A series of programs coordinated by the America-Israel Friendship League is making real headway in changing negative perceptions about the Jewish state.
The AIFL (www.aifl.org), founded in 1971 by a group of influential leaders, including Hubert Humphrey and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, exists to strengthen ties between Israel and America. The organization’s deluxe “delegation” programs bring together a wide range of Israelis with Americans—of all religious, political, and socio-economic ranges.
Earlier this year, a Presbyterian delegation toured Israel, learning in great detail just why Israel is a thriving outpost of freedom in a dangerous part of the world. The group also visited the controversial SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim.
The PCUSA, one of the larger mainline Protestant denominations, has been embroiled in a titanic struggle over BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions). The AIFL-sponsored trip dispelled many of the media myths surrounding Israel and in fact highlighted the enormous contributions Israel makes not only regionally, but globally.
The Presbyterian Church, some 6 million strong, has at times officially supported boycotts of Israeli businesses operating beyond the Green Line, such as SodaStream.
Members of the delegation said that the trip “strengthened their belief that the location of the factory enhances the business as well as the interpersonal relations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Ruby Shamir, Director of International Relations for the AIFL, said that the trip was “crucial to bring leaders and influential figures” to visit Israel, so that participants can “form a positive and supportive opinion.”
The SodaStream factory has been denounced furiously by BDS activists, yet the Presbyterian delegation learned that 1,300 employees are…Palestinian.
Rev. William “Bill” Harter is a veteran of the AIFL delegations, and has seen firsthand for years how successful they are in terms of changing perceptions. In general, pro Israel support among mainline members is not as fervent as it is in the much larger Evangelical, non-denominational community.
This makes the experience and friendship of people like Harter all the more important for the Jewish state. For Harter, the love for Israel goes back to his youth.
“As a young kid growing up in western New York, about 20 miles east of Buffalo, my community had exactly one Jewish family,” Harter remembers. “They were the Sterns, (both MDs) who had managed to escape Germany in 1938. And they had a daughter my age and a son my younger sister’s age. We grew up together from first grade on. The Sterns were the doctors who went to rural areas that didn’t have a full-time doctor; he became the classic small town doctor. Greatly beloved in the community! She was one of my mother’s best friends.”
A university education and seminary only served to solidify Harter’s love for Israel and the Jewish people, and he has been involved for decades.
“In late 1970s, the U.S. government realized that the issue of Soviet Jewry was front-and-center and I became involved in that cause.” And in 1975, the notorious “Zionism equals Racism” resolution in the U.N. led to the formation of NCLCI, which remains perhaps the key advocacy group for Israel within the mainline.
“From that point, the AIFL helped us find a home base in New York City, and with them (the AIFL), issues we worked on were support for Soviet Jewry, the refutation of Zionism is Racism, and the status of Jerusalem.” The new partnerships were quite beneficial.
“AIFL helped us get that message around.
“A number of our members helped with delegations to Israel that AIFL arranged. The Presbyterian group that went in 2005 had a very significant impact on the Presbyterian Church USA. A lot of our statements would run counter to mainline views, but there are times when we were in one accord.”
The trips to Israel have yielded practical results, especially in stemming the tide of BDS. They have also greatly influenced countless youth. The AIFL’s “Youth Ambassador Student Exchange” (YASE), begun in 1977, enables American high school students to interact with their Israeli counterparts. Many lasting friendships have been forged on these trips.
Dr. Charlotte Frank, chair of the AIFL’s executive committee and a leading educator, has been passionate advocate for the youth programs.
“From the beginning, the AIFL wanted to have a high school exchange program that would be meaningful for the students,” she recalls. “What happened subsequently is that in order to make it more widespread, it needed to have global leaders go back to parents and communities and say, ‘It’s safe to send your kids to Israel.’”
One of the first participants was Karen Wolcott, who today is a United Methodist minister. She remembers the genesis of her trip to Israel:
“I was taking a German class and heard through grapevine they were inviting kids and interviewing kids form the Cleveland School system and other parts of the U.S., to go on this exchange program to Israel,” she remembers. “I thought, well, I’ve always wanted to go to Israel and it’s always been a dream of mine. I went through the process; I was kind of a shy person and I thought oh no, I’m not fit for this program! I did very well in the interview process, though, and was chosen as one of 30 to go. It was a beautiful match for me, because it was a way for me to explore my faith. My parents…this was cutting edge for them. They felt they couldn’t say no.”
Today, students from coast-to-coast, from schools small and large, have the opportunity to visit exotic Israel. To a person, they take home a marvelous view of Israel, in effect becoming life-long ambassadors.
The students stay with Israeli families, visit Israeli schools, and even participate in classes. The well-rounded trips include plenty of Israeli culture and history.
Moshe Vidan, born in Palestine during World War II, earned degrees from Haifa University, and was an educator for many years before becoming involved with YASE early on. He recognizes the unique role the trips have in shaping opinion, when students can see and experience the country for themselves.
“We have Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the American group. Everything we do, we give an explanation with a tour guide…it’s a workshop, not just a tour.”
Crucially, Vidan includes uncommon stops on the itinerary.
“We take them to Arabic schools, even to Al-Aksa mosque!
“There are no barriers, it’s open. In Israeli schools, for example, they learn of cultural differences.
“The program benefits the students, of course, but it is also a great experience, a lifetime experience, for everyone involved.”
Clearly, the America-Israel Friendship League is on to something. It is indeed strengthening ties between Israel and her American friends—at a most critical time in the life of both nations.
(Jim Fletcher is a pro-Israel activist, researcher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected].)
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