The multi-faith contingent

US policy makers from a variety of different religions take on Israel.

interfaith delegation 224.88 (photo credit: Project Interchange)
interfaith delegation 224.88
(photo credit: Project Interchange)
What can an American Sikh learn from the Jewish people's Zionist state for his own people's aspirations to set up an independent homeland in Punjab? What do Seventh-Day Adventists think of a renewed Jewish state in the Holy Land? These were some of the questions batted around by members of an eight-member multi-faith contingent of US policy makers active on Capitol Hill that included, in addition to a Sikh and an Adventist, a Hindu, an Evangelical Christian and a Chinese-American. The tour, which passed through Sderot as well as Arab villages, was organized by Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) aimed at giving influential Americans a better understanding of Israel. James Standish, who represents the world-wide Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the US Congress, the White House and the US's executive agencies, said that unlike most Evangelical Christians, members of his faith do not see the establishment of the State of Israel in theological or prophetic terms. "For us it is more of a humanitarian event," said Standish. "After centuries during which the Jewish people were stateless, after the Holocaust there were obvious historical and religious reasons for establishing a Jewish state. "Obviously, we also hope that there will be a final settlement so that both the Jews and the Palestinian people will have a state." Standish added that Seventh-Day Adventists felt some affinity for the Jewish people since they both shared the same day of rest. "Just like Jews, Adventists don't work on the Sabbath. We also don't eat pork or shellfish." Rajbir Singh Datta, national director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), said that while Sikhs did not have an official stance on Zionism, "we do have something to learn from the Jewish people's challenges in reconciling religion with democracy," said Datta. "People are not sure what a future Sikh state would look like and how religion would be a part of the governance of the state. Jews have already had experience with these issues." Sikhs harbor an aspiration to build their own state in Punjab, a territory between India and Pakistan, that would have a Sikh majority and be run in accordance with the religion's principles. Datta said that the Sikhs also shared the modern Jewish state's strong military ethos. "Sikhs can definitely be considered a martial race. Although we make up about one percent of the population in India, we constitute between 10% and 15% of the standing army. During British rule the numbers were even higher at between 27% and 30%. "Like the Jewish people we have had to fight to defend ourselves against our Hindu and Muslim neighbors." Reverend Richard Cizik, the most senior staff member of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 43,000 churches with 27 million adherents, said that as an Evangelical Christian he felt a "familial" connection with the Jewish people. "Besides the fact that my paternal grandmother was Jewish, I feel a special love and connection with the Jewish people as a Christian," said Cizik. "I am neither pre-millennial nor dispensationalist like some of my fellow Evangelicals. Nevertheless, I feel an intrinsic identification with the Jewish people because of my commitment to biblical truth, that people of other faiths might not have. After all, Christianity is an outcome of Judaism. "At a personal level you can't love Jesus and not love the Jewish people, otherwise it is a violation of your Christianity. All the Christian bigotry and hatred directed against the Jewish people throughout the ages is a sad aberration." Richard Foltin, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the AJC, who headed the multi-faith mission, said that Project Interchange worked very hard to give as many different perspectives as possible on the ongoing conflict between Israelis and their neighbors. "We try to expose people on our missions to the 'big picture,'" said Foltin. Some of the points on the mission's itinerary include briefings on the legal rights of ethics minorities, the Arab Israeli community, the impact of immigration on Israel's political system, the future of settlements, a tour of the security fence and a tour of Sderot. "In addition to presenting the mission with a sophisticated and complex picture of Israeli society, we also try to put together a mission with a diverse mix of outlooks and perspectives. "If the mission members don't leave here with more questions than when they came we have not done our job."