Jewish-Christian Relations Falter over Letter to Congress
Earlier this month, a group of Christian leaders (thirteen Protestants and two Roman Catholic) sent a letter to Congress calling for “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 prohibits assistance to any country that engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limits the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’” The letter elicited an immediate and angry response from the Jewish community. A coalition of national Jewish organizations, including the URJ and CCAR, as well as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism pulled out of a meeting of the Jewish-Christian Roundtable that had been scheduled to take place a week after the Christian letter was released.
The Roundtable, consisting of the aforementioned Jewish organizations (as well as the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center) and the National Council of Churches (one of the signers of the Christian letter) was established eight years ago specifically to create a forum for discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In response, the coalition called for a summit between the Jewish organizations and the Christian leaders to discuss what has rightly been called a crisis in Jewish-Christian relations.
The Christian letter is problematic on two fronts. First, it singles out Israel for criticism, with only the most minimal reference to human rights violations on the part of the Palestinians and other obstacles to peace from the Palestinian side. By taking such a one-sided approach, the signers seem oblivious to key learnings of our years of dialogue and undercut themselves as honest partners for pursuing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additionally, because the Jewish community was not given a chance to be heard before our partners made a decision or even given any advance notice, the Christian letter represents an egregious breach of faith in the dialogue process for which the Roundtable was initially established. While some Jewish organization called for a total break in relations with the Christian groups that signed the letter, the Reform movement and our colleagues at other organizations, despite our disappointment, still believe that dialogue is essential. To date, however, there has been no response to the call for a summit. (Rabbi Eric Yoffie has written a cogent critique of the Christian letter.)
How should we understand this development? First, most of the churches represented in the letter are “mainline” Protestant churches, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church. These liberal churches have always been ambivalent about Israel, as is well documented in a recent book, The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel by Caitlin Carenen (NYU Press, 2012). Most observers believe that a significant majority of American mainline Protestants are supportive of Israel; however, a minority of activists within these churches continues to press for anti-Israel action. For example, this past summer, efforts at the PC(USA) and United Methodist Church to support divestment were very narrowly defeated. The current letter may be an “end around” by Church leaders in response to these defeats.
Second, it is worth noting who did not sign the letter. The Episcopal Church did not sign; over the past several years, it, like the Catholic Bishops, has taken a positive approach to peacemaking. This summer they also rejected divestment and called for positive investment to support a viable Palestinian economy, as well intensive study and dialogue with Jews, Muslims and other Christians. Additionally, as suggested, while two Catholic organizations are among the signers, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishop, the official voice of the Church in the America, did not.
This situation is still unfolding. In light of the many other issues on which we and the signers of this letter agree I hope that the summit will take place and that we find a way to be constructive partners for peace and not allow this breach to undercut other vital areas of interfaith cooperation.