OREGON Board of Rabbis President Rabbi Daniel Isaak of Congregation Neveh Shalom addresses a gathering of Presbyterians in Tigard on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the end of a forum on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process March 10 in Tigard, Robert Horenstein observed, "And there, in 40 minutes, you understand why peace in the Middle East is so difficult to achieve."
Horenstein was one of four individuals, including two Jews and two Palestinians-one Christian and one Muslim-who shared their perspectives on the long dispute between Israelis and Palestinians for the benefit of the assembled Presbyterians.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process moved near the top of the Presbyterian agenda in 2004 after a reportedly unexpected resolution recommending church divestment from companies doing business with Israel was approved at the national church's annual meeting that year in Richmond, Va.
That action sparked considerable concern and comment within the U.S. Jewish community.
The local forum took place at the Calvin Presbyterian Church, which hosted on March 10 and 11 the regular meeting of the Presbytery of the Cascades, the regional organization of the Presbyterian Church. The Presbytery meets three times a year and brings together clergy and congregational representatives.
Horenstein is the staff director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland Community Relations Committee. Long recognized as an articulate spokesman for Jewish perspectives on the peace process, he was the leadoff speaker at the forum and had addressed another gathering at the conference earlier in the day.
Besides Horenstein, the others who addressed the local Presbyterians were, in order of appearance, Hanan Zawideh Dudley, a Christian Palestinian born in Ramallah who immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a child; Rabbi Daniel Isaak of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland; and Frank Afranji, a Muslim Palestinian long active in the Portland area on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
Each of the four speakers was allotted 10 minutes to address two questions: 1. "What needs to happen for there to be peace between Palestine and Israel?" 2. "What can Presbyterians do to encourage this to happen?"
Horenstein began by voicing support for a two-state solution, which two others among the speakers also would support.
While desirable, that option, in Horentstein's view, is not possible unless, he said, there is "unequivocal Arab, and especially Palestinian, acceptance of Israel's right to exist."
While the Palestinian Authority claims to have done that very thing before negotiations between the two parties came to an end, Horenstein thinks that Palestinian actions speak louder than words, that, at best, they have been equivocal on the issue.
"Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist manifests itself in many ways, from the use of terror and violence against Israeli civilians to the insistence on the return of (Palestinian) refugees, their children, grand children, great-grandchildren …knowing full well that this would turn the Jewish state of Israel into the 23rd Arab state," he told the Presbyterians.
Horenstein also challenged Palestinian credibility on the issue of Israel's right to exist by citing their continuing challenges to "Israel's legal and moral standing in international forums like the UN, (and) to the spread of a hateful ideology emanating from Palestinian textbooks, mosques, summer camps and TV programs."
Afranji, a gently-spoken man, a Muslim widely viewed as a thoughtful spokesman for Palestinian perspectives, while sharing Horenstein's belief that a two-state solution is the only viable option, believes that the Palestinian Authority has been clear in its acceptance of Israel.
"I truly in my heart of heart believe, unless there are two states, unless there is a legitimate, sovereign, viable Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza…there will be no peace," said Afranji.
"The Palestinians have made huge concessions, which the world seems always to forget. By recognizing Israel in 78 percent of traditional mandated Palestine, they truly stepped up to the plate and said, 'We are willing to give up all of our dreams, all of our hopes, all of our history,' " said Afranji.
Dudley, the Christian Palestinian, differed sharply on the matter of the two-state solution.
"The two-state solution is a farce that will not lead to lasting peace. Just as the Jews scattered through the world did not forget Palestine/Israel, I surely doubt that Palestine will be wiped from the collective memory of Arabs in the foreseeable future," she said.
Dudely, whose conciliatory opening words were quickly replaced by a fiery stridency before she continued in more quietly impassioned tones, said, "The two-state solution has been tried before. In the American South it was called separate-but-equal and enforced by Jim Crow laws. In South Africa it was called apartheid, and it did not work in either case."
She held up the recent Palestinian elections in which Hamas won a resounding victory as reflecting the unwavering will of the Palestinian people to return to their historic homeland.
"Hamas rejects the idea that Palestinians must be satisfied to be caged in on a fraction of the land that is historical Palestine," said Dudley.
"I think Hamas is on the right path by refusing to recognize the state of Israel and therefore the possibility of a separate state of Palestine. It is on the path to a one-state solution, a single, democratic, secular state for Arabs and non-Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians."
Dudley pushed her point too far, in the view of some, when she said, "With every inch of the wall that Israel is building, it is boxing itself in to a corner of history that will shame it as a racist, apartheid state."
When Isaak stood at the lectern after Dudley, he paused in his response to the Presbyterians' questions to say, "I find comparing an effort to disengage and to speak about a two-state solution…to apartheid and our very unfortunate American history of separate-but-equal, as…insulting."
The rabbi suggested that while a one-state solution may once have been an option, subsequent history has made that path unrealistic.
"It was a dream at one point, a real binational state," said Isaak, "but we have to find some way to disengage these peoples who have such pain between them, so to provide security and justice for all concerned."
He summarized the problem more succinctly than anyone else.
"The tragedy is, of course, that there are two peoples both having legitimate claim to virtually the identical piece of geography."
He continued, "Everyone seems to agree that the majority sentiment among Israelis and Palestinians is for a two-state solution, a separation of a sovereign Israeli state from a sovereign Palestinian state."
He held out hope for an eventual solution in the Middle East in the example of efforts in Portland on the part of Jews and Muslims to find common ground.
Isaak recounted how Rabbi Joseph Wolf of Congregation Havurah Shalom and Wajdi Said, director of the Muslim Educational Trust here, jointly formed a Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Among other activities, the group assigned Aaron Vitells, a Jewish Israeli who lives here, and Afranji to develop a proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
"We were sure they would come back in utter frustration," said Isaak.
"We were shocked that they came together with a six point proposal," he said. "We sat to discuss it. We were surprised there wasn't greater rancor between us."
In reference to the proposed Presbyterian disinvestments from companies doing business with Israel, the rabbi called on the Presbyterians to take positive rather than negative steps.
"The Israelis are stubborn. The Palestinians are stubborn," said Isaak. "They will respond negatively to threats and efforts to punish. They will respond positively to things that are done in their interest."
Horenstein had previously called on the Presbyterians to deepen their understanding of the conflict and to invest rather than divest.
"I would say invest in peace, invest in NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that do humanitarian work on the ground that help Palestinians build institutions to promote civil society. Invest in any of the many coexistence programs, like Seeds of Peace, that are attempting to foster a generation of Israelis and Palestinians that live and work side by side and move past the teaching of hate and resort to violence."
Dudley praised the Presbyterians for the national resolution on Israeli divestment, which she said restored her faith in Christianity.
"After years of watching Western Christianity either turn a blind eye to the Palestinian plight or actually promote the Israeli agenda, I felt alienated from my own faith, and then, like life-giving water, the news of the Presbyterian Church's move to divest funds from Israel gave my faith new life," she proclaimed.
Dudley called on her audience "to continue to deny support to Israel as it stands today."
Afranji took a more diplomatic, if also enigmatic, tack in his recommendation to the Presbyterians as he chose not to mention divestment and called on them to find courage.
"We are being used by the extremist hate mongers on both sides to destroy each other," he said. "What you folks can do in this room…quit wishing for a wishing bone and have some backbone to stand up for justice and right and for your own religion."