One of the best initiatives anyone involved in the convoluted Arab-Israeli conflict has had—ever—is the “Youth Ambassador Student Exchange” program (YASE for short), initiated by the America-Israel Friendship League. The goal is to expose students from America and from the Middle East to the other’s culture. The first delegation arrived in Israel in 1979, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.


However, that isn’t the only golden idea the AIFL brain trust has had with regard to fact-finding trips. Besides having a sophisticated think thank, various other delegations to Israel, and the annual Partners for Democracy Awards dinner, an effort to engage with mainline Christians (Presbyterian, United Methodist, Episcopal, etc.) and allow them the opportunity to experience Israel first-hand is also front-and-center for “the League.”



The latest group was led by Presbyterian minister William “Bill” Harter, from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Harter, long associated with efforts at reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians (and their respective Christian supporters), is a veteran leading these groups.



Harter’s expertise in leading this latest delegation is seen in his comments from the recently concluded trip:"Our 14 delegates included a number of younger clergy and lay leaders who are now informed and highly motivated to contribute to the critical discussions which will take place at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly in Detroit, June 11-18 this coming summer. We are most grateful to the AIFL leadership and members for the opportunity to prepare ourselves to make a significant difference toward fair and balanced judgment of life in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and of the potential for a just and lasting peace."



I find it fascinating that this group was not afraid to wade into controversial territory. In short, they were there to learn and try and come back with a balanced view of the region. 



For example, there has been a great deal of news lately about the “BDS” movement (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions), an effort to marginalize Israel internationally through economic boycotts of West Bank companies. The AIFL’s Presbyterian delegation visited a Soda Stream factory in the West Bank…which employs a remarkable 1300 Israelis and Palestinians. Not only are hundreds of families gainfully employed, but Arabs and Jews work together. (Soda Stream is the company that produces a device that turns water into sparking water or soda. The company has been much in the news recently, since company spokesperson Scarlett Johansson refused to bow to pressure from anti-Israel, BDS-aligned groups. Johansson remains a spokesperson for the company.)



Ruby Shamir, executive director of the AIFL, was pleased with the outcome of the trip:“These days when there are many voices calling to boycott Israel both in the business and academia regions, it is crucial to bring leaders and influential figures to change these ideas and to help form a positive and supportive opinion about Israel. 



This is yet another step towards the mission of the AIFL which is to strengthen the relationships between the American and Israeli people.”



No single group or individual will solve the lingering Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but efforts like these are sensible, pragmatic steps that lead to that new day in the Middle East we are all hoping for.



The 14 Presbyterians on the trip visited the Soda Stream factory in Ma’ale Adumim, a gleaming Israeli community that has been the focus of controversy.



At the factory, the church representatives met with SodaStream management and employees. According to a press release from the group, they said that the visit “strengthened their belief that the location of the factory enhances the business as well as the interpersonal relations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”



The trip also featured interactions with a broad range of people who make the Holy Land the world’s most exotic, interesting place on Earth.



Against the backdrop of the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference currently being held in Bethlehem, the current round of volatile peace talks brokered by the U.S., and growing concerns about regional instability, the AIFL’s Presbyterian delegation is an oasis.

(Jim Fletcher is a researcher, writer, and speaker, and a long-time advocate for Israel. He can be reached at jim1fletcher@yahoo.com)

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