A tireless activist for Israel
Jim Fletcher - Guest Columnist - 2/17/2012 1:15:00 PM

Jim FletcherBill Harter comes from pioneer stock. The Pennsylvania Presbyterian hails from Clarence, New York, in Erie County. The early settlers in that area literally carved-out lives and careers in what was once the western frontier.

That pioneering spirit is very much with the Rev. William Harter today. A leading light in the mainline advocating strongly for orthodox faith, he is also a bit of an anomaly, especially in those circles "back East."

Harter, you see, loves Israel and the Jewish people.


A tireless activist for the Jewish state, Harter is a long-time member of the executive committee for The National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI), and for the past half-dozen years, has lent his expertise in interfaith dialogue and advocacy for Israel to a powerhouse New York group, the America-Israel Friendship League. In particular, the latter group is most appreciative of the heart Rev. Harter brings to his work.

"He is a great friend of Israel and to the Jewish people," said AIFL director Alex Grobman, himself a bridge-builder between the Jewish and Christian communities. "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."

So, just how did a nice mainline boy from New York find himself in the thick of Jewish-Christian dialogue?

Rev. Bill Harter (NCLCI)"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.

"We were part of their family during Shabbat and holidays, and came to know Judaism. When I went away to school, I had a professor named Sydney Eisen. He was an advisor and a European history professor who was immensely appreciated and respected at Williams College in Williamstown (MA). I became close to their family and did childcare and they introduced me intellectually to Judaism and to the theological significance of Jewish practices. He became a mentor and my rebbe [teacher]."

These influences, and his biblical study, led Harter to a new awareness when he entered seminary.

"At Union Seminary ... that was a new journey! I intended to go into medicine, but later went into education [at Harvard]. Then, the orientation was education and public policy, but in actual teaching I realized I was being led into ministry."

At one point along the journey, Harter became even more immersed in Jewish studies, and a major turning point was just around the corner.

"I was fortunate to receive a fellowship, which could be used to study anywhere in the world. I wanted to go on for a doctorate in the area of Jewish-Christian studies. I did doctoral work in terms of Jewish wars against Rome and the impact on early Christian literature."

And then he heard the "magic" words: "I asked my professor where to study and he said, 'In your field, you can go to one of two places: you could go to Germany and learn a lot, or you can go to Israel and it will change your life...'"

His life's work since is a testimony to the power of a fateful decision. Eventually, through numerous trips to Israel, he developed a deep theological understanding of the People of the Book.

Harter spent two months in Jordan on his first trip, and 10 months on the Israeli side, studying at the Hebrew University.

"It was extraordinarily transforming in terms of my personal faith and my commitment to ministry."

Another pivotal moment came not long after that -- the Six Day War, in which Israel faced-down neighboring armies to win an astonishing victory. In fact, so complete was the victory that many began to debate the theological significance of the modern Jewish state.

"Well, '67 was a major watershed in Christian-Jewish relations," Harter remembers, "particularly because of the reaction [mixed] that Israel's victory received from mainline churches. A number of leading theologians were extremely critical of Israel. Prior to that time, the Jewish-Christian relationship in the U.S. was focused on social issues, civil rights. On this issue of the Six Day War, a tremendous divide took place."

Besides being part of scholarly study groups navigating the question of Israel's place in history and modern geopolitics, Harter became involved in another issue.

"In late 1970s, the U.S. government realized that the issue of Soviet Jewry was front-and-center -- and I became involved in that cause." And in 1975, the notorious "Zionism equals Racism" resolution in the U.N. led to the formation of NCLCI, which remains perhaps the key advocacy group for Israel within the mainline.

"From that point, the AIFL helped us find a home base in New York City, and with them (the AIFL), issues we worked on were support for Soviet Jewry, the refutation of Zionism is Racism, and the status of Jerusalem." The new partnerships were quite beneficial.

"AIFL helped us get that message around." The intervening years have been rich with productivity and new friendships.

"A number of our members helped with tours to Israel that AIFL put together. The Presbyterian group that went in 2005 had a very significant impact on the Presbyterian Church USA. A lot of our statements would run counter to mainline views, but there are times when we were in one accord."

The trips to Israel have had real, practical effect.

"We took a group and it was a really key group of people ... a number of the people on that trip were not only more intensively educated on the reality of Israel as we know it, but they have continued to be leadership people on this issue in the church -- people like Jim Roberts and Gary Green. The AIFL played a role in helping develop and equip Presbyterian leaders who have since become major figures in the denomination."

Harter's beloved wife, Linda, a brilliant partner his entire career, went to be with the Lord in 2006, but their work together lives on in her husband's tireless efforts for Israel and for justice for all.



Jim Fletcher (jim1fletcher@yahoo.com), a regular contributor to OneNewsNow, is a member of the executive committee for National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. This article is published with permission.


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