Jewish establishment pulls out of interfaith dialogue, threatens Congressional investigation of ‘delegitimizers’ over Christian letter

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Palestinian Methodist Missionary and Pastor Alex Awad outside the Tampa convention center, where the Methodist divestment vote took place last Spring. (Photo: Anna Baltzer)

Mainstream Jewish establishment groups have upped the ante in a battle with Christian churches that was sparked by a mild letter calling on Congress to investigate whether military aid to Israel violates U.S. law.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) announced October 17 that their group and six other organizations were pulling out of a planned interfaith dialogue group scheduled for later this month. Instead, the Jewish groups are calling for a “summit” to take place in order to “communicate face-to-face at the highest levels and determine a more positive path forward for our communities.” In other words, the Jewish establishment wants to meet on its own terms, and not discuss the human rights violations of Israel.

“These churches have squandered our trust. They either refuse to pay attention to our plea for a fair appraisal of the situation or they simply do not care,” said JCPA president Steve Gutow, a former official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The statement from the JCPA also conflates “anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, and anti-Palestinian activities” with “anti-Zionist activities that have found comfortable homes in [Christian] denominations,” as JCPA official Larry Gold put it.

The interfaith roundtable that was scheduled to meet later this month was created in 2004 after proposals to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military began to gather strength in Christian denominations.

The letter (pdf here) that sparked the fracas is relatively mild. Signed by 15 leaders of Christian groups, the letter acknowledges that “Israel faces real security threats and that it has both a right and a duty to protect both the state and its citizens.” But the language that sparked the controversy was the call for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.”

These laws “respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’…We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance,” the Christian letter reads. Included in the letter are examples of Israeli human rights violations being carried out with U.S. weapons, such as the killing of Palestinian civilians and home demolitions and forced displacement. The letter was sent to every member of Congress.

After the letter was publicized, Jewish establishment groups went ballistic. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was the first group to pull out the interfaith roundtable. “It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state by calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of foreign aid,” ADL head Abraham Foxman said in a statement.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency adds to the story by reporting on an alarming threat from the JCPA. Ethan Felson, the vice president of the JCPA, told the news agency that “JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts.” Felson also suggested that “American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians.”

Still, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rabbinical Council has come out in favor of the Christian letter. Other Christian groups that pushed for boycott and divestment at recent church meetings have also come out strongly in favor of the letter.

“Israel’s grave and systematic abuses of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law have been thoroughly documented for many years,” said Rev. Jeff DeYoe, the advocacy chair for the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, in a statement. “We’re pleased and encouraged that church leaders from a growing number of denominations are recognizing this and taking a stand in favor of justice and freedom for all the peoples of the Holy Land. We hope members of Congress will do the same.”

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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