Searching for hope in Israel

WE TRAVELED to Israel together, Christian and Jew, to explore a land of history, faith, and conflict. We were part of a group of 28 mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders from around the country. Although our respective communities have worked together on a variety of issues over the years, what prompted this trip was an issue that caused friction between us -- divestment. In the past year, a number of mainline Protestant churches have considered or supported divestment from certain companies doing business in Israel. This action pains many in the Jewish community.

We went to Israel seeking to heal misunderstandings that separated us so that we could continue to work together in the future. We learned much there. Perhaps the most important lesson was that divestment would not be helpful. Rather, investment in the land and the people could make a difference, investment in programs that promote justice, in programs that seek peace and reconciliation, in organizations that we believe will provide a better future for the next generations.

Divestment is not an effective strategy to promote peace. Rather, it is a strategy that denies the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and seeks to punish Israel, rather than engage in a constructive solution. As we heard from people on both sides, particularly from those identified with the peace camps on both sides, divestment takes one ''out of the game" and serves only to alienate the pro-divestment community from the many who genuinely seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And we found many Israelis and Palestinians -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims -- who yearn for peace.

The timing for the divestment movement also seems ill-advised. We perceived that a material change may be taking place in that part of the world. The disengagement of Israeli settlers from Gaza is significant, as are the Jan. 25 elections in the Palestinian territories. It is the hope of those with whom we met that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be provided the support he needs to enable him to continue to lead the Palestinian people. There is also the specter of Israeli elections, and those too will be of enormous importance. The actions on the ground make divestment appear gratuitous and ill-conceived.

We also concluded that continuing to debate the use of economic sanctions against Israel is divisive and distracting. Those who care about peace in the region support organizations that are working toward coexistence and reconciliation between Arabs and Jews within Israel as well as Palestinians and Israelis. Many people and organizations need our support as they lay the critical groundwork for peace by building bridges between divided peoples.

We shared other lessons as well. Fortunately, we found that we can indeed discuss those issues that separate us in a thoughtful and constructive manner.

Most insightful was an encounter we had with a leading Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki. His polls demonstrate that there is hope and optimism on both sides. They demonstrate that the majority of the Israeli and Palestinian people seek and will pursue peace and justice. Unfortunately, his polls also indicate that neither side is convinced of the other's desire for peace, a fact that underscores the importance of programs designed to promote coexistence and better understanding.

We heard, repeatedly, from both sides, of the importance of US engagement in the peace process. US engagement would serve not only Israeli and Palestinian interests but our own interests as well. We also heard the urgency of this plea for help. Building on the disengagement will be critical. Hope abounds. However, it could dissipate quickly.

We began a conversation in Israel that will continue at home, a conversation that will bring greater understanding between our respective faith traditions. And we trust we learned much about each other and about how to work together to bring peace to a region we care about so deeply.

Investment in the region is where our focus should be. To invest is to express hope, and we, Jews and Christians, are indeed people of hope.

Geoffrey H. Lewis, a Boston lawyer, is a vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The Rev. Theodore W. Asta is associate to the bishop in the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company