Pastor argues for separation of church and hate in Israel

The Rev. Petra Heldt spent two years in bed. So she doesn’t have time for ridiculous things like Israeli divestment petitions.

“The divestment issue is something that is a nonstarter in Jerusalem. For all the churches in Jerusalem it is disgusting and it is something you simply don’t do,” said Heldt, a Lutheran pastor, resident of Israel for the past 26 years and recent visitor to the Bay Area at the behest of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“It reminds me of the anti-Semitism of old, where Israel is simply excluded from the rest of human society, and I certainly don’t go with it. We live in Israel together with the Jews. They are our colleagues and friends.”

The Berlin-born Heldt is a small, unassuming and incredibly quiet woman. Even when she speaks passionately about an issue — and when it comes to fighting Israeli divestment and the “hypocritical” church forces behind it, she gets plenty passionate — her voice rarely rises beyond the decibel level of a cat’s paws on shag carpeting.

And that’s a remarkable thing, because this is not simply an academic debate for her. In her recent San Francisco visit, Heldt wore long sleeves (not uncommon or unwise in the nippy Bay Area). But when she pulled her sleeves back she revealed the unusual skin patterns on her hands — extensive skin grafts that reach all the way up to her elbows.

In 1997 a routine shopping trip to Mahane Yehuda ended abruptly when a suicide bomber detonated himself only yards away. Sixteen Israelis died and 177 were wounded, but the numbers don’t reveal the survivors’ pain. Heldt was covered with second- and third-degree burns. She spent six weeks in a burn suit, underwent surgeries and transplants, spent two years unable to do much of anything, and then three more of painful recovery.

“Afterward, I felt better,” she said in her soft, German accent without a hint of what an incredible understatement she had just made.

Heldt believes the long, painful ordeal made her more religious. It also made her surlier when dealing with organized Christian efforts to demonize Israel.

Not unlike a congressman, Heldt has been re-elected to the directorship of the Ecumenical Theory Research Fraternity in the Old City every two years, without fail. The institute works to promote meetings and cooperation between Christians of all stripes who may have previously only read about each other’s customs. The fraternity also works hand-in-hand with the Jewish community, which is why anti-Israeli politicking gets under Heldt’s skin.

Over the past three decades, various Protestant movements have fallen prey to “Palestinian Liberation Theology,” the melding of PLO propaganda and Christianity, Heldt charges. She saved special vitriol for Sabeel, an Arab Anglican group in Jerusalem that is one of Israel’s fiercest critics.

Yitzhak Santis, the S.F.-based JCRC’s director of Middle Eastern affairs, sees Heldt as an ally against the infiltration of pro-Palestinian politics into Christian churches.

“It is no understatement that this issue is the biggest threat to Christian-Jewish relations in decades,” said Santis, who organized a nationwide trip earlier this month for Heldt.

The fight is not yet lost. If Heldt’s meetings with San Francisco Christians are indicative, she and Santis have their work cut out for them.

Protestant groups “were utterly amazed to hear the other side of the story. They were very grateful to hear it and had never heard it before.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.