Christian scholars encounter Israeli reality

Christian scholars encounter Israeli reality

Interfaith program’s NJ participants feel perspectives shift

Javier Viera, dean of the Drew University Theological School, left, and Brian Rainey, assistant professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, study at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. 
Javier Viera, dean of the Drew University Theological School, left, and Brian Rainey, assistant professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, study at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. 

The Rev. Javier Viera, dean and professor of ecumenical and pastoral theology at the Drew University Theological School, has visited Israel four times.

Until he returned July 24 from eight days of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he had “an overwhelmingly sympathetic opinion of the situation weighted toward the Palestinian struggle,” he told NJ Jewish News in an Aug. 4 phone interview.

But he returned to his campus in Madison with “a more complicated and more well-informed perspective on the historical reality and the present situation. I came away with having a much more sympathetic perspective of what the Jewish reality is that I had not heard before in as compelling a way,” he said.

Brian Rainey, assistant professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary experienced a similar shift in viewpoint as part of the interfaith program at Hartman, a Jerusalem-based think tank, founded by the late Modern Orthodox scholar David Hartman, that promotes tolerance, pluralism, and Jewish-Arab reconciliation. 

“Before I went I was pretty critical of Israel. I did not think they take seriously the rights of Palestinians to have their nation, and that is part of the problem,” he told NJJN. “But having seen the psychological impact of the situation, I’d say it felt like 9/11 24/7 — that feeling of fear and dread that Americans had after 9/11 is how Israelis feel every day. 

“I am more empathetic to the reactions Israelis have about the conflict.”

The two New Jerseyans were among 18 American Christian theologians who took part in the program, cosponsored by the American Jewish Committee, in which they studied central ideas of Judaism with one another and with Hartman faculty.

“It provides open space for Christian leaders and scholars to experience and study Judaism and Israel from a Jewish perspective,” said Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, AJC’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations.

Before they return to Jerusalem next July, the theologians will remain in computer and video contact with scholars at Hartman. While biblical discussions and religious issues are intended to dominate their future discussions, the Jewish-Arab conflict clearly intruded on their experiences during a week in which many parts of Israel and Gaza were under attack.

“I still empathize very much with the difficulty of the situation the Palestinians are living with and living in,” said Viera, a Methodist. “I thought of this in the past as due to the power and wealth of Israel and the lack of power and wealth that seems to be evident in the Palestinian communities. 

“But I came away with a sense of how much more isolated in the world Israel is and how it needs to protect their families and their children. That doesn’t in any way justify a lot of Israeli actions, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it is so much more complicated than what I had thought,” said Viera.

Although he and the other members of his cohort did not experience any rocket attacks or the necessity to seek shelter in Jerusalem, Rainey said, “I think there is a lot of blame to go around. Putting the attacks by Hamas aside, there is some blame on the Israeli government. Perhaps it is not doing all it could to help provide a just solution to this conflict.”

Rainey, an Episcopalian, said the international community “also shares the blame. Hamas is firing missiles into Israel while the international community sits by and allows it to happen. Now that there is a confrontation, we are outraged and angry, but there should be some proactive activity on the part of the international community when something like rockets are launched. There is a lot of blame to go around. The United States should be a leader, but it can’t just be the U.S.” 

Rainey said he advocates “a multilateral effort to demilitarize Hamas with a timetable of lifting of the restrictions placed on Gaza.”

Viera had another suggestion. “As long as this remains a political problem there is no resolution. But if the conversation and engagement can move to a personal level, there is hope to move forward,” he said.

“The younger generation of Israelis has never known Palestinians, whereas a generation ago relationships would have been much more common. Once you have a friend who is a Palestinian, once you have a friend who is an Israeli, the conflict takes on a different face. As long as we prevent this from happening, the crisis is going to escalate,” said Viera.

Participants will return to Jerusalem in July 2015 for a concluding seminar on Jewish community.

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