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PC(USA) webinar touches on multiple aspects of Israel-Palestine crisis

Christian and Jewish voices describe the current situation in Gaza

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — More than 250 participants logged in to watch the first in a scheduled series of webinars devoted to the ongoing crisis in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Rabbi Alissa Wise, the lead organizer of Rabbis for Ceasefire, and the Rev. Fursan Zu’mot from the Arabic-speaking Congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land (ELCJHL), led participants through an hour-long discussion that touched on humanitarian issues, differences between Christian Zionism and antisemitism, and the school of hatred seemingly being perpetuated from the ongoing conflict. Watch the webinar here.

Wise kicked things off, apologizing for a crackling voice borne from “screaming in the streets for a ceasefire for too many days.” Wise acknowledged the Israel Palestine Mission Network, whom she called “beloved friends” cultivated from working with Presbyterians a decade ago on the divestment issue and years of witness and advocacy for Palestinian rights.

She started with an up-to-date assessment of life in Gaza.

“Eighty percent of Palestinians are displaced. That’s over 2 million people. The entire infrastructure is destroyed — medical services, roads, clean water — all the basic infrastructure to life is being systematically destroyed as we speak,” said Wise. “Eighteen thousand lives have been lost in Gaza in addition to the 1,200 lost in Israel on Oct. 7th. That includes 7,000 children. It’s hard to say that number.”

Rabbi Alissa Wise

Supported by a recent CNN report, Wise also noted infectious diseases are starting to spread among the population. An outbreak of jaundice suggests Hepatitis A is on the rise, as well as upper respiratory infections.

Wise then shifted focus to discuss the idea, or narrative, that anti-Zionism is equal to antisemitism. It’s a claim she called “dangerous” and something she’s been organizing against for over a decade, harkening back to work with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on divestment.

“One of the main things I was doing then was combatting this idea that for Presbyterians to align your values with your investments was antisemitism, as some Jewish communal leaders claimed. What you’re seeing now in Gaza are that people are protecting Israel from accountability by likening the critique of Israel with antisemitism,” said Wise. “There is nothing inherently antisemitic in critiquing Israel. Israel is not a Jew; it is a government that must be held accountable for its actions and human rights abuses.”

She referenced the Hebrew biblical concept of Tochacha, which she translated as “sacred rebuke” while noting that the rebuke is actually an act of friendship. She cited examples as to what it means for Presbyterians to practice Tochacha.

“What I said to Presbyterians back in 2012-2014 was about divestment but right now it calls for a ceasefire or a call for restricting military funding for the Israeli government as a form of sacred rebuke. What I’ve seen inside the Presbyterian Church in my years of working with you is a sense of ongoing commitment to ensuring that Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths continue to stay interdependent and build solidarity between each other.”

Zu’mot, who lives in and was speaking from Jerusalem, declined to speak about the politics of the situation, preferring to speak about what he sees daily in Israel. He noted the fear is being experienced by Arabs brought on by a growing “school of hate.”

“The problem that Arabs living in Jerusalem are experiencing is the speech of hate being shared by Jewish leaders and rabbis, in addition to the government and political parties. Religion is being used as a tool to justify what is happening and that is frightening because it’s not about religion,” said Zu’mot.

Instead, Zu’mot thinks religion can be a solution to the problem — if we can live into the morality that is given to us through religion.

The Rev. Fursan Zu’mot

“I think that would help us really to see each other as human, not less than human. Today we see some people see themselves as superior and why we are seeing hatred growing in the community. The speech of hate is growing to a point that makes me as a person, as a pastor, as a religious leader in my community, feel afraid. My wife is a pharmacist, and she works in the Jewish community giving medication to patients. One of the patients recently yelled at her in a very strong and harsh tone saying, ‘You Arabs should all die.’”

The situation has devolved to the point where Zu’mot is thinking of following some of his congregation members to the United States, Canada or Australia.

“But why should I go to Australia when I was born here? I have ancestors that go back 1,800 years to this land, and now I’m thinking of leaving? From a humanitarian aspect, it’s a fearful situation. I’m afraid in the old city because when I walk in, it is full of soldiers.”

What’s needed to bring about peace

Wise says it is going to take risk and sacrifice to get to the other side of this conflict, but even now people are losing family, relationships and friendships. Nevertheless, there are direct actions that can be taken now.

“Our primary concern right now is ceasefire, stopping the bombs falling and ensuring that not another child is buried under the rubble, or another Palestinian starves to death or dies from lack of medical attention. That is our most urgent concern right now,” said Wise.

“But we need to hold that in tandem with what we’re fighting for. What do we want to see on the other side? For me, I feel like I want to challenge us in this moment to push past our grief and despair and put in more energy. I think there’s room for more direct action, like I’ve been part of mobilizing hundreds of Jews for civil disobedience. I think interfaith actions, Christians coming together to challenge Christian Zionism and going along with the idea that Christians as a whole support counteracting Islamophobia and antisemitism. Write op eds in your papers, organize actions and protests that can be joining in other Jewish Voice for Peace protests. But get into the street and figure out your lane. I just think we need to be throwing everything at the wall right now because it’s that level of emergency.”

Zu’mot’s final message was a plea for hope.

“People today don’t have reasons to live in Gaza. Israel controls their water, electricity, air and movement. They can’t go to Egypt, and they can’t get into Israel. There are 2.1 million people living in a highly populated, condensed area. What do you expect them to do? The highest income for a good working person will be 100 U.S. dollars a month for the whole family. They are in poverty, and they are in need. So give them reasons to live and to find a way of living and then you can expect a different result. They are dying slowly.”

The webinar series, sponsored by the Presbyterian World Mission’s Office for the Middle East and Europe, in conjunction with the Office of Public Witness (Washington, D.C.) and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations (New York), will continue in 2024. Future dates and participants were not confirmed at press time.

To view a comprehensive list of multi-media resources, advocacy opportunities, and partner voices in the region, including a recording of this webinar coming soon, visit the PC(USA) Israel-Palestine resource page.

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