On 5 October, 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress, calling for an investigation into US military aid to Israel. Referring to the “pain and suffering” of both Palestinians and Israelis, the letter suggested that “unconditional US military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” It also called for an immediate investigation into “possible violations by Israel” over alleged illegal use of US weapons against Palestinians.
Signatories to the letter, which was sent to every member of Congress, include the 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.
The timing has proved controversial, coming just a fortnight before an annual national meeting aimed at consolidating the relationship between American Jewish and Protestant groups. Informally known as the Christian-Jewish roundtable, the event was scheduled to take place on 22 October, and includes members of 12 Christian groups and 12 Jewish groups. It was developed in 2004 to ease tensions over escalating church protests against Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories. The divestment movement, in particular, was gaining traction with many Protestants.
But in response to the letter, several prominent conservative Jewish groups have pulled out of the roundtable, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Conservative and Reform Jewish movements. Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism called the claims “repugnant, regrettable and morally misguided.”
There are several points here. Firstly, it is undeniable that the timing was provocative, coming just weeks before the meeting. In addition, Jewish groups have complained that they were given no advance warning of the letter, which was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday.
Secondly, however, these sentiments should not come as a huge surprise. Many of the same church leaders have previously sent notes to Congress criticising specific Israeli actions, in particular settlement building. The only new thing about this is that it questions US aid to Israel (which is around $3bn a year).
The letter – which acknowledges suffering on both sides – is right to call out “Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians”. It is not the claim that is “morally misguided” or “repugnant”, but the actions themselves. Healthy community relations should involve robust debate and discussion, even if the two sides do not agree. The response to criticism should not be opting out of discussion altogether.
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, had a more productive response: “As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience. After all, until two generations ago Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalised within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”
If another opportunity for cross-community dialogue and engagement is lost, it would be a real shame.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.