Local African-American leaders travel to Israel

James Buford at the Western Wall. Photos courtesy William Young

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Complexity, bitterness and the status of Jerusalem will be the biggest stumbling blocks to peace in the Middle East. That was the conclusion of five African-American community leaders, who offered firsthand accounts, stories and reflections last week on a recent trip to Israel.

“If I could describe the trip in just one word, I think that word would be intense,” said Rev. Earl Nance, Jr., pastor of Greater Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church.

A few dozen people attended last Wednesday’s open meeting, which took place at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis offices in midtown and was sponsored jointly by the league and the Jewish Community Relations Council as part of the ongoing African-American/Jewish Task Force. The panelists returned from a nine-day trip to the Jewish State last month, sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Seventeen African-American leaders from around the Midwest participated in the Israel visit, 10 of them clergy.

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Nance, a former president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, had visited the Jewish State before in 1993. He noted a number of changes since his last trip there more than a decade and a half ago, including the introduction of plaques on certain street corners to memorialize the victims of suicide bombers.

His previous visit was just after Operation Solomon, a major airlift to bring Jews out of Ethiopia. This time the group was able to meet an Ethiopian Jew who had walked hundreds of miles to get to Sudan and who was now a member of the Knesset.

“His main ambition was to get to Israel,” Nance said. “To arrive there and be a part of the political process – that I thought was amazing.”

Nance recalled his share of harrowing moments during the trip as well.

“In the Golan Heights we were on a cliff and we heard a voice telling us come down from there,” he said. “When we hustled down he said ‘where you are standing is where the snipers fire,’ so we were glad to move.”

In another incident that stuck out in Nance’s recollection, the group visited a kibbutz where most of the conversation centered on rocket attacks from Palestinian territory.

You only have 15 seconds to gather your children,” he said. “That really hit home for me.”

Nance said that he thought Jerusalem was the biggest sticking point in the peace process. Fellow traveler Rev. Emery Washington, Sr., agreed.

“Jerusalem has to be put on the negotiating table,” he said. “I do not believe that Israeli or Palestinian is willing to give up the claim of Jerusalem as the center of the universe.”

Washington, a retired priest and founding member of the Diocesan Commission on Dismantling Racism, suggested that the city might eventually become a joint capital or have its holy sites placed under international control. The key to a just peace, he said, was for both sides to quell their most extreme elements.

“Israel has the right and the power to defend her borders and her people. This is both a blessing and a curse. Radicals and extremists on all sides will seek to exploit it,” he said. “The Palestinians have a right to life, freedom of movement and self-government. This too, is a blessing and a curse to be exploited by extremists and radicals on all sides.”

Washington said he understood the plight of the Palestinians and felt their desire for self-rule was legitimate.

“I personally believe that there will be, in God’s time, a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said, “not because I believe that the Israelis or the Palestinians will come to it. That, I think, will never happen. It is because I believe that God will bring them to it.”

James Buford, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said he was pleased with the openness and balance of AIPAC’s presentations during the trip but came away saddened by the situation he found in the troubled region.

“These are two peoples who are afraid of each other and don’t trust each other. That’s what disappointed me so much,” said Buford, who took note of Washington’s remarks. “He believes that God will fix it. It will take God to fix it because man cannot fix this.”

Buford, who visited previously in 1986, said he was impressed by Israel’s skyscrapers and light rail system, but he felt circumstances had gone downhill since his last trip. The constant presence of armed guards and the security fence made him uneasy and safety concerns prevented the group from visiting Bethlehem and Jericho as he had 24 years ago. He described the country as feeling more militarized and divided both physically and psychologically.

“Israelis and Palestinians are fenced in and everybody else is fenced out,” he said. “That was the impression.”

Meanwhile, interactions with Palestinians were tense and often uncomfortable.

At one point Buford found himself in an exchange with a hostile shopkeeper while trying to buy a pack of gum.

“The infrastructure is there,” he said. “What’s deteriorated is the relationship of people to each other and that’s the part that disappointed me so badly. Palestinians are angry. They don’t hide it. They resented us being there.”

Buford pledged to work to raise awareness of Israel’s situation in the community.

“The United States has to financially and militarily maintain its relationship with Israel,” he said. “It’s imperative that we work with our legislators to bring out the importance of this.”

Bill Young, president and COO of financial firm Buford, Dickson, Harper & Sparrow, Inc., said one of the things that surprised him most was the proximity in which the Israelis and Palestinians exist.

“That’s probably the hardest thing to convey to those who ask you about your experience,” he said. “We would stop at a gas station and be on one side of the highway and on the other side would be Palestinian territory. That’s hard for people to understand. It’s mind-blowing.”

He said he felt most hopeful upon meeting a number of children who were gathering sheaves of wheat in a field near one of the group’s stops.

“I think that’s going to be eventually the solution to the problem. If we can get Israeli families and Palestinian families to start thinking about the future of those children, hopefully we will see some solution,” he said.

Rev. E. G. Shields had visited the country in 1983. He listed a number of changes since his last time there from the presence of the security fence and the many bomb shelters to the arrival of the Ethiopian Jews. Like Young, he noted the warm sense family that the Israelis displayed.

“I was impressed with how the parents boasted if not bragged about their son or daughter being in the armed services and the positions that they held and how proud the young men and young women were in the armed services,” he said. “They were so committed and so devoted to their country and I thought that was quite exciting.”

Audience member Susan Talve, rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, said she was happy that the group had taken the chance to visit the Jewish State and share their reflections with the community.

“I think the more people that visit Israel and Palestine, the more chance we have to make peace,” she said. “People will be more educated and won’t make snap judgments and will recognize how complicated it is and won’t stereotype.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, hosted the evening. She said that she felt each participant had provided a different perspective and that had made the event all the more valuable.

“It was an honest, passionate expression of what almost everyone described as a life-altering trip and the opportunity to hear it when it’s so fresh was very moving,” she said.