A religious freedom watchdog committee mandated by Congress rebuffed repeated appeals from Christian Palestinians to investigate Israel, James Zogby, an outgoing member of the committee, said on Wednesday at a press conference in Washington DC. “In effect, we were bullied,” he concluded in a letter sent to his colleagues.
Zogby is the director of the Arab American Institute and was appointed eight years ago to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) by President Obama. With less than three weeks left in his term, Zogby went public with his dissenting opinion to the religious committee’s decision to excuse Israel from an investigation.
The count was close.
“I had plenty of allies on the commission, just not enough,” Zogby said. “There were four Democrats who were supportive. We lost the vote of one who was afraid of the fact—as I said that we would be basically fighting not getting any work done—and I call that bullying.”
Yet Zogby was not dissuaded. He cares deeply about issues facing Christians in the Middle East. And, as a Lebanese-American and a Maronite-Catholic, Zogby is the first Arab Christian to serve on the USCIRF.
“I decided then and I told my colleagues I would not go quietly into the night,” he continued. “That it didn’t serve Israel for us to be silent, that it didn’t serve of course the mission of religious freedom and in particular it didn’t serve the victims, the folks who can’t travel, who can’t marry, who can’t have families unified, or who are losing land, or who are losing rights, and after all if the commission can’t be responsive to its mission and to the violations of human rights, then what point is there?”
USCIRF’s most recent vote came after it received three official requests from religious communities seeking an inquiry into Israel. Last year 11 Christian groups from the U.S. and 34 from the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem were signatories to letters. The third letter of request was sent in January 2017 by the Jewish organization Hiddush, which works to protect the right of secular Jews in Israel.
If monitors had approved the bids, they could have led to a written country profile that would be submitted to Congress with recommendations on improving religious freedom. USCIRF has no enforcement powers.
Yet the reception of these letters within the committee was hostile, Zogby related, painting a picture of threats from other members to bungle the remainder of the work-year with in-fighting over Israel.
“The level of vehemence that greeted the receipt of theses letters was so great that some commissioners expressed concern that if we were to adopt these requests to conduct a review of Israeli policy it would consume the Commission in endless rancorous debate, paralyzing us for the rest of the year,” Zogby wrote in his dissent that was submitted to the group.
“These appeals were dismissed and the commission failed in its responsibility to impartially examine and report on religious freedom concerns of Christians, Muslims and non-Orthodox Jews,” he continued.
Beyond the three letters, Zogby said, for years other Palestinian Christians had approached him personally and approached the commission too, asking for an inquiry into Israel.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem lobbied the Commission about the case of the Cremisan Valley, an area outside of Bethlehem known for its historic monastery, convent, and wine-producing monks and nuns. Israel has planned to construct a wall on the land. “The proposed route of the wall snakes between the monastery and the convent, leaving the monks on the Israeli side and the nuns on the Palestinian side,” said a memorandum from the Patriarchate to the Commission in 2014. “This separation will disrupt the religious and cultural life of the Christians of Cremisan Valley, and takes away their ability to manifest their religion in community-something that states are called to protect by the Human Rights covenants.”
That same year the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fuad Twal, visited the USCIRF in-person in Washington, DC. Zogby lamented the terse response that commissioners gave to Twal. They “dismissed him rather rudely,” and questioned Twal on his motives– “why is he criticizing Israel and not Hamas,” Zogby said. “He [Twal] left the meeting rather shaken.”
Harsher criticism was reserved for Zogby from former USCIRF member Elliott Abrams, who told Al-Monitor, “Jim Zogby has had one single goal in all of his criticism of the commission and all his activities when on the commission, and that is to attack Israel.”
Zogby retorted on Wednesday:
“The dissenters were dismissed as anti-Semites. It was charged that these groups are insignificant. Anyways, ‘why are you singling out Israel?’…. when in fact my response was, ‘I’m not singling Israel out, you’re singling it out as the only country that you can’t criticize.”
One group concerned with Palestinian human rights went as far as writing up a 156-page report in 2016. Drafted by the non-governmental organization Palestine Works, the brief describes in granular detail an Israeli system of identifying citizens by their religions, and laws that give religious authorities control over personal affairs. Since 1953, Orthodox Jewish religious courts have had authority over Jewish citizens in matters of marriage, divorce, and burials. Jewish-Israelis cannot opt-out of these conservative courts; there is not a civil or secular option.
Furthermore, nearly 300,000 Israeli citizens do not belong to a state-recognized religious institution, and these individuals cannot marry or, when they die, be buried in state cemeteries.
There are also wide gaps in funding between Orthodox Jewish institutions and all other institutions (Christian, Muslim, and secular Jewish). And of the nearly 200 state recognized holy sites in Israel given special protections as ordained by international law, exactly zero are Christian or Muslim.
Palestine Works noted, in the Commission’s 17 years of existence, not once has it mentioned Israel in any of its material to Congress or the media. Even after a Commission delegation visited Israel in 1999, it failed to draft up anything.
Such an omission left an “unmistakable impression of a double standard.”
“Israel is one of the few countries in the world that uses religion as a measure of citizenship that discriminates against people based on religion in several ways including issuance of IDs and marriage laws,” Zogby explained.
Aside from status under the law as defined by religion, Zogby noted severe limitation to Christian holy sites.
“The ability to go from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is severely restricted and so Christians can see the city but can’t go to the church of the [Holy] Sepulchre without onerous restrictions, similarly Christians from Israel have difficulty going to Bethlehem,” he said.