Church denominations stand strong in the face of Jewish establishment uproar over letter to Congress

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Jewish & Christian advocates for peace and divestment from the Israeli occupation at the Methodist General Conference, April 24, 2012 (Photo: Jewish Voice for Peace)

When 15 leaders of Christian denominations sent a letter (pdf) to Congress earlier this month asking for an investigation into whether military aid to Israel complies with U.S. law, the Jewish organizational world reacted with fury.

Jewish establishment groups pulled out of a planned interfaith dialogue scheduled for late October, pressured church leaders to attend a “summit” in lieu of the interfaith dialogue and flung around accusations of anti-Semitism. The vice-president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Ethan Felson, threatened to ask Congress to investigate “delegitimizers” of Israel.

But the pressure hasn’t worked. Interviews with people involved with Palestine solidarity work inside church denominations and other advocates reveal that the Christian denominations have no intention of backing down from their stance. No response has yet been forthcoming to the invitation for a high-level official “summit,” and a collective response to the invitation and the charges from the Jewish establishment is being drafted.  The fact that the pressure hasn’t worked could be significant to the prospects of Christian denominations having a strong voice on Israel/Palestine in the years to come as the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.

“The significance of these courageous 15 church leaders calling on Congress to hold Israel accountable for its misuse of U.S. weapons to commit human rights abuses of Palestinians cannot be overstated. Until now, this demand was largely constricted to the margins of the political debate, but now it is moving to the mainstream,” wrote Josh Ruebner, National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, in an e-mail. “The taboo now has been broken and the Israel lobby, as evidenced by its hysterical reaction to the letter, is quite evidently concerned that U.S. aid to Israel will now become a debatable topic on Capitol Hill.”

The Christian denominations who signed the letter also received a boost from the Carter Center, who “commended” the letter that “urged Congress to investigate human rights violations by Israelis against Palestinians that are obviously in violation of U.S. law.”

The letter that sparked the fracas is relatively mild. Sent to every member of Congress, it called for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.” Church leaders noted that those 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.’” The letter goes on to “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.”

Included among the signers were Rev. Gradye Parsons of the Presbyterian Church; Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Geoffrey Black of the United Church of Christ; and more. The issue of military aid to Israel and its compliance with U.S. law has been a priority for church denominations for over a year at least.

“The letter is just as big as, or even bigger, than divestment, just because of the number of institutions that are involved and the basic argument is just investigate human rights violations, and that’s very simple,” said a source involved in drafting the letter to Congress. “And why not? It’s very hard to argue against that. We basically told the truth, and that’s why there’s a reaction.”

The strong stance in the face of the uproar from mainstream Jewish groups is all the more significant when you look at past interfaith flare-ups. As Presbyterian advocates tried to get their church to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military in 2004, Jewish establishment groups reacted with outrage. One outcome of that outrage was a group of church leaders agreeing to hold an interfaith dialogue with members of the Jewish establishment. Now, groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League are boycotting the interfaith dialogue because of the letter to Congress.

But the interfaith dialogue was already on rocky ground. Some Christian members who participated in the dialogue found it to be frustrating. Rather than a forum to discuss common ground as well as the Israel/Palestine issue, it turned into one where Jewish leaders brought up alleged anti-Semitism within churches.

“Interfaith dialogue has always been nothing more than a device used by American Jewish groups to intimidate the American churches into keeping the ecumenical deal,” wrote James Wall, an ordained United Methodist clergy person and an editor at The Christian Century magazine, a left-leaning Protestant publication, in a recent blog post.

Another reason why the church leaders have no intention of backing down is due to the stated policy positions of these denominations on Israel/Palestine. While always acknowledging Israel’s right to exist in security, church denominations have voted on resolutions that make it church policy to call on the U.S. to look into whether military aid helps the situation on the ground or violates the law.

For instance, after the letter was published, a group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “we know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished…We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.” But that ignores the fact, as the Presbyterian Church’s Parsons noted in a statement, that in 2010 a resolution with similar intent to the letter to Congress was passed at the Presbyterian general assembly. That 2010 resolution calls for “the allocation of U.S. military aid funds to be contingent on compliance” with laws like the U.S. Arms Export Control Act of 1976. That policy was reaffirmed at the 2012 general assembly.

One source involved with the letter told Mondoweiss that in 2004, as the Presbyterians voted to institute a process of divestment from corporations doing business with Israel, there were “some who were isolated and picked off. Presbyterians were made the poster child of what not to do and so all the other denominations were afraid because of the backlash they faced.”

Now, the source said, “everyone is committed to what the letter states.” While it is a different issue this time around–military aid and compliance with U.S. law rather than the more controversial divestment issue–the stance could mean more action from churches on the Israel/Palestine front in the years to come.

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