with the horrific things that have been said on the national stage in the last few day — it’s disorienting. It’s not surprising that somebody might come back from a trip like this with really strong feelings in multiple directions and having that exacerbated by Charlottesville and its aftermath.”
While Interfaith Partners for Peace studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its participants, its focus is actually on American interfaith relations, Pettit said.
In the last decade, some formerly strong interfaith relationships in America “have grown fractured, strained in some cases almost destroyed or even destroyed, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the intifada had become a different thing than it was before 2002,” Pettit said. “And Jews and Christians in America don’t know how to talk to each other about Israel, which makes it awkward to talk about anything else because we know there is something we can’t get into but we both care really deeply about it.
“We are not going to bring peace in the Middle East,” he continued. “We know that. But we can do two things: primarily give American Jews and Christians a way back to their own shared table of dialogue and cooperation and mutual respect, a sense of shared values.
“And if in that process we can also offer them connections to the types of coexistence and shared society projects that are underway [in Israel], that they can both get behind and support, then those programs are going to have a better chance of contributing to an ultimate resolution. That’s really what our objective at Interfaith Partners for Peace is.”
As for Blier, at the time of the interview, she was still doing the work of processing all she had seen on the trip.
“I think that one can make the mistake of thinking that if you just expose people to enough experiences and enough conversations, somehow enlightenment will happen,” she said.
“I think it’s not just about hearing other people’s stories or points of views. I think the challenge we all had — those of us on the trip — is how do we think constructively and reflect and integrate and change our ways of thinking and behaving as a result of these experiences. And that process piece is the part I think I am going to be continuing to unpack.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at