Presbyterian Church (USA) voted June 20 to divest from 3 American companies. RNS photo courtesy Danny Bolin via PC(USA)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted Friday to divest church funds from three American companies it cited for profiting from the oppression of Palestinians within Israel’s occupied territories.

The 310-303 vote of the church’s General Assembly in Detroit marks a victory for divestment supporters both within and without the 1.8 million-member PCUSA, now the largest American church to embrace divestment as a strategy to pressure Israel to return its illegally held lands.

The divestment resolution targets companies that divestment supporters say supply electronic and earth-moving equipment that help Israel violate Palestinian rights. Presbyterians in support of the resolution described it as a long overdue stand on behalf of Palestinians suffering under the occupation, which began in 1967 when Israel pushed back attacks from neighboring countries.

The issue has roiled the church for the last decade, and during a more than three-hour debate, many lamented the divisiveness and noted how many around the world — in the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinian territories – would be watching.

David P. Gushee 06-03-2014

The term "anti-Semitism" hides an ugly history of racialized animus.

Tom Getman 05-26-2014
Photo via Tom Getman

Photo via Tom Getman

This week’s “10 Best Stories” missed an important news item from Palestine — not about Pope Francis but rather a family that practices what the pope preaches.

Tent of Nations, in the Occupied West Bank, has become a sign of hope over the otherwise fruitless last decades of peace negotiations. Interlocutors have nibbled around the edges of a “two state solution” since the early 1990s with the result that Israel has been able to confiscate vast areas of Palestine. The Nassar family, represented by Daoud and his parents and siblings, have built on their 100 acres a veritable garden of peace. This luxuriant vineyard is 15 minutes from Manger Square, Bethlehem. It has been owned by the Nassars since Ottoman times, and “Tent” has illustrated, what is declared on a stone at its entrance – non-violent action in its most faithful form. More than 7,000 visitors from around the world along with children in summer camps, as well as both Israelis and Palestinians, have been buoyed by the Nassars' 100-year commitment to living peaceable amidst turmoil by expressing biblical principles of loving neighbors, forgiving those who oppress, and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors.

Early on May 19, military bulldozers destroyed 1,500 fruit trees nearly ready for harvest in the valley below the Nassar dwellings. There was no warning of the impending destruction of the trees and terraced land, left in a state of rubble with no hope of being replanted. Daoud said the family was awaiting word on an appeal submitted after military orders to stop cultivation; bulldozers came before a legal response.

John Paul II places a prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a trip to Israel in 2000. Religion News Service file photo.

It sounds a little far-fetched and for some purists perhaps unthinkable: A pope, a rabbi, and a sheik decide to travel to the Holy Land and follow in the steps of Jesus.

But that is just one of the groundbreaking aspects of Pope Francis’ three-day visit to the Middle East that starts on Saturday, a visit in which he hopes to shore up interfaith dialogue, strengthen diplomatic relations, and find new ways to build peace.

The Argentina-born pope will be accompanied by colleagues Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, both from Buenos Aires. It is the first time a pope’s official delegation has included members of other faiths on an overseas trip.

A public opinion war on Middle East politics is playing out this spring in new advertising campaigns on public buses and in newspapers.

It began when the American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) launched bus ads during the April Cherry Blossom Festival condemning U.S. aid to Israel because of that country’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territories.

Then on Monday, Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative countered by deploying 15-foot-long ads on 20 buses in the Washington, D.C., system that equate opposition to Israel’s policies with Nazism. One ad shows the grand mufti of Jerusalem meeting Hitler during World War II.

“The bus system is considered public space, so speech has First Amendment protections,” said Caroline Laurin, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We have no grounds to refuse ads due to their content.”

Pope Francis greets people during a meeting on Nov. 9, 2013. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy Catholic News Service.

Pope Francis will be accompanied on his first visit to the Middle East by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud — two friends from Buenos Aires.

It is the first time a pope has made an official visit accompanied by members of other faiths, and it underscores the interfaith focus of Francis’ trip to the Holy Land, the Vatican said Thursday.

“This dimension of interreligious dialogue has great significance,” the Vatican’s official spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told the media.

I called my good friend, Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners. As we talked about the situation, Jim asked where I was currently located. I told him I was in New York City. Jim said he was amazed, as he had just been discussing my name with Imam Feisal in NYC. That telephone conversation led to an introduction to Imam Feisal, who in 2012 was named one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine.
Jon Huckins 03-20-2014
Photo courtesy Jon Huckins

Photo courtesy Jon Huckins

Having just gotten home from guiding another The Global Immersion Project Learning Community deep into the lives of the unheralded heroes in the Holy Land to learn from their often untold stories, I am processing emotions, thoughts, and reflections that will soon bud into a renewed set of practices at home and abroad. I have now been to Israel/Palestine quite a few times, and it would be easy to think the experience becomes mechanical or normal or whatever. Well, for me, that simply hasn’t been the case. We encourage our participants to enter the experience in the posture of a learner rather than a hero. I try to do the same, and in doing so, am continually convicted, challenged, and inspired by our remarkable friends and peacemakers embedded within this conflict.

Here are 7 learnings that have risen to the surface since landing back on home soil:

Todd Deatherage 03-04-2014

Todd Deatherage is the executive director and co-founder of the Telos Group. Photo courtesy of the Telos Group. Via RNS

Secretary of State John Kerry brought his argument for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace to the annual AIPAC conference this week, and whatever else we might know, we know this: Many evangelical Christians didn’t like it.

