Protestant churches letter on Israel strains ties with Jews

When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.

On Oct. 17, Jewish groups unilaterally pulled out of an upcoming annual Christian-Jewish roundtable meeting, saying the Oct. 22-23 forum was no longer viable. Earlier in the week, the Anti-Defamation League had announced that it would skip the meeting and called on other Jewish groups to follow suit.

“We’re not going to sit around the table and say Kumbaya,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director.

The Jewish groups — the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — wrote to their Christian colleagues that the letter to lawmakers “represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach.” They called for a meeting to “determine a more positive path forward for our communities.”

Jewish groups were also upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released Oct. 8, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

The annual interfaith roundtable began in 2004 as the issue of Protestant groups divesting from their financial portfolios operations doing business with Israel rose to prominence. This year, participants were to update one another on activities regarding Israel, such as the Palestinian push for membership in the United Nations and the upcoming Israeli elections.

Saying “there’s been a betrayal of trust,” Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs umbrella group said, “We have to discern if there’s a positive path forward.”

The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of both Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”

In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said earlier this week that boycotting the meeting was not the right response.

However, as Jewish groups pulled out of the meeting, he said, “Unfortunately, some Christian leaders chose to take their anger regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Washington without any warning to Jewish partners in the roundtable.”

Felson said JCPA is considering asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts.

In the meantime, Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in other venues, to communicate their concerns.

Indeed, some Presbyterians are angry with their leader, Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter to Congress.

“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”