By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The New York Times
Published: October 20, 2012
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.
The Christian leaders’ letter acknowledged that both Israelis and Palestinians had suffered, and that both sides bore responsibility. But it called for an investigation into only Israel’s activities.
The Jewish leaders said such an approach was a double standard. The Palestinian Authority also receives foreign aid from the United States and has also been accused of rights violations, they said.
“Where’s the letter to Congress about Syria, which is massacring its own people?” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, the chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “When Israel is the only one that is called to account, that’s when it becomes problematic.”
Several Christian leaders responded in interviews that the letter was focused only on Israel because it is the largest recipient of American foreign aid, and because the aid flows to Israel without conditions or accountability.
Humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority was suspended last year because of violations, and Congress is re-evaluating aid to Egypt, noted Peter Makari, the executive for the Middle East and Europe in global ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who helped write the letter.
“The need to hold Israel as accountable as other countries in the region is important,” he said.
Antonios S. Kireopoulos, the director of interfaith relations and associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said, “It’s a dramatic step, but it’s out of frustration that the situation in Israel/Palestine is not moving along constructively.”
The Jewish leaders were shocked not just by the content of the letter, but also by the fact that the Christian leaders had not given them any warning. Both sides have been participating for eight years in a Christian-Jewish Round Table designed to heal wounds over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Monday’s meeting that the Jewish leaders canceled.
“What we’re seeing is people in the mainstream Jewish community, doves and hawks, who are really feeling at a point of exhaustion,” said Mr. Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.