Or at least that’s what we’re told by some Christian leaders and their political allies. Supporting Israel’s government by opposing compromise with the Palestinians is a permanent plank in American evangelical political thought. “God told Abraham that he would bless those who bless him and the nation of Israel,” the thinking goes, “and curse those that curse Israel.”

But could it be that the truth is more complicated?

What if the loudest evangelical voices don’t represent the complexity of our community? I raise these questions as an evangelical who is fully committed to supporting the struggle for security, dignity, and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians. And I’m not alone.

Forward: This is the first piece of mine to have been published in a major American magazine. It seems fitting that this milestone was marked in the pages of Sojourners, a magazine with a robust history of faith-rooted activism (including anti-war and anti-violence activism), and whose “commitments are faith in action in three strategic areas: racial and social justice, life and peace, and environmental stewardship.” I was honored to have the opportunity to write a piece for Sojourners, and was amazed this week when the copies of the February edition arrived at my apartment by how powerful it felt to see my piece printed (and to see my name in the contributors list with Margaret Atwood and Bill McKibben!) This piece weaves new interpretations with old understandings of my decision to refuse military service and the stories that accompanied it. I am proud of this essay, and grateful to have the opportunity to share it.
The Editors 01-16-2014

Yousef Bashir's remarkable story of reconciliation.

The Editors 01-16-2014

Moriel Rothman speaks candidly about his decision to not serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Jim Rice 01-05-2014

Yousef Bashir: Victim of violence, advocate for nonviolence. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University

"When someone is faced with a gun and chooses to respond with respect and love, that's hope."

Moriel Rothman 01-05-2014

An Israeli-American resister on the spiritual links between violence and nonviolence.

Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Overlooking view of Bethlehem, photo courtesy of Maysa Al Shaer via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

Christmas is the one time each year when much of the world turns its gaze to Bethlehem, the West Bank town at the heart of the Gospel account of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable.

But Bethlehem may be in for a second round of global publicity in the span of a few months with the expected visit of Pope Francis in May.

In an interview earlier this month, Francis confirmed rumors that he planned to travel to the Holy Land — probably stopping at sites in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in the Palestinian territories — and said preparations were underway.

Then last week the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, the top Catholic official in the region, revealed that the visit was set for May.

Given the political and religious combustibility that attends almost any event in the Holy Land, a papal trip was bound to be fraught and a debate over the visit quickly erupted as Israeli newspapers reported that the preliminary itinerary for Francis’ pilgrimage has him spending just one full day in Israel proper — probably arriving in Jordan on Saturday, May 24, traveling to Israel on Sunday morning, then celebrating Mass in Bethlehem on Monday before heading back to Rome.

Tom Getman 12-12-2013

Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East. North Atlantic Books.

Brandon Hook 11-22-2013

How can we save 40,000 lives in under three minutes?

That question served as the provocative title of Israeli medic Eli Beer's TEDMED talk. Beer is the founder and president of Israel-based United Hatzalah (which is Hebrew for "rescue"), a rapid response team of 2,000 skilled volunteers — EMTs who range professionally from "expensive lawyers to people who sell fish or shoes," he said to CNN Health.

Beer answered his question this way, "The average response time of a traditional ambulance is 12 to 15 minutes — we reduce it to less than three minutes. Our response is the fastest in the world. We call our approach a lifesaving flash mob. On motorcycles, traffic doesn't stop us. Nothing does."

Tom Getman 10-18-2013
Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock and Western Wall, Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

What do you do with critical information on intractable justice issues when reputation, methods, or prevailing propaganda make it difficult for people to believe the truth? How does one find ways to strengthen the fragile line between democracy and the lurking dark social disorder? Limiting or reversing anarchy in the U.S. and abroad may depend on finding ways to persuade and protect the common good.

A current question is in regard to the 20-year Oslo peace process (which was to be completed with separate States after 5 years). When it failed, its successor peace plans promised to bring flourishing democracy and a just peace that would hold back the winds of war and be good for Israelis as well as Palestinians.

The strategy of negotiations with prolonged periods of stalling has only widened the occupation and allowed Israel to strengthen its hold on Palestinian property. It has been conquest by a 1,000 cuts on people (1,500 Israelis and 15,000 Palestinians dead), as well as uprooted trees and bulldozed property. Less than 10 percent of 1967 war land area of Palestine is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It is as though a volcanic cloud blocks the sun. Even with Secretary of State John Kerry’s vigorous efforts to diminish the rumblings and forestall an eruption, those who assure us there are signs of hope declare time is growing mercilessly short.

Members and supporters of Women of the Wall pray with prayer shawls at the Western Wall. RNS photo by Michele Chabin.

Where once it seemed that uncritical devotion to Israel was the norm for U.S Jews, that Zionism and Judaism were hand-in-glove, new research finds that’s not the case today — if it ever was.

The Pew Research Center’s newly released, comprehensive Portrait of Jewish Americans not only delved into myriad ways people identify as Jews, it also probed their emotional connection and their theological and political ideas about the Jewish state.

Lynne Hybels 10-02-2013

A young woman prays for peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Christine M. Anderson

"The alternative—not having negotiations—is guaranteed to fail."