Back on October 5th, the leaders of several American Christian churches sent a joint letter to Congress [PDF]:
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.”
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.
Here’s the list of signatories:
Rev. Gradye Parsons Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA)
Mark S. Hanson Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner President, Council of Bishops United Methodist Church
Peg Birk Transitional General Secretary National Council of Churches USA
Shan Cretin General Secretary American Friends Service Committee
J Ron Byler Executive Director Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Alexander Patico North American Secretary Orthodox Peace Fellowship
Diane Randall Executive Secretary Friends Committee on National Legislation
Dr. A. Roy Medley General Secretary American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
Rev. Geoffrey A. Black General Minister and President United Church of Christ
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins General Minister and President Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Julia Brown Karimu President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Division of Overseas Ministries Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
Rev. Dr. James A. Moos Executive Minister, United Church of Christ, Wider Church Ministries Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
Kathy McKneely Acting Director Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Eli S. McCarthy, PhD Justice and Peace Director Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM)
Some of these religious leaders issued supplementary statements from the offices of their own faith. The United Church of Christ, representing over a million people, issued a statement:
The UCC has sought to constrain the militarization of the Middle Area after the passage of a 2005 General Synod resolution, said Dr. Peter Makari, area executive to the Middle East and Europe for Global Ministries.
“The UCC has been consistent in its condemnation of violence, regardless of its source,” Makari said.
The UCC joins its ecumenical partners “in expressing the concern that U.S. assistance to Israel has been and remains unconditional, is in violation of U.S. law on foreign assistance, and contributes toward the continuation of a military occupation of Palestinian lands, which is antithetical to efforts to promote peace between the Palestinians and Israelis,” Makari said.
The churches and religious organizations, committed to seeking a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis, also point to what they write is 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.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, representing over 3.4 million parishioners, issued a long statement regarding the letter to congress, quoting the head of the church,the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop:
“When as Lutherans we say that all the baptized will strive for justice and peace in all the earth, it means that we will be immersed in complex issues. While we do not all agree on the best way to establish justice and bring peace, we will be involved in lively, respectful, passionate conversations,” said Hanson.
“From Palestinian Lutherans, I hear discouragement about the lack of progress and questions about where the voice is of American Christians,” said Hanson. “Our letter seeks to be a partial answer to such questions, that we are clear in our resolve to continue to work for a just and lasting solution for Israelis and Palestinians.”
Together, the signatory churches represent more people than live in Israel of all faiths. Yet there were almost no news articles about the letter in the American press, outside of some Jewish community news outlets and sites, when the investigation request was sent and announced. There were a number of them in the Israeli press.
Late this past week, though, the story gained more notice, when Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League protested the letter, and then announced he is pulling out of an upcoming National Council of Churches meeting:
The Anti-Defamation League said Thursday (Oct. 11) it has withdrawn from an Oct. 22 U.S. Jewish-Christian interfaith meeting to protest a letter from some Protestant participants that urged Congress to rethink U.S. funding to Israel.
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said the signatories’ actions — without first informing Jewish groups — have “seriously damaged the foundation for mutual respect” necessary for interfaith dialogue.
Daniel S. Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, called the letter “a thinly veiled attempt to try to harm Israel, and U.S.-Israel relations.” The Reform movement’s Washington-based Religious Action Center said the letter “mischaracterizes” the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, “wrongly holds only Israel accountable” for regional problems “and does not advance the regional and security interests of the U.S.”
Interestingly, J Street, the lobbying group formed in April, 2008, as a liberal alternative to AIPAC (I hosted J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami here at firedoglake in 2011, for a book salon on his work, A New Voice for Israel), has condemned the Christians’ letter:
It was inevitable. Constantly under pressure from the Jewish center-right (Reform rabbis, for instance), J Street has thrown in the towel. Read its document of surrender.
In response to the letter from Christian denominations urging that aid to Israel be compliant with U.S. law, J Street has joined Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation league and the half-million a year hacks that run the other Jewish organizations to blast the Christians. (See Foxman letter).
J Street agrees with them that aid to Israel is an entitlement. It must never be questioned unless you also add ” criticism of Israel’s behavior with appropriate criticism of, for instance, rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli civilian areas.” You must also ”put the present situation into a historical or political context that might provide a fuller appreciation for the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over many decades.”
Each new month brings another Christian group to question what its relationship should be with the increasingly hostile, increasingly racist and overtly apartheid state of Israel. And increasingly, Jewish groups in America are being asked to be openly critical of these moves, whether it be this one, or votes to consider divesting from businesses in Israel, or with firms which enable the occupation and colonization of the West Bank.
Rather than inquire as to why these spiritually-founded religious bodies feel impelled to sanction Israel, many Jewish organizations, commentators and public figures are likening these moves to anti-Semitism, which it most certainly is not. These Jewish protesters seem to fail to understand that these labels, thrown around like they are in such cases, not only will not stick or sting, they will further alienate Christians who are already committed to courses of action they have tied to the doctrines of their beliefs.
Marc Ellis observed the following, while covering the debate during the Presbyterian assembly vote on divestment, last summer:
When it became clear that Israel as a state wasn’t interested in justice for Palestinians and that Jewish leadership in America was only interested in silencing Christian misgivings about Israeli occupation policies, it was only a matter of time before the Jewish-Christian love fest came to an end.
Among the liberal Christian denominations, Christian support for Israel is on life support. The back-up oxygen tanks, already in use, are running empty. There isn’t any way of resurrecting the interfaith ecumenical deal. The “Christians are evil/Jews are innocent” genie is out of the bottle, never to return.
Indeed, it is out of the bottle. Here is a comment to an article on Foxman’s announcement in Arutz Sheva:
If you really respected the other guy’s faith, you’d be practicing it. Just as is said about gays, you can hate the sin and love the person, there is nothing to love about religions that have persecuted and murdered millions of Jews for the past 2,000 years.
The bottom line is that Christian-Jewish ecumenical relations have entered a new phase over the past two years. I expect these actions protesting Israeli and American policies will grow more acute, rather than less.