Jewish community learns about Presbyterian divestment issue

By Judith Michaelson

Four years and two months ago in a dark dungeon in Karachi, Pakistan, in the midst of the great madness, there was a young man who looked straight into the eyes of evil at a moment of great crisis [and] said, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish and I am Jewish.”

It was an extraordinary opening, Dr. Judea Pearl’s tribute, indeed an elegy to his son Daniel, the Wall Street Journal correspondent, who was beheaded at age 38 by Islamic terrorists, in October 2002, and on videotape.

In a deep Israeli accent, Dr. Pearl spoke last Friday evening at an interfaith service between Jews and Presbyterians at Birmingham’s Reform Temple Emanu-El after a rather extraordinary day at the city’s convention center, where delegates argued about peace and justice, war and peace, right and wrong, all wrapped up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and whether the church should divest itself of investments with Israel.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller called it “an amazing evening,” with Dr. Pearl seated on the pulpit next to Rev. Edwin Hurley, senior pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church across the street from Emanu-El. Garbed in a long white mantle around his shoulders, etched with tiny crosses, Rev. Hurley, who participated in an interfaith mission to Israel in May, looked very much at home at Emanu-El. Indeed the two clergy are close friends.

The temple was nearly filled to capacity and included Rabbi Brian Glusman of Conservative Temple Beth-El, which let out early so that congregants could hear Dr. Pearl.

Like Rabbi Miller, who introduced him, Dr. Pearl had earlier spoken at the Presbyterian conclave, squeezing as much as he could into a 2-minute presentation.

“Dr. Pearl faced personal [crisis], in the tragedy that reverberated all over the world in the brutal beheading of his son, and yet in great fashion, he was not going to give the terrorists a posthumous victory,” said Rabbi Miller with Biblical cadence. “Where did he learn that? He must have learned it from his parents, who must have learned it from their parents, who must have faced it from the ethos of the Jewish people.

“We face great adversity in our day… yet the Jewish people have always taken adversity and somehow turned it into a blessing. So we have done and so we will continue to do.”

Pearl, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and lives in Los Angeles, is president and co-founder with his wife Ruth of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which seeks to combat terrorism and improve relations and understanding among people. He is a graduate of Technion University, and expert in such matters as computer science, artificial intelligence and logic, and has taught at UCLA. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles brought him to Birmingham to help fight divestment.

Pearl noted when his son said “I am Jewish” he did not say it “under pressure, nor with chutzpah but matter of factly… two plus two makes four.” Daniel, he noted, was “not a religious Jew in the conventional sense. Judaism for him was a language of extended family, a source of strength, commitment and historical identity.”

When his son spoke of being Jewish, Pearl suggested, he meant that he respects his own faith, and “I expect you to respect me and my faith… precisely because you are, or you claim to be, good Muslims. In other words, I come from a place where one’s heritage is a source of one’s strength, and one’s strength is measured by one’s capacity to accommodate diversity because it is only through diversity that we can recognize our common humanity.”

Pearl’s “I am Jewish” refrain amounted to a credo and family history.

“So ‘I am Jewish’ means I must understand. I am possessed of a historically based obsession to understand the rules of faith… because my ancestors, hardened by centuries of persecution and oppression, have taught me to respect all of them, and to question every authority and every conventional wisdom…”

“ ‘I am Jewish’ means I understand suffering because the suffering of my ancestors is etched on my consciousness. I understand justice because I was a student of injustice” and saw it in Kosovo as well as Bahrain.

He imagines that his son tells his captors that his great-grandfather had faced more oppression than you have here today in Pakistan. After Daniel’s great-grandfather David was “hit by a 2x 4 on the side of the head in Russia in 1924, “he did not stuff his belt with explosives and go blow up a church. Instead he wiped the blood and told his wife and four children, ‘Start packing. We are going home.’ And he came with 25 other Jews and he bought a piece of land 7-1/2 miles from Beit Jala, and the newspapers at the time described a few mud houses, a few scattered trees.”

