As support for Israel becomes more nuanced and less of a certainty among the American Jewish community, Israel-advocacy organizations like AIPAC work to foster allies among other constituencies. AIPAC’s national director of outreach, Jeff Mendelsohn, heads the organization’s effort to promote pro-Israel activism among key members of the Hispanic, African-American, and religiously motivated Christian communities. On Jan. 9, he will be joined by Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman as featured speakers at a community-wide event, “Growing Alliance: Pro-Israel Support in the Christian and African American Communities” at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County.
Coleman traveled to Israel with Mendelsohn in 2008 on an educational trip sponsored by AIPAC’s affiliated charitable foundation. Since returning from what she has called a “life-changing” experience, Coleman has been among Israel’s most ardent and outspoken supporters, addressing audiences across the country, including 7,000 activists at the concluding plenary of the 2010 AIPAC policy conference.
Rev. Coleman has been pastor of the historic Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit since 1999, when she became the first female preacher to serve the congregation. She is a member of the AIPAC National Council, co-chair of the Progressive National Baptist Convention’s Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry, and is the first female pastor to hold the office of Secretary of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity.
She spoke with the Ledger about her work with AIPAC to help build support for Israel among the African-American community.
Q: How did you become involved in AIPAC?
A: I am an African-American Baptist female preacher whose origin comes from a deep-rooted spiritual truth and faith that Israel is the Holy Land of this world and its people are the chosen of God. I grew up respecting Israel and the Jewish people; it was something my mother taught us from a young age. From birth on, I was taught that God has a special blessing for those of us that protect and pray for Israel.
I served in the U.S. Navy right after high school, which is why I later came to understand the plight of Israeli young people going to the military and what it means to give the best of your life to the country you love. I went to seminary in Detroit and earned a doctorate in intercultural communications. I’ve lived in Oak Park, Mich. for the last 30 years, the largest Jewish population in the state. My church is on the other side of the largest Muslim community in the U.S.
Q: How did you develop a connection to Israel?
A: I went to Israel for the first time in January 2008, with a fellow pastor. Initially, I was just excited about the historical and biblical places we would see. When we got to Israel, not only did we see the historical factors, but we talked about the plight Jewish people were going through, threats from Iran, the long history of struggles, and wanting peace – and how could that happen? I initially went in without opinions but wanting peace for everyone in the Middle East, and soon found out what a challenge that was. As we discovered the land and the Jewish people’s place in Israel, we came out feeling a whole lot closer and connected to Israel and its right to survive.
That’s what I’ve been working on with AIPAC ever since: I seek protection for Israel. Israel has a right to protect itself and doesn’t need to give excuses, that is the right of any country. They shouldn’t be asking permission from the U.S. or the UN. If I am threatened with annihilation, I won’t seek your permission to protect myself.
Last October, I went on a mission to Israel with 34 fellow pastors. They had notions about everything – notions about settlements, notions about how Israel was treating the Palestinian people, notions that Israel is so well situated that they’re more of a threat in the area than anyone else. When we began our tour, there were a number of things that shook them. One was to see how young the soldiers were, and that shook them because we live in a culture where we don’t have a tenuous peace with our neighbors and where we have a volunteer military. It is the norm to protect what you have, not a second thought, but an automatic thought to protect what is ours.
We went to Sderot and heard testimonies of how people’s lives are being shattered, and for our group to see the Gaza Strip was unbelievable. We went to a little town outside Sderot and visited a school ground that is covered by a bomb shelter. They see the babies playing, not understanding initially that it’s a bomb shelter where you can’t see the sun. The children had to tell the difference between a bell ringing and a siren screaming. How do you train babies to make that distinction to save their lives, and drill that into them?
They all left with a desire to be pro-Israel advocates.
Q: What do you do with AIPAC, and how has that work shaped your attitude toward Israel?
A: I serve on the national council of AIPAC, which has deepened my faith, renewed my strength in humanity, and allowed me to show that this pro-Israel movement that I serve in goes way beyond the Jewish community. I was overwhelmed in 2008 when I experienced my first trip to Israel with AIPAC’s foundation. It was there that I realized that the quest for peace and the need for security is non-negotiable.
I have received hate mail, my church has received hate mail, my car’s been egged. But with all of that, how can you silence a voice that God has given?
We must keep up the work and stay on target, and that is to stop Iran from making nuclear weapons. I want to see peace in Iran and in the Middle East, but you can’t have peace if someone doesn’t want to sit at the table or if they want to annihilate you from the planet. You have the right to defend yourself as well.
It is a must, a necessity, an urgency, an obligation of trust, a stipulation, a need that Israel must be secure, and some things are non-negotiable. Jerusalem, the capital of Israel — non-negotiable. Iran must be stopped — non-negotiable. Israel must have the right to defend itself — non-negotiable.
One thing that we sometimes can’t explain is the plight of the Palestinian people. I always say that the U.S. and other countries, even Israel, have done a tremendous job in aiding the people, but you have to go through the Palestinian government to do so, and the government decides what they’ll do with the aid, and whether to invest in the people.
Q: What specifically is going on with AIPAC’s African-American outreach?
A: Most of the outreach is focused on the Midwest region, where 100 outreach leaders are working on how to engage other African-Americans to bridge the gap in our relationship with the Jewish community. The effort was initiated by Jeff Mendelsohn in Washington, D.C. Just to know that his heart was wanting to bridge that gap was a tremendous asset for me and made it easier for me to speak about my own history and who I am, as opposed to being politically correct. Everywhere I go, there are African-Americans in the religious setting asking how they can engage and help.
A terrible rift was caused between the African-American and Jewish-American communities, but I talk about the relationship we used to have. During the civil rights movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, because even Dr. King understood how we have so much in common, through our struggles, discrimination, civil rights, even death. How do we not keep that kindled – because our very lives depend upon it. How can something happen that’s so detrimental that you break off ties? Now we in the African-American community understand that Israel needs us and we support it because that relationship has always been there. There is a great need for the relationship to be rekindled and that is being done through outreach.
I am the second vice president of the Council of Baptist Pastors in Detroit. When things happen in Israel, we have a greater understanding now that we don’t jump to conclusions. We’re not biased – we know that there are two sides to every story. You have to pull the truth out and put it on the table and say let’s wait for a moment, and wait to see it clearly.
Q: Israel is both idealized and demonized. How do you educate potential supporters about the realities of Israel?
A: I start off by telling people, especially intimate groups of church leaders who want to learn more, that Israel and the people are not any better than us, but God uses Israel as a vehicle of salvation. This is the track God has put us on and we must stay on it. If we are true to our calling as men and women of the Gospel, we must be true to God’s word.
I respect the government of Israel seeking peace for a two-state solution. I’m one to believe that the land is what God gave to Israel and it is Israel’s land; I don’t debate about it. People get heated up over the issue, but when God gives you land, you cannot give it away. It’s not yours to give.
Rev. Dr. DeeDee Coleman will discuss “Growing Alliance: Pro-Israel Support in the Christian and African American Communities” on Sunday, Jan. 9, 10:30 a.m. at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County, 4200 Park Ave. in Bridgeport. For more information call (203) 372-6567, ext. 129.