Exile and the Prophetic: The interfaith ecumenical deal is dead

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

With the election over and the fiscal cliff looming it’s easy to lose sight of a politics beneath the radar, one that keeps moving on the ground. Game-changers don’t always make the loudest noise. Sometimes they’re incremental. They arrive when you least expect them..

It seems late in the Israel/Palestine political game – and it is late indeed – but the mainstream Churches are breaking what I have called the interfaith ecumenical deal. That deal is usually referred to as the interfaith ecumenical dialogue, the post-Holocaust place where Jews and Christians have mended their relationship. Israel was huge in this dialogue. Christians supported Israel as repentance for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. Then as Israel became more controversial with their abuse of Palestinians, Christians remained silent. Non-support and, worse, criticism of Israeli policies, was seen by the Jewish dialoguers as backtracking to anti-Semitism. That’s where the dialogue became a deal: Silence on the Christian side brings no criticism of anti-Semitism from the Jewish side.

Of course, the interfaith ecumenical deal was also part of a larger political deal on the American political seen. Any criticism of Israel from political figures was their death knell. The accusation of anti-Semitism was the bullet.

Can the political pro-Israel deal survive if its component parts whither? Certainly, the Jewish establishment has given up on parts of its most natural component parts. I’m thinking here of broad swaths of the Jewish community. Jews of Conscience have left the Israel fold. Many mainstream Jews are either silent or apathetic toward Israel today.

The largest and most vocal components of the political deal today are Christians. Though we think mostly evangelicals here, with their roots in Biblical prophecy, for most of its history Israel’s biggest supporters have been mainstream liberal Christians. They’ve supported Israel as a moral question, involving their repentance for anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Just as aspects of Jewish support for Israel are dropping off, the liberal Christian support is ebbing. However, unlike those Jews who have just gone silent and like Jews of Conscience who are raising their voices, mainstream liberal Christians aren’t going silently into Israel’s night. As an organized and institutionalized presence, mainstream Christian denominations in the United States are speaking boldly.

I’m thinking specifically of the October 5 letter that a group of prominent Church leaders sent to Congress. In the letter, Church leaders admonish Congress for allowing Israel to skirt and in some cases violate American law. They are direct and to the point, especially highlighting American foreign aid to Israel.

I cite significant passages below because in my experience and knowledge this letter is a first. It is striking in a variety of ways, not the least in its attention to political detail and its modest employment of the typical theological fluff that so often dominates Church declarations.

While appealing to aspects of joint beliefs in human and political rights shared by different faith communities, for the most part the Church leaders play down the theological language of compassion and reconciliation that often characterizes Church statements on Israel/Palestine. In a stunning departure, interfaith relations are secondary to the immediate needs of the Palestinian people who are under assault by Israel. The Church leaders speak specifically about Israel’s violation of American law and encourage Congress to investigate these violations and take action in bold and definitive strokes. Again, note the specifics, since most Church letters are typically long on theological rhetoric and short on political demands.

The first preliminary paragraphs remain true to the typical mold of previous statements. The Church leaders rehearse their call to be peacemakers and emphasize the suffering on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian. Notice this conciliatory language. In the paragraph’s following, the tone changes:

Through this direct experience we have witnessed the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions and of Palestinians as a result of Israeli actions. In addition to the horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings, we have witnessed the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.

We have also witnessed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others. We recognize that each party—Israeli and Palestinian—bears responsibilities for its actions and we therefore continue to stand against all violence regardless of its source. Our stand against violence is complemented by our commitment to the rights of all Israelis, as well as all Palestinians, to live in peace and security.

After these preliminaries, the letter’s tone changes quickly – and significantly. Citing the deterioration of the situation in Israel and among the Palestinians – which is moving the ‘region further away from the realization of a just peace’ – the Church leaders get to the center of their argument:

Unfortunately, unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians. This is made clear in the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, which details widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.

‘Unconditional U. S. military assistance’ – there’s the indication where the letter is going. Citing elements of crowd control, including tear gas, and American law which prohibits ‘repeatedly used excessive force to repress peaceful, lawful, and organized dissent,’ the Church leaders makes their first demand:

Accordingly, we urge an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which 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.”

