American Christians Dare to Speak Their Conscience on Israel/Palestine

My recent op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:

CHICAGO (JTA) — There has long been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.”

Over the past few weeks, we’ve painfully witnessed what can happen when Christians break this covenant by speaking their religious conscience.

On Oct. 5, 15 prominent American Christian leaders released a letter that called on Congress to make military aid to Israel “contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.”

While most Americans wouldn’t consider it unreasonable for our nation to insist that an aid recipient abide by U.S. laws, some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, lashed out at their Christian colleagues, eventually walking out on a scheduled Jewish-Christian roundtable. They are now requesting that the Christian leaders come to a “summit meeting” to discuss the situation.

Considering the vehemence of such a response, one might assume that the Christian leaders’ letter was filled with outrageous and incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric.

But in fact their letter is a sensitively worded and faithful call supporting “both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being,” as well as acknowledging “the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions,” the “horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings,” and “the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.”

Yes, the authors of the letter also expressed their concern over “widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others.”

As painful as it might be for these Jewish groups to hear, however, these are not scurrilous or arguable “allegations.” They long have been documented by international human rights groups, including the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. The letter points out that a 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices has detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.

Why has the Jewish establishment reacted so violently to a relatively balanced and religiously based call? Because by speaking their conscience, these Christian leaders had the audacity to break the unwritten covenant: If you want to have a dialogue with us, leave Israel alone.

A recent JTA Op-Ed by Rabbi Noam E. Marans, who serves as director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, provided an interesting window into the mechanics of this covenant. In his Oct. 21 piece, “Christians’ letter is an unworthy tactic,” Marans said nothing about the substance of the letter itself, choosing instead to vehemently attack the Protestant leaders and reject the statement as nothing less than “the opening of a new anti-Israel front.”

Marans went on to surmise that this reasonable, religiously based call for justice was the product of “certain leaders” who are frustrated with “their own failure to convince denominations to use divestment as a club to pressure Israel.” Nowhere did he address the issue of Israeli human rights violations (except to refer to them as “allegations.”) In the end, he suggested that this letter represents “the anti-Israel sentiment of some Christian leaders and their small but vocal, energetic and well-funded following who are attempting to hijack the positive trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations.”

It is difficult to read such a statement without concluding that Marans’ definition of “postive Christian-Jewish relations” means anything other than “no criticism of Israel allowed.”

It is important to note that the letter to Congress was not written by a few angry church renegades; it was authored by 15 prominent church leaders representing a wide spectrum of the Protestant faith community, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee.

While it is painful to read such accusations leveled at respected Christian leaders by a Jewish director of interreligious and intergroup relations, it is even more saddening that some Jewish organizations have chosen to walk away from a scheduled interfaith roundtable, then demand that the Christian leaders attend a “summit” on their own dictated terms.

It is not the role of Jewish organizations to dictate how their Christian partners can live out their conscience or their values, no matter how much they may disagree. Unpleasant realities cannot be discarded simply because these organizations regard such issues as off limits.

We can only hope that these Christian leaders will stand firm and that this sad episode will lead us to a new kind of interfaith covenant — one based on trust and respect, a willingness to face down our fear and suspicion of one another, and a readiness to discuss the painful, difficult issues that may divide us.

Will the American Jewish establishment be up to such a task?

10 thoughts on “American Christians Dare to Speak Their Conscience on Israel/Palestine

  1. Dovid K

    Since Jordan “invited” Israel into the disputed territories in 1967, life expectancy among the Arabs living there went from 48 years to 72 (compared with an average of 68 years for all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa), and Israeli medical programs reduced the infant-mortality rate of 60 per 1,000 live births in 1967 to 15 per 1,000 in 2000 (in Iraq the rate was 64, in Egypt 40, in Jordan 23, in Syria 22) In addition, under Israel’s systematic program of inoculation, childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus, and measles were eradicated.

    Isn’t it obvious that you should be singing the praises of Israel’s presence in the disputed territories?

    1. Vicky

      Firstly, I think you should note the difference between correlation and causation. The occupied territories enjoyed a general economic boom post-67 that aided quality of life. According to the World Bank’s report on OPT economic development, this was partially attributable to a sharp increase in the number of educated Palestinians taking jobs in the Gulf states. Work in Israel – in primarily menial jobs – was also a contributory factor. The idea that anyone should be ‘singing the praises’ of an occupying power because they improved the natives’ lot by allowing them to clean the toilets is disturbingly paternalistic. That line of thinking went out of vogue with the British empire – or it should have done.

      As for medical provision, it is impossible to talk about Israel’s former role in the provision of healthcare in the OPT without mentioning the discrimination that existed. Neve Gordon flagged this up nearly twenty years ago, pointing out that government expenditure per capita on health care was $500 in Israel and between $18 and $20 in the OPT. The discrepancy is huge, and it clearly shows what kind of life the government values most. Quite aside from this, the occupation has also jeopardised Palestinian health and wellbeing in myriad ways – five minutes away from me in Bethlehem is a young woman who suffered a terrible bereavement as a child because it took the army over two hours to allow the ambulance to pass (and this after they shot her mother). That young lady is just one of many. Then imagine what chronic water shortages mean for hospitals. What it’s like to be a doctor who is barred from travelling to medical conferences, to be a mother giving birth at a checkpoint, to be a psychiatric team trying to treat trauma-related mental health conditions in an area where being traumatised is the norm and not the exception. The list goes on, and I wonder if you would feel able to bring up your line of argument (“But we run such a humane zoo – you’d be so much worse off without us…”) in the presence of these people.

