Major Jewish groups have indignantly cancelled a scheduled interfaith dialogue after Mainline Protestant officials urged Congress to reconsider U.S. military aid to Israel. The October 5 Protestant letter complained of “widespread Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement.” The National Council of Churches, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist and United Church of Christ officials (Episcopalians were notably absent) asked Congress to investigate Israeli abuses before granting further aid. They faulted U.S. military help for “sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” The Protestant letter did not mention U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority or to Arab regimes.
“The participation of these leaders in yet another one-sided anti-Israel campaign cannot be viewed apart from the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations,” pointedly explained Jewish Council of Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow. Having “squandered our trust,” he said these churches’ officials have shown a “stony silence to the use of anti-Judaism and relentless attacks on the Jewish state, often from within their own ranks,” which “speaks loudly to their failure to stand up and speak the whole truth about what is occurring in the Middle East.”
Previously Jewish groups have largely confined their public concerns about Mainline Protestant bias against Israel to anti-Israel divestment initiatives by the churches. This Summer the United Methodists and Presbyterian Church (USA) both rejected divestment, the Presbyterians only very narrowly. But fierce denunciation of Israel, and mostly silence about human rights abuses nearly everywhere else, have characterized official Mainline Protestantism for about 30 years. Once pro-Israel, Mainline Protestant elites in the 1970s succumbed to a Liberation Theology perspective that portrayed Palestinians as Third World victims and Israel as colonialist oppressor.
“While we remain committed to continuing our dialogue and our collaboration on the many issues of common concern, the letter represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach,” the Jewish groups publicly complained as they withdrew from a Christian-Jewish Roundtable set for late October. The dialogue began in 2004 to ease interfaith tensions as Mainline Protestants first pondered anti-Israel divestment.
The protesting Jewish groups were the American Jewish Committee (AJC), B’nai B’rith International (BBI), Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), Rabbinical Assembly (RA), Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), and
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).
“The [Protestant] letter could also have highlighted the relentless attacks on Christians throughout the Middle East, including the brutal oppression of Coptic Christians or just as easily have called for a suspension of aid to Palestinians until the Palestinian Authority take steps such as returning to the negotiating table,” observed one JCPA official. “That would have been equally unhelpful but might have mitigated the obvious conclusion that the signatories bear a deep and singular antipathy for Israel.”
Typically official Mainline Protestant pronouncements have exclusively faulted Israel for the absence of Mideast peace. “Our churches are equally concerned about the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians, and are concerned about the massive amounts of U.S. military aid for Israel, and how those funds are used to perpetuate occupation,” a United Church of Christ official told Haaretz, an Israeli publication. A JCPA official pointed out to The New York Times that Mainline Protestant pronouncements often brand Israel an “Apartheid state.”
“We asked Congress to treat Israel like it would any other country,” the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) told Haaretz, “to make sure our military aid is going to a country espousing the values we would as Americans — that it’s not being used to continually violate the human rights of other people.” But neither his denomination nor the other Mainline Protestants typically if ever offer critique of any governments other than Israel, much less the Palestinians. “Where’s the letter to Congress about Syria, which is massacring its own people?” asked an official with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as quoted in The Times. “When Israel is the only one that is called to account, that’s when it becomes problematic.”
But the Presbyterian official fairly pointed out that he was representing the official statements of his denomination as approved by its biannual General Assembly. The German-based United Methodist bishop who signed the letter made the same point, quoting the copious resolutions her denomination has approved aimed at Israel. “We stand clearly on the side of Israel and we are committed to human rights for all God’s people,” insisted Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops. “We are ready to continue the dialogue with Jewish faith groups,” she added. “And we will also continue to express publicly our desire for peaceful solutions for the conflict in the Middle East.”
The protesting Jewish groups have requested a “summit” with Mainline Protestant officials to help heal the rift. Likely it will occur. And just as likely it will not significantly alter the anti-Israel reflexes of Mainline Protestant elites. Jewish groups rightly challenge biased Mainline Protestant officials. But they should remember that the Mainline has become culturally sideline though often giving political cover to dubious political causes. And liberal church elites don’t speak for most church members. A Pew poll last year showed Mainline Protestants sympathizing with Israel over Palestinians by 46% to 12%.
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