It Started as a Joke: Only Women Could Fix the 'Mess in the Middle East'

On an intense weeklong trip through the Holy Land, six rabbis and five ministers, all women, try to figure out a way to make the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less toxic

Participants of the interfaith trip organized by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (second from right).
Moti Milrod

In the synagogues, churches and religious communities these 11 clergywomen represent across the United States, just about everybody has an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Usually a very strong opinion, and it has resulted in the topic becoming one best avoided in discussion.

But these women want to change that, and its why they decided to spend the first days of the New Year on a special mission to the Holy Land. If Americans cant even hold a conversation about the Mideast conflict without it turning into a shouting match, they ask, then how can Israelis and Palestinian be expected to take any steps forward?

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Their goal on the weeklong trip, it follows, is to see and hear all sides affected so that when they return home, they will better equipped to facilitate a civilized conversation about a subject that has become taboo.

Six Jewish and five Christian clergy, the women represent a wide spectrum of denominations within their respective religions. For most of the participants, it's not their first trip to the Holy Land, though they have all seen things this week that they hadnt before. Their jam-packed itinerary has included stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Bethlehem and the Gush Etzion West Bank settlement bloc.

To provide them with a more comprehensive picture of the situation on the ground, it has also included meetings with Israeli political and social activists, leaders of the Palestinian movement for non-violent resistance and Jewish settlers. Putting their religious differences aside, they have celebrated Shabbat together and walked side-by-side tracing Jesuss last steps.

A day before their scheduled departure, they are still processing it all.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah.
\ Moti Milrod

Our goal was to see if, as women and religious leaders, we could model a way of addressing the situation here that is healthier and more productive than were used to in our communities back home, says Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of Truah, a U.S.-based organization of rabbis active in promoting human rights, one of the organizers of the trip.

Usually, conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focus on slogans, and were not actually listening to one another, she adds. You either support the Israeli government or you support the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement against Israel, and theres nothing in between. So it was really important to introduce them to people here who are trying to make a real change in society and show them that one can be pro-Israel and also in favor of ending the occupation.

Another leading member of the group is Rev. Amy Butler, the first woman to hold the position of senior minister at the Riverside Church in Manhattan in its 85-year history. As Butler recounts, she, Jacobs and Angela Buchdahl – a senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York, one of the largest Reform congregations in the United States – meet regularly to discuss ways of promoting interfaith dialogue and social action. At one of our meetings, she relayed, we jokingly said, its going to take women to fix the mess in the Middle East, and thats how the whole idea for this began.

Jacobs and Buchdahl were assigned the task of choosing Jewish clergy for the mission and Butler was put in charge of the Christian group. When we started to think about what type of women we would want to join, we decided it would be the type of women that we could go to the spa with – that is to say, women who could be trusted, who had proven leadership skills and who could be thoughtful conversation partners.

Almost a week into the trip, Butler says she still has no idea what the right solution to the conflict is, but I have a much better sense of how to move the conversation about this forward.

Rori Picker Neiss is the only Orthodox Jewish woman in the group. Executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, she holds the title of maharat, which is as close as it gets to being an ordained rabbi since the Orthodox movement still does not recognize women as rabbis. She has traveled on numerous occasions to Israel, but this was her first trip to the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

I guess you could say Im walking away from this trip with even more questions than I came with, she says. If anything surprised her, Neiss concedes, its that people on both sides of the conflict – not all, but many – remain optimistic. I dont think its because theyve colored over the challenges in their lives, she explains, but because they have confidence in the future and in the existence of a future. And that gives people like me the strength to continue doing what were doing.

The trip was not without its difficult moments, especially not the day in Hebron where the participants got to experience the Israeli occupation up close. As Neiss notes: For me, the challenge was to sit with my own discomfort and try to hear the stories from the other side. My next challenge will be conveying what I heard to my community.

Watching the news about the Middle East back home in New York, says Rev. Winnie Varghese, the priest and director of community outreach at Trinity Church Wall Street, the situation appeared far gloomier. But when you come here and meet people face to face and see how they live their daily lives, the picture you get is quite different, she says. The importance of a trip like this is that you realize that no people are inherently evil, and that this isnt a situation of good guys versus bad guys. So Im definitely coming away feeling more optimistic.

When the participants return to their respective congregations and communities, Jacobs says she hopes that when they launch into their next discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they close their eyes and picture the actual people they met here on this trip.

And I want them to tell those peoples stories, she adds, to make it real, human and complicated.