Speakers tell Middle East peace group that blame and stereotypes won’t help

ST. LOUIS — Do Presbyterians really think the best way to foster peace and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is to pick sides?

That question loomed large at a June 16 breakfast session of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, held here during the 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

To be of real help, several speakers at the breakfast said, Presbyterians should quit thinking blame and stereotypes are useful tools.

Bassem Eid, a human rights activist who investigates violations by both the Israeli Armed Forces and the Palestinian Authority, said outsiders — including Presbyterians — “are adding oil to the flames” by heaping blame on one side, the Israelis, for their ongoing conflict between themselves and Palestinians.

On the other hand, he said, it doesn’t help to portray the Palestinians as weak or oppressed, or as focused solely on the quest for a separate state. The ruling passion for most Palestinians today, he said, is their quest for “dignity, rather than identity.”

Todd Stavrakos

Another speaker, Todd Stavrakos, pointed to a proposal before the assembly’s Middle East Issues Committee as an example of shortsighted blame-casting. That measure, overture 12-2, sponsored by the Synod of the Covenant, calls for suspending all U.S. government economic and military aid to Israel until that country fully complies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Stavrakos, a Presbyterian pastor in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, said cuts in government aid usually translate into reduced funding for services to the most vulnerable people. If the object is to aid the Palestinians, he said, “do we honestly think that removing funding from Israel is the best way of achieving that scenario?”

Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, said she has learned from participating in struggles for racial and social justice that bridging deep divides requires both love for the stranger and deep self-knowledge.

“Do your inner work,” she said. “Ask yourself what implicit bias do you carry with you.”

Presbyterians for Middle East Peace is an organization of lay and minister volunteers that began as a grassroots group after the 2004 General Assembly. It was formally established prior to the 2008 GA.