By Julie Maclemore WellsFor many years Presbyterians in the United States have been concerned about the struggles that often define life in the Middle East, including the difficulties of life in Israel and Palestine. One of the actions that is often suggested to the church is “divestment” — withdrawing investment in any corporation that provides products that are used in military actions in Israel or Palestine.
The PC(USA) already has a policy that prohibits investment of denominational assets in companies that derive the majority of their revenue from war-related products. Divestment would also target those that provide any merchandise used in violent conflict in Palestine or Israel. Some within the denomination saw (and still see) divestment as the right course of action, others as an over-reaction or as something too complicated to manage. Still others see it as hostile to Israel.
In southeast Texas, Jews and Presbyterians formed a group to encourage conversation about this topic about nine years ago. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Presbytery of New Covenant began to discuss this issue and other matters relating to the struggle for peace in Israel. The Jewish/Presbyterian Dialogue group in the greater Houston area has led to in-depth conversations and faith sharing. Pastors and rabbis have exchanged pulpits and leaders of each faith are welcomed at presbytery meetings and Jewish organization meetings. Jews and Presbyterians have traveled to Israel together, celebrated holy days together and explored the context of our faiths together as sisters and brothers of a loving God.
One result has been the creation of a community of Jews and Presbyterians in southeast Texas who are open to learning about each other’s customs, governance and beliefs. Who have become friends who are seriously concerned about the future of both Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and who want to encourage positive investment in the lives of both Arabs and Jews in Israel.
In addition to talking about it and praying about it, the Dialogue group is now doing something about that kind of positive investment. Its members are investing time, talent and money in Hand in Hand, a nonprofit educational organization with schools in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and Wadi Ara, and with plans for new schools in the future.
In a society that is highly segregated, Hand in Hand has created a new option for parents and children — schools where kids can study together and grow up in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect.
Hand in Hand schools are integrated. All their students are Israeli citizens, but half are Jewish and half are Palestinian. All the schools are bilingual, with a Hebrew and Arabic curriculum from preschool through secondary school. Many classrooms — and all of those for the younger students — have co-teachers, one Palestinian and one Jewish. Shared Arabic-Jewish community activities for children, youth and adults of all ages are sponsored or facilitated by each campus. Central to the vision for Hand in Hand is the hope that children who grow up together will, as adults, continue to be friends able to overcome disputes about religion, land, and politics.
The Dialogue group has established a ministry (administered by the Presbytery of New Covenant) to encourage the work of Hand in Hand and to provide opportunities for Jews and Presbyterians to learn more about peacemaking outreach and opportunities. At an initial cost of about $60,000, the first steps will be to supplement scholarship funding at the schools and to hire a peacemaking ministry associate who will work at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, assisting teachers and students and learning about the culture of the city and of the school. At the end of the school year, the ministry associate will return to the United States to share ideas about how to encourage further additional peacemaking investment, as well as to speak and work with groups who want to explore and to learn more about peace initiatives in Israel. And the Dialogue group will continue to work for peace, shalom, salaam.
For additional information about this project, please contact Mike Cole, general presbyter of the Presbytery of New Covenant, at [email protected]. For additional information about Hand in Hand, please visit handinhandk12.org.
JULIE MACLEMORE WELLS is a member of St. Philip-Houston and a ruling elder who serves as chair of the Presbyterian Mo-Ranch Assembly Board, a member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution and a member of the Houston area Jewish/Presbyterian Dialogue Group.