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Christian Leaders’ Letter on U.S. Aid to Israel Causes Rift in Inter-Faith Dialogue

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2012

An October letter by 15 leaders of Christian churches calls for Congress to reconsider U.S. aid to Israel because of accusations of human rights violations. These leaders say their intention was to put the Palestinian plight and stalled peace talks back in the spotlight when all of the attention to Middle East policy seems to be focused on Syria, the Arab Spring and the Iranian nuclear threat.  
“We asked Congress to treat Israel like it would any other country,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the top official of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “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 rights of other people.”  
The Christian leaders wrote that they had “witnessed widespread Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement.”  
The letter said that Israel had continued expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem despite American calls to stop “claiming territory that under international law and U.S. policy should belong to a future Palestinian state.”  
The signers, besides the Presbyterians, include leaders of 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.  
The letter acknowledged that, “Israel faces real security threats.” But it called for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.”  
Some Jewish leaders responded by announcing their withdrawal from a regularly scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting. They called the letter “a step too far” and an indication of “the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations.”  
“Something is deeply broken, badly broken,” said Ethan Felson vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “We’re certainly not getting anywhere now.”  
The Anti-Defamation League was the first group to pull out of the interfaith roundtable. “It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state by calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of foreign aid,” said the ADL’s Abe Foxman.  
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (Oct. 25, 2012), Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggests that the church leaders are indifferent to Jewish concerns and “have hit a 45-year low.” Admitting that he shares the Protestant leaders’ opposition to West Bank settlements, Yoffie nevertheless declared that the Christian groups “aroused all of the suspicions that exist in the Jewish community about the real intentions of the letter … Jewish leaders would never agree to a reduction of American aid to Israel … this is a consensus position of the Jewish community.”  
How much of a “consensus” exists is open to serious question. Many Jewish voices have been heard in support of the church leaders’ letter. Rabbis Alissa Wise and Brant Rosen, leaders of the Jewish Voice for Peace Religious Roundtable, write, “We are profoundly disappointed that some in our community have chosen to literally walk away from the table of dialogue … Considering the vehemence of such a response, one might assume that the Christian leaders’ letter was filled with outrageous and incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric. In fact, the letter is sensitively worded and a faithful call … It is not the role of … Jewish organizations to dictate how their Christian partners can live out their conscience or their values … It is hardly outrageous for American taxpayers to require Israel’s compliance with our nation’s laws and policies.”  
This statement, endorsed by many dissenting Jewish spokesmen, including Rabbis Elizabeth Bolton, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivisair and Joseph Berman, notes that, “The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country that engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations, limiting the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’ As the letter notes, the most recent 2011 State Department country report on Human Rights Practices concerning Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed numerous human rights violations committed by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons. As Israel’s primary ally, our country alone is able to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians — and true security for all who live in the region.”  
Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the U.S. has provided Israel with $115 billion. The request for Fiscal Year 2013 includes $3.1 billion in military aid. •

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