The New York Times reports: A letter signed by 15 leaders of Christian churches that calls for Congress to reconsider giving aid to Israel because of accusations of human rights violations has outraged Jewish leaders and threatened to derail longstanding efforts to build interfaith relations.
The Christian leaders say their intention was to put the Palestinian plight and the stalled peace negotiations back in the spotlight at a time 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 human rights of other people.”
The Jewish leaders responded to the action as a momentous betrayal and announced their withdrawal from a regularly scheduled Jewish-Christian dialogue meeting planned for Monday. In a statement, the Jewish leaders called the letter by the Christian groups “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, an umbrella group that helped to convene the meeting. “We’re certainly not getting anywhere now.”
The Jewish groups have called for the Christian churches to send their top officials to a “summit” meeting to discuss the situation, an invitation the Christian leaders say they are considering.
The Christian leaders involved are mostly from the historically mainline Protestant churches. Many of these same churches have taken up contentious resolutions to divest their stock holdings from companies that sell military and security equipment to Israel. Meanwhile, successive Israeli governments have found stalwart support in conservative evangelical American churches.
The breach is all the more bitter because it involves Jewish groups known for cultivating strong interfaith relationships, including the Reform and Conservative movements, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International.
The controversy began on Oct. 5, when the Christian groups sent a letter urging Congress to hold hearings into whether Israel was violating the terms for foreign aid recipients. 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 United States policy should belong to a future Palestinian state.”
The signers, besides the Presbyterians, included 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. Two Catholic leaders also signed, one with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella group of men’s religious orders.