He said he would like Daniel’s captors to see B’nai Brak today and ask themselves if such a miracle could not happen in their part of the world. He also had a message for the people of the free world.

“You know, despite all the protest and all the criticism that we hear around us, we can be proud of who we are… and all the images of the ugly West and the ugly American and the ugly Jew and the ugly Israeli… but we are still the world’s largest exponent of hope, pluralism, tolerance, equality, open-mindedness and basic freedoms.”

Let’s continue to dialogue, he said, but we must continue to demand unequivocally a guarantee of safety. This is a clash, he said, “between those who boast of killing innocent people and those who are repelled by this.”

Still, Pearl kept returning to the concepts of “building bridges” and “tikkun olam,” repair of the world.

“You see, those murderers miscalculated the consequences of bringing that camera into that dungeon because by zooming in on Danny’s face, they zoomed world attention onto the face” of an America and an American Jew, “armed with a pen and a fiddle, not with a rifle and a helmet like Jews are depicted on Al Jazeera night after night.”

“ ‘I am Jewish’ and I stand for sanity and dignity and courage.”

Afterwards, three Protestant clergy came forward to offer blessings to the congregation. Retired Rev. William Harter mentioned his first visit to the Holy Land with his late wife some 30 years ago, and then with arms raised bestowed Aaron’s traditional priestly blessing in Hebrew.

Soon the mood became more familial and homey as about 100 congregants sat down to dinner in the temple’s main social hall, and viewed a videotape of the 15-member mission to Israel — 11 Presbyterians and four Jews — with Rev. Hurley providing the commentary and occasionally the banter.

Rabbis Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and Yitzchok Adlerstein, its director of interfaith affairs, were among the Jewish representatives on the trip.

Among those the group met with were Rabbi Israel Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, former Russian dissident Natan Sharansky and left-wing Knesset member and author Yael Dayan, the late Gen. Moshe Dayan’s daughter.

Rev. Hurley showed shots of the group praying together at the Western Wall and at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, of a helicopter flight and of their visit to the Jaffa Institute where 700 food boxes a week are distributed to needy families — Arabs and Jews.

“This is a restaurant near Haifa where a suicide bomber blew up a number of families,” Rev. Hurley continued. “We talked to relatives who had lost family members in this restaurant… One doctor was having lunch with his daughter who was being married the next day. She lost her life in this bombing. We spoke to a Christian missionary in the area…his daughter was killed in the blast.”

Next shot: “This is the council chambers in Haifa. We spoke to a Muslim leader in the Jewish city of Haifa. This is in one sense what people would hope for all of Israel, where different faiths — Muslims, Christians, Jews — live together in peace and harmony… I’ll tell you one joke that he said, that neither Moses, Jesus nor Muhammad had ever been to Haifa.”
The room erupted into laughter.

Rev. Hurley noted that their guide was able to get them up close to the security fence. “One of the things I learned, it’s not an electric fence. It’s sensitive so that if someone touches it, it notifies the security office. It does not electrocute the person who touches it.”On Shabbat morning, Birmingham’s Conservative and Orthodox Jews held individual congregational meetings to discuss divestment as well as a possible outcome.

Ethan Felson, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, spoke at Beth-El and opined that it’s quite likely the Presbyterians would put off a final decision on divestment while voting to study it, which he suggested would be good. He said it was up in the air as to whether they would actually rescind divestment, which is what the Jewish community is hoping for.

As he did at the Birmingham Jewish Community Relations Committee meeting June 14, Felson sought to explain the differences between Jewish and Christian approaches to the Golden Rule. Christian view it positively — “Do unto others as they would do unto you.”

Jews, however, follow the model of Hillel — “while standing on one foot” — in which we are not supposed to do anything hateful or harmful to someone that we would not want done to us.
Christians believe in turning the other cheek, he added, while Jews say that in certain cases there are just battles and just wars.

