Jewish groups pull out of interfaith dialogue

Mainstream Jewish establishment groups have upped the ante in a battle with Christian churches that was sparked by a mild letter calling on Congress to investigate whether military aid to Israel violates U.S. law.

Rosemarie Wenner, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, is among the 14 Christian leaders who endorsed the letter.

Alex Awad with sign

Palestinian United Methodist missionary and pastor Alex Awad is shown outside the convention center in Tampa, where the United Methodist divestment vote took place this past spring. (Photo by Anna Baltzer)

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) announced Oct. 17 that it and six other organizations were pulling out of a planned interfaith dialogue scheduled for later this month. Instead, the Jewish groups are calling for a “summit” to take place in order to “communicate face-to-face at the highest levels and determine a more positive path forward for our communities.” In other words, the Jewish establishment wants to meet on its own terms, and not discuss the human rights violations of Israel.

“These churches have squandered our trust. They either refuse to pay attention to our plea for a fair appraisal of the situation or they simply do not care,” said JCPA president Steve Gutow, a former official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The statement from the JCPA also conflates “anti-Christian, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian activities” with “anti-Zionist activities that have found comfortable homes in [Christian] denominations,” as JCPA official Larry Gold put it.

Interfaith roundtable

The interfaith roundtable that was scheduled to meet this month was created in 2004 after proposals to divest from companies doing business with the Israeli military began to gather strength in Christian denominations.

The letter that sparked the fracas is relatively mild.

The letter that sparked the fracas is relatively mild. Signed by 14 leaders of Christian groups, the letter acknowledges, “Israel faces real security threats and that it has both a right and a duty to protect both the state and its citizens.”

But the language that sparked the controversy was the call for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.”

These laws “respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’ ... We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance,” the Christian letter reads.

Included in the letter are examples of Israeli human rights violations being carried out with U.S. weapons, such as the killing of Palestinian civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement. The Christian letter was sent to every member of Congress.

‘Ballistic’ response

After the letter was publicized, Jewish establishment groups went ballistic. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) 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,” ADL head Abraham Foxman said in a statement.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency adds to the story by reporting on an alarming threat from the JCPA. Ethan Felson, JCPA vice president, told the news agency, “JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts.”

Felson also suggested that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

Still, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rabbinical Council has come out in favor of the Christian letter. Other Christian groups that pushed for boycott and divestment at recent church meetings have also come out strongly in favor of the letter.

“Israel’s grave and systematic abuses of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law have been thoroughly documented for many years,” said the Rev. Jeff DeYoe, advocacy chair for the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, in a statement. “We’re pleased and encouraged that church leaders from a growing number of denominations are recognizing this and taking a stand in favor of justice and freedom for all the peoples of the Holy Land. We hope members of Congress will do the same.”

Editor's note: Alex Kane is a staff writer for Mondoweiss, a news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective. This article is reprinted from Oct. 17, “Jewish establishment pulls out of interfaith dialogue