Upon returning from a trip to Israel recently, I reflected on what I’d seen, and what is going on in the world. Clearly, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a focal point for the international community. And, usually, the news is bad.
There are, however, positive things going on. As usual, I felt very safe and energized being in Israel. The country seems to be thriving. Visitors and natives alike were flocking to the beaches, shopping malls, and tourism is on a roll.
Individuals and groups are also engaged, seeking ways to bring peace to this sometimes-tortured corner of the world. One such group I encountered, through a visit with the delightful former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, Uri Bar-Ner, and his wife, Lynne, was the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL).
Based in New York, the AIFL is really, truly a breath of fresh air (www.aifl.org).
“Building friendships based on common values” is the mission of the AIFL, and as an American Christian who supports Israel, I am almost relieved to find an organization dedicated to raising peace-loving generations who might not know war. I am particularly glad to see that the chairman of the AIFL, Kenneth Bialkin, recognizes that there are hopeful signs, even in the midst of this past spring’s unrest in the Middle East:
“Perhaps the time is coming that the Arab world will see that Israel and the Jewish people are not their enemies, but indeed offer the hand of peace and friendship and the opportunity to realize a New Middle East as advocated some years ago by Shimon Peres, now the President of Israel. Under Mubarak, the Egyptian government maintained a “cold peace” with Israel and resisted demands from many sources to return to the state of war which prevails between many Arab states and Israel.”
You see? They are not willing to concede that the Arab-Israeli conflict will descend into a never-ending whirlpool of war and misery. This is important to think of often, since men and women through history have altered the courses of nations by virtually willing peace.
Alex Grobman, a world-class scholar and author, is the new director of the AIFL, and appreciates the two-century bond between the United States and the Jewish people:
“Our goal is to strengthen the bonds of and reinforce the shared values between these two great democracies that share common interests and values.”
Founded in 1971, the AIFL has played a key role in that relationship. I discovered a wonderful initiative in my discussion with Ambassador Bar-Ner (who lives in Modi’in, the home of the famous Maccabees!).
“Our programs designed to bring groups to Israel are going very well,” he said. “Efforts to bring Christian groups for visits and study tours is key in maintaining a vibrant relationship with the United States.”
Since some of the older generations given the task of peace-making have, shall we say, missed opportunities, an AIFL program involving students is particularly exciting. The Youth Ambassador Student Exchange (YASE) program brings youth from Jewish and Arab communities together, and often, students travel from their homes to visit Israel or the United States.
Dr. Charlotte Frank, an educator based in New York, and chair of the AIFL’s executive committee, is passionate about the student programs.
“It’s always an interesting experience,” Dr. Frank explained. “When you read the papers, you’d think Israel is unsafe. But when youth can visit religious sites in Jerusalem—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, ‘walk where Jesus walked,’ etc.—they see that Israelis also want peace.”
Grobman, a Holocaust scholar (a particular area of interest too for AIFL President Harley Lippman), is pleased with the group’s success in these programs:
“AIFL brings Americans from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds to see the miracle of Israel, a start-up nation that has become a primary leader in technology, medicine, science, education, agriculture, the arts and in ways to preserve the environment.”
Robert Abrams, former attorney general for the state of New York, puts his expertise to good use by helping facilitate study tours for AGs from the U.S.
“Overall, it’s critically important for people to see Israel personally, for people to break-down these [negative] images of Israel. In reality it is a very beautify country to visit. You can enjoy beaches, great restaurants, marvelous museums, wonderful architecture, and of course all the historical sites.”
I saw all this for myself. From the palm groves being grown in the parched areas around the Dead Sea, to the stunning Israel Museum, to the gorgeous outdoor mall just outside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City…I witnessed just how amazing and vibrant this small country is.
My Christian friends at Bridges for Peace and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (both based in the holy city) do terrific work in serving as bridges for different cultures. Now, I have wonderful new friends in the Jewish community who are literally dedicating their lives to peace efforts.
Working as I do among “Christian Zionists,” I am often criticized because the focus is often on the negative. As a Christian who loves all people, and has been a member of both conservative and liberal denominations, I actively seek peace efforts. Perhaps the image of Christian supporters of Israel can improve if religious groups sympathetic to the Palestinians adjust their presuppositions.
Upon leaving the Bar-Ners and boarding a plane for home, I left with a feeling of exultation. Perhaps we are not doomed to a future of chaos and strife. Hat’s off to the AIFL, and their part in bringing the light of truth and common values to a troubled region.