Pastor Todd Stavrakos’ introduction to the politics surrounding Israel came a few years ago while serving as a moderator for the Presbytery of Philadelphia’s peacemaking committee — and it wasn’t pleasant.
He wanted to create dialogue about domestic issues such as poverty, hunger and violence in Philadelphia, but the most vocal committee members seemed consumed with airing their anti-Israel viewpoints.
“It really kept us from doing other work,” said Stavrakos, the leader of Gladwyne Presbyterian Church, who served on the committee in 2011-12. “It sucked up a lot of oxygen.”
Those who made derogatory statements about Israel were part of a larger movement within the church, he said, whose general assembly nearly approved a motion in 2012 to divest from companies selling equipment to the Israeli military in the West Bank.
After Stavrakos made his first trip to Israel earlier this month on an eight-day interfaith mission sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, he said he left with “a strong understanding” that the Israeli-Arab conflict is much more complex than some members of his church acknowledge.
Stavrakos was one of four Presbyterian clergy among 17 participants on the trip, which also included Jewish, Baptist and Lutheran clergy, among others.
The JCRC, which has been sponsoring interfaith missions almost every year for 25 years, seeks to expose members of other faiths to various groups, cities and cultures within Israel in the hopes that they leave with a better understanding of the challenges the Jewish state faces, according to director Adam Kessler.
The organization has invited clergy from across the religious spectrum, he said, but over the last decade, he has focused more on Main Line Protestants because they have been most actively critical of Israel.
“The mantra of the mission is ‘Well, this is complicated,’ ” said Kessler. “They see a country that desperately wants to make peace but is also obsessed with security — and rightly so. When we shine a light on all the different components that make up Israel, that works in favor of building support for Israel.”
The Presbyterian clergy on the tour had an additional layer of baggage to contend with. During their trip, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, the same group that recommended divestment two years ago and supported a boycott of products from the settlements, caused a stir in the Jewish world by releasing a congregational study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” that blames the Israeli-Arab conflict on ”pathology inherent in Zionism.” Stavrakos said none of the clergy on the trip were members of the network, but when he introduced himself as a Presbyterian pastor, Israelis automatically associated him with the group’s anti-Israel activities.
A visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and meetings with residents of Abu Ghosh, an Arab Israeli town, stood out for Stavrakos. He learned about a women’s health initiative that Abu Ghosh residents were organizing.
“To see their energy and passion for their community was really very touching,” he said.
Most of the people Stavrakos met spoke about their hopes of reaching a peace agreement — except for residents of Gush Etzion, settlements south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.
“Coexistence wasn’t that important to them,” he said. “It was a little chilling.”
The trip included visits to Christian historical sites such as the Jordan River, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Participants also toured the Golan Heights, Ramallah and Rawabi, a Palestinian planned city in the West Bank.
It was the second trip to Israel for the Rev. Terrence Griffith, president of the black clergy of Philadelphia, who has been a strong advocate for the Jewish state. He believes, for example, that Israel has a legitimate claim to land captured during the 1967 Six-Day War and that any land returned in a peace agreement would be based “purely upon Israel’s generosity.”
That said, when the group visited Ramallah, the administrative seat of the Palestinian Authority, Griffith said he was dismayed to hear Arab residents describe the arduous security at the city entrance and how Israeli soldiers “made them feel subhuman.”
“I understand the need for security, but that is something that has to be corrected,” he said.
He said some African Americans may be inclined to think that Palestinians are oppressed by the Israeli government the way minorities have been marginalized in the United States. The majority of black Christian churches, however, support Israel “because of their Judeo Christian beliefs,” Griffith said.
Over Shabbat in Jerusalem, he met a soldier, an immigrant from Ireland, who shared “how meaningful it is to cease from his labors on Friday at the setting of the sun and how meaningful moving to Israel has been to him.”
“You don’t hear a lot of young people, particularly here in America, be that committed to their worship,” Griffith said.
He also met Israeli soldiers stationed in the Golan Heights who helped injured Arabs who had been fighting for the Syrian opposition forces.
“These are soldiers who are loyal to Israel, who are patriotic but find a way to help people who are injured in this Syrian struggle. There’s a lot of good will, particularly among the younger population.”
The key to reaching peace, Griffith asserted, is marginalizing the extremists on both sides. He cited as examples a settler who said he did not want to hear Muslims or Christians praying, as well as Palestinian terrorists.
“I think on both sides you have folks who are puppet masters, people who benefit from not having peace,” he said.
Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple and several others mentioned how encouraging it was to visit Rawabi, a planned city for Palestinians in the West Bank that developers hope will become home to more than 30,000 families.
“The amount of new building, of commerce, of investment that is going on there was, for me, extremely hopeful,” said Straus, who is also president of JCRC.
Stavrakos said it’s crucial for the Presbyterian church to have more dialogue about Israel — not just leaving it for the semiannual general assembly — and to avoid publishing anti-Zionist guides.
When it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, it’s “going to take a lot of good people who are willing to sit down and talk and bring about a solution.”