Non-Jewish leaders witness Mideast complexities in Israel

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Christine Pelosi's recent trip to Israel reminded her of a pingpong game.

But that rapid back-and-forth across the country's political and cultural landscape — meeting West Bank settlers, Palestinian activists, Knesset members, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, Druze villagers and Golan Heights kibbutzniks — created a sharper picture of Israel in her mind.

"We really got a sense of the many parts of Israel," she said.

For Pelosi, who chairs the California Democratic Party's platform committee, the new insight translates into more than just personal enrichment. "It will inspire me to help create a platform that has more specific and particular information on the peace process," said Pelosi, who is also a San Francisco deputy city attorney and the daughter of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). She was one of 16 non-Jewish political, academic and civic leaders from various ethnic backgrounds who took part in a 10-day Israel tour in late June.

The trip was the most recent in an annual series sponsored in part by the Jewish Community Relations Councils in San Francisco, the East Bay and San Jose. The other sponsor was Project Interchange of the American Jewish Committee, which sends non-Jews to educational seminars in Israel. The Koret Foundation and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund partially subsidized the trip, which included an optional three-day tour of Jordan.

In addition to visiting tourist spots — Masada, Jerusalem's Old City, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and Jordan's Petra — the travelers attended over a dozen discussions and lectures with speakers offering a wide range of views on the region's politics and problems.

"We expose [tour-group members] to everything and everybody," said Rita Semel, a tour leader and consultant for Project Interchange.

The results of such trips are twofold, said Semel, who is also a former executive director of the S.F.-based JCRC. Non-Jews learn about Israel and its place in the Middle East, she said, and Jews "build bridges" with other ethnic communities. Many of the results are intangible, such as how Pelosi might incorporate her new knowledge into debates on the state party's platform.

But Semel pointed out that these trips, which began in 1988, have yielded many concrete results as well, including the:

*Exchange of faculty members between Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union Center for Jewish Studies and Israel's Shalom Hartman Institute for interfaith studies.

*Introduction of a Middle East curriculum into San Mateo County schools.

*Incorporation of Israeli techniques into English as a second language programs in the San Francisco Unified School District and at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

The most recent trip might bear fruit as well.

D. Phillip McGee, dean of San Francisco State University's College of Ethnic Studies, took part in the recent tour for a reason. He was searching for information about Israel and about Zionism to help ease tensions between ethnic groups on campus, notably Palestinians and Jews.

At S.F. State, McGee has long heard about Zionism from the perspective of African Americans, Palestinians and American-born Jews. Extremists on campus have labeled Zionism racist and colonialist.

"I wanted to know for myself," McGee said.

He returned having learned "dramatic historical lessons" that underscored the area's complexities and countered the oft-expressed hostile attitudes about Zionism. Encountering Russian, Ethiopian and Asian Jews, for example, taught the dean that "color and race are not defining themes there as they are over here. It's more religion and culture."

As a result of the trip, he plans to propose a Near Eastern studies program at SFSU. He hopes such a curriculum could launch a formal dialogue between Jewish and Palestinian students and supersede misinformation about the region.

McGee also plans to work with the S.F.-based JCRC on relations between Jews and African Americans.

The tour affected Christine Pelosi as well. She doesn't know whether her new insights will translate into specific statements on the state party's platform, which is reworked every four years and helps shape the national party's platform. But Pelosi said that at the very least, she will come to the table with more facts and a working knowledge of Israel.

She was particularly struck, for example, that while touring Israel's capital city, Jerusalem, she couldn't visit the U.S. Embassy because it is located in Tel Aviv.

"You start to realize it doesn't make sense," she said.

Platform hearings later this year will include discussions on the U.S. role in the peace process and options for investment in the territories.

The final platform, she said, will likely include statements relaying the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel, supporting Palestinian political rights and outlining how the United States will support Middle East peace efforts.

Regardless of the platform's outcome, Pelosi said she returned convinced that creating peace is more complex than just giving up land to appease traditional enemies.

"We really did learn the logistics of peace," she said.