      To my knowledge, the youngest child to have been arrested by the Israeli army to date is five years old. (Yahya al-Rishaq from Silwan.) The youngest attempted arrest involved a two-year-old in Kufr Qaddoum. Between five hundred and seven hundred children are arrested every single year (the preferred time being the middle of the night, as though to create maximum fear and disruption), usually on a charge of stone-throwing but often on no charge at all. In the face of this and all the other abuses that happen here, the church leaders’ request that the US makes its military aid to Israel ‘contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies’ seems more than reasonable.

  2. Sylvia

    “some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, lashed out at their Christian colleagues, eventually walking out on a scheduled Jewish-Christian roundtable. They are now requesting that the Christian leaders come to a “summit meeting” to discuss the situation.”

    Bad move, if anyone asks me.

    What they should do is let Congress investigate the nature and purpose of that aid.
    I am confident that once they realize that 2 iron dome systems are insufficient to insure the protection of the Southern civilian population from rockets attacks from Gaza, they will increase that aid.

    The 2 iron dome systems intercepted 7 rockets out of eighty.
    This is 10% of what is needed.
    And oh! they shouldn’t forget while they’re investigating, the cash given to the palestinians this year which they have used to acquire bombs used against Jewish civilian refugees from Arab countries who live in the underdeveloped towns along the Gaza border.

    I do not doubt for a moment that the moral conscience of the 15 churches will be just as moved by bombs on Jewish civilians as it is by anti-Palestinian graffiti.

    1. Vicky

      The US provides no military aid to fighters in the Gaza Strip. It does provide such aid to Israel, however, and therefore it should perhaps take more interest of how the Israeli military conducts itself. In the February of this year, sixteen-year-old Hanin Abu Jalala died from lung fibrosis, caused by white phosphorous. She spent the last three years of her short life in agonising pain. She didn’t die because of some defensive measure, because the Israeli army was trying to save you.

      I could compare the Israeli and Palestinian civilian death tolls here or talk about the statistical likelihood of a resident of southern Israel being killed by a missile, but such comparisons make me uncomfortable. Human life is not something that should be quantified like that. It’s enough to say here that there have been an awful lot of Hanins on the other side of that fence. I doubt you even know the name of one. Knowing them would be a better strategy for improving Israeli safety than hoping for the IDF to get some shiny new killing toys from the US (you know as well as I do that Iron Dome is not the only thing the US is funding – I doubt the churches would have such a problem if it were). Your comment suggests that you are not thinking of people in Gaza as families and individuals who bear their own suffering, just as ‘Arabs’ – the same amorphous crowd of people who are responsible for the situation of Mizrahi Jews in development towns. As though people in Gaza today are somehow responsible for the current Israeli government’s urban budgetary allocations, the decision of a past government to house Mizrahi arrivals on the periphery, and what happened to Arab Jews in their former home countries. This is not about Arabs versus Jews. If you insist on conceptualising like that, you cannot be surprised if people in the Abu Jalala family’s position look at the rocket fire on the south and ask why they should care about that amorphous mass of people over there.

      Recently a good friend of mine completed an MA in the UK. It was the first time in her life that she left the Strip, thanks to a scholarship programme for Gazan students. In the UK she ‘met’ an Israeli for the first time. The girl sat down next to her at a fundraiser for the scholarship programme, flipped open her phone, and began chatting in Hebrew. Sameeha froze. She spent several minutes wanting to talk to this girl and feverishly working out ways to open the conversation. In the end she decided that it was too difficult, and she left. Even ‘hello’ was too hard. This is the real serious problem here, not the fact that some churches want to cut down on the USA’s flow of complimentary bombs and guns. When R’ Brant wrote the blog post series about the trip some of his congregation took to Rwanda, he quoted a victim of the Tutsi genocide: “If you knew me, you wouldn’t kill me.” Works both ways.

  3. Kate Gould

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful, courageous piece, Rabbi Rosen. We very much appreciate your support on this effort as well as valuable insights. Also, just wanted to note that there are three groups whose leaders signed this statement in addition to the ones you mentioned above: American Baptist Church, USA; Orthodox Peace Fellowship; and our organization, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, where I lead our lobbying efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace (our executive secretary Diane Randall signed the letter).

  4. Charles P. Cohen

    I’ve been following news coverage of the reaction of the “organized Jewish community”, and reading Op Ed’s by its leaders, and I’ve noticed something:

    . . . Nobody ever mentions the possibility that the Christians could be _right_ !!!!

    It is, simply, unthinkable.

    Thank you for this exception to the rule.

    . . Charles Cohen

  5. Miriam

    First I also want to offer a big thank you to Rabbi Rosen for his OpEd with the hope that other ‘courageous’ voices of faith communities will join & stand in solidarity.

    There have been numerous breaches of US/international laws by Israel, for years, as any who follows this issue recognize; these laws sited deal specifically with US weapons exported to Israel over the decades which were clearly mandated to be used only for “defensive purposes” and only on Israeli soil. Neither the letter not the spirit of the law has been respected.

    Military aggression against an encaged people constitutes war crimes. Numerous abrogations should impel people of conscience to demand Congress investigate if not outright terminate $10Mn/daily of US tax dollars to Israel; that annual American largesse constitutes the largest foreign ‘aid’ given to any entity, including all of the sub-Saharan African continent.

    Am in full agreement with Kate and Charles’ letters above.

  6. Laurie

    The short sentence..”military aggression against an ENCAGED people constitutes war crimes.” Why can’t intelligent people see that this is what is happening in Israel/Palestine?? It is incredulous that this atrocity is allowed to continue! We stepped up to the plate “finally” for South Africa by way of BDS and relative freedom has followed. What is stopping the American public from doing the same for Israel/Palestine? It’s mindboggling!


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