Felson also suggested that mainline churches, such as the Presbyterians, are worried about their loss of power. Their membership is “hemorrhaging” to such as Evangelical churches, and that some worry about Jewish alliance with evangelicals. They used to sit with “the power elite” in their pews. The President, Speaker of the House and Senate leaders and members of the Supreme Court, those that were Christian, belonged to mainline churches. They were not fundamentalists.

At Knesseth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue, Rabbi Adlerstein was essentially making the same point. He said that before he showed up at the convention center on Thursday — he was also one of Friday’s speakers, noting that generation after generation after generation in Israel live “in the shadow of the Holocaust” — he expected that he would be entering “Presbyterian hell.” How could it not be when people saw his black velvet yarmulka atop his gray-white hair.

Instead, Rabbi Adlerstein said he found himself greeted with “joy.” People came up to him and thanked him just for showing up, and he was able to converse with them comfortably and informatively.

In these conversations with individuals and small groups, Rabbi Adlerstein said he explained the differing points of view within Judaism about the appropriate stance on Israel. He indicates he is somewhere in the middle, a realist who favors a two-state solution with a government doing everything possible to guarantee the safety of its own people. He is neither with the leftist Peace Now folks nor does he subscribe to the far right approach of Greater Israel, taking all the land back.

For nearly an hour Rabbi Adlerstein stood at a lectern in K.I.’s meeting hall next to the sanctuary while congregants finished a homemade delicatessen lunch.

When talking with them about family and personal behavior and such, he felt they had a closer connection to God, not in the way they worshipped but who they were as human beings, than some of those back home in Los Angeles.

That did not mean, he said, that anti-Semitism did not exist within mainline Christianity. As an aside, he noted that one of his close friends is an Episcopal bishop, whose mother was Jewish. The Episcopalians are meeting in Ohio this week. The rabbi said that his friend told him that if he heard some of the private conversations among the bishops about Jews and Israel “your ears would burn.”

The rabbi said he was interested in “building bridges,” not in participating in interfaith services which he called “poison.”

And he urged congregants to get out among their non-Jewish friends and neighbors and express their point of view. For example, he said, he was sure the Anglican church across the road has had discussions about the Middle East over the past few years, and probably had Jewish participation. But church members should hear the differing approaches to public policy issues by Jews.

Unfortunately, he said, church leadership tends to be anti-Israel, and the seminarians go to schools run by the leadership.

On the other hand, he pointed out that Christians have had a long association with the Holy Land. They may identify with Palestinian Christians but that does not necessarily mean they are pro-Palestinian.

And he said some Christians — particularly Catholics, and particularly Pope Benedict knows that if Jews were overrun by Muslim terrorists, going after the so-called infidels, they would be next.

As for relations with Christianity, Rabbi Adlerstein turned to Torah. He reminded his audience of the meeting of two Biblical brothers, Jacob, standing for the Jewish people, and Esau, standing for Christianity. He said that when the brothers met, after 40 years of being apart, having parted with enmity, they rushed at each other and then fell into one another’s arms.

At the end, Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Knesseth Israel caught a few in the audience by surprise. He thanked Rabbi Adlerstein for giving such an interesting talk, and for being able to stand up for so long.

Rabbi Shmidman explained that Rabbi Adlerstein had left his Shabbat table early the previous night, donned a pair of sneakers and walked 2-1/2 miles to visit with some Southside friends on the divestment issue, and then walked back having come back sometime around midnight. So whom did Rabbi Adlerstein see?

That morsel had to wait until after the Birchat Hamazon (blessing after the meal).

As congregants gathered around him to ask questions, Rabbi Adlerstein said he went to Rev. Hurley’s home where a number of the Presbyterian ministers who had been at Temple Emanu-El were gathered, and they discussed strategy. Asked if the ministers gave any indication as to how the vote would go, Rabbi Adlerstein said they pledged to do everything they could to see that the divestment resolution was rescinded this week.