By Jim Fletcher
It was in a darkened basement in an Egyptian hotel where Bill Harter got his first real education regarding the Middle East’s various conflicts.
The date was June, 1967, and Harter, now pastor emeritus of the Presbyterian Church of Falling Spring, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, was with a tour group at the precise moment hostilities erupted between Egypt and Israel. The subsequent story of the Jewish state’s lightning victory in the region has in some way become Harter’s story as well.
“They [the Egyptians] kept us out of harm’s way during the war. It was obviously a chaotic time,” Harter now recalls.
The Rev. William Harter has, ever since, been an advocate for peace and reconciliation between Israel and her neighbors. His various activities usually involve advocating for Israel, and his recognition of the nuance and complexities in the Middle East has proven to be invaluable for the organizations he’s part of, and for individuals and peace activists in dire need of a stabilizing, mentoring relationship.
Harter recently returned from leading a delegation of Presbyterians in Israel. The trip, sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL), has long been close to Harter’s heart. The AIFL, touted as “making friends for Israel since 1971,” was born out of concerns by political and activist sources watching the growing marginalization of Israel. Harter has been a key member, and serves on the AIFL board. His presence there has helped in many ways, including as a key player in the efforts to block divestment initiatives.
As a long-time Presbyterian, Harter strongly opposes the movement:
“We are locked into a continuing effort to overcome the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] movement and all other attempts to delegitimize Israel and Jewish peoplehood, including the ‘apartheid’ trope and the alleged ‘one-state’ solution.”
Indeed, Harter represents a balanced voice in the often-volatile “pro Israel, pro Palestinian” church world. Harter is neither as strident as some Christian Zionist groups, nor is he an advocate of the “Peace Now” community. Rather, he understands the need to alleviate suffering on both sides.
“Clergy and elders of the Presbyterian Church who participated in the delegation are committed to building bridges for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and to increased understanding between Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the world,” says Harter. Further, he is committed to “the legitimate rights and aspirations of the [Jewish and Palestinian] peoples in their national homelands and a ‘two-state’ resolution of the conflict.”
The AIFL has for decades sponsored educational tours of Israel, bringing political, religious, educational and youth groups together with their Israeli and Arab counterparts. It’s an effort that has yielded much fruit, and Harter knows that voices of reason will eventually carry the day. This gentle-but-steely pastor is frustrated by efforts to marginalize Israel:
“The BDS movement is more than simply a tactic—it is a strategy aimed at undermining Israel economically, politically, and morally.” During the delegation tour of Israel, Harter says “We became acquainted with the diverse minority populations within Israel and saw the determination of both Jewish and Arab leaders to create equality of opportunity and increased parity in politics, the arts, jurisprudence, and economic development. We were impressed with the strong commitment of Israelis to work with West Bank leaders to foster a similar atmosphere in the Palestinian Authority…We recognize the value of the church’s continuing commitment to investment in projects which benefit Palestinians and Israelis.”
A founding member and secretary of NCLCI (National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel), a board member of AIFL, and also National Co-Convener of the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, Harter monitors issues important to Israel and her supporters.
At the PCUSA’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh, in July, 2012, Harter and friends helped narrowly defeat a motion to divest from companies doing business in Israel.
“He is a great friend of Israel and to the Jewish people,” said the AIFL’s Alex Grobman. “Bill is helping lead some of our study tour groups to Israel—a major priority for us—and his knowledge and compassion for all people is helping break down walls of misunderstanding.”
It is somewhat unusual for a mainline pastor in America today to find himself in an advocate’s role for Israel. Yet Harter believes his personal background prepared him very well for that role.
“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.”
That background and influence provided an opportunity for young Bill Harter to develop a lifelong love for Jewish studies. He originally planned to go into medicine, but decided instead to study at Union Seminary and later Harvard. He emerged with a pastor’s heart, and advocating for the Jewish community and bridge building became a hallmark. Today, along with his friends at the AIFL, and NCLCI friends like Dr. Richard Lux, and evangelical scholar JoAnn Magnuson, Bill Harter is positive about the future. He remembers his first trip to the Middle East:
“It was extraordinarily transforming in terms of my personal faith and my commitment to ministry.”
The America Israel Friendship League, among others, is extraordinarily grateful for this humble advocacy giant who hails from Erie County, New York. His is a life worth emulating.
Jim Fletcher is a writer and pro Israel activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org