When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.
Already, one major American Jewish group has canceled its participation in an Oct. 22 annual Christian-Jewish roundtable involving representatives from 12 Jewish and 12 Christian groups in New York. And other Jewish groups are expressing consternation.
“We’re not going to sit around the table and say ‘kumbaya,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which pulled out of the program and urged other Jewish groups to follow suit. “This is the clearest message I know to say, ‘You don’t get it. Maybe think about what you don’t get, and at a later date we’ll sit down and talk.’ ”
The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.
Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “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.”
The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”
In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.
A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.
This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.
The timing of last week’s letter is further straining ties between American Jewish and Protestant groups. For one thing, it came just weeks before the annual national meeting meant to ensure smoother ties between the two sides. The Christian-Jewish roundtable, as it is known informally, was developed in 2004, when the divestment issue rose in prominence in Protestant circles.
For another, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
“Things are not in a good place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) umbrella group.
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said boycotting the meeting is not the right response.
“As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue, because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience,” Marans said. “After all, until two generations ago, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalized within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”
Felson said JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. He said he has not yet decided if he will attend the roundtable.
“We feel strongly that if you want the parties to reconcile, we should model reconciliation,” Felson said. “But that’s difficult to do when we’re up against this brand of antipathy.”
Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”
Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in addition to national ones.
“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.
“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”
Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter.
“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “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.”
He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”
Parsons did not return calls for comment.
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.
“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East, whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue, they support Israel.”