Then a second, even bolder, demand:

More broadly, we urge Congress to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace. 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.

As if ‘careful scrutiny’ and ‘holding hearings’ is not enough, the Church leaders follow up by questioning American support for Israel as its settler population in Jerusalem and the West Bank continue to expand:

In addition to specific rights violations, we see a troubling and consistent pattern of disregard by the government of Israel for U.S. policies that support a just and lasting peace. Specifically, repeated demands by the U.S. government that Israel halt all settlement activity have been ignored. Since 1967, every U.S. administration has decried Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as obstacles to peace. Despite this stance, Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, claiming territory that under international law and U.S. policy should belong to a future Palestinian state. The Oslo peace process, which began in 1993, was publicly promoted as leading Israelis and Palestinians to a just peace based on a two-state solution. Instead, since 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has more than doubled. Rights violations resulting from Israeli settlement activity include separate and unequal legal systems for Palestinians and settlers, confiscation of Palestinian land and natural resources for the benefit of settlers, and violence by settlers against Palestinians.

Finally, the entire issue of American foreign aid is addressed, suggesting that American financial insistence to Israel be questioned and ‘contingent’ on Israel’s compliance to American laws and policies. Since there is no way Israel would comply on this basis, the Church leaders are placing American support for Israel on the political table. Once again, their language is forthright:

As Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel. Realizing a just and lasting peace will require this accountability, as continued U.S. military assistance to Israel — offered without conditions or accountability — will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.

We request, therefore, that Congress hold Israel accountable to these standards by making the disbursement of U.S. military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.

As Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II, it is especially critical for Israel to comply with the specific U.S. laws that regulate the use of U.S.-supplied weapons. We also encourage Congress to support inclusive, comprehensive, and robust regional diplomacy to secure a just and lasting peace that will benefit Israelis, Palestinians, and all the peoples of the region, and the world.

Dynamite stuff, to be sure. The Church leaders leap over the interfaith ecumenical dialogue/deal bar in one fell swoop. Or so it seems. On the get real level, this statement was decades in the making.

My first presentation on this subject to a Christian group was more than twenty-five years ago. The blow-back from the Jewish establishment then was unbelievable. The blow-back included, as it still often does, Progressive Jews. Their investment in the interfaith ecumenical deal was substantial. It still is.

The taboo subjects directly addressed in this letter weren’t even on the table then. Rather, they were in the air but couldn’t get to the table. Church leaders quaked in fear – of the Jewish establishment, of Progressive Jews, of themselves.

You see, not only could Christians be accused of anti-Semitism, they feared they might be anti-Semitic. All of this came to the head when Israel was criticized. Connected, as well, was the sense that many Christians had of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims – as shadowy, uncivilized, deceptive and terrorist in their inclinations. For many well-meaning Christians support for Palestinians and even the hint of an aid cut-off to Israel was to enter another anti-Semitic universe. Church leaders, as well as rank and file Christians, wanted no part of the sins of the past.

Yes, of course, there was brouhaha on the Jewish establishment side when the Church leader’s letter hit the press. Blow-back has been big-time. But then support for the Church leaders has also been strong.

Reading the letter out loud I marvel on the distance traveled. Despite the pressure and with support as well, is there any way back to the pieties of yesteryear for these Church leaders?

Strange, looking on the internet for commentary on the Church leader’s letter, one site had the letter opposite a quotation from the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel: ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’

It seems that the Church leaders have finally learned the central lesson of Christian complicity in the Holocaust. It was taught to them by Jews in the personal witness of Elie Wiesel.

The lesson: The ultimate sin is silence in the face of injustice.

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What is the point of talking to Zionists about faith ? Faith in violence? Faith in mendacity ? Why would the Presbyterians be interested?

It is a bold but obvious statement that American Christians have been complicit in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

I haven’t been reading much of Ellis, but this post nailed it. This is exactly how liberal Protestants (and liberal Catholics like James Carroll) have been browbeaten into thinking that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. It even describes some of my own feelings in the past.

Gaza and the refugee camps of the palestinians continue to repent for the antisemitic sins of Europe’s Christians.

Well said, Mr. Ellis. Real progress in the hinterlands and in the grass roots if not yet in DC and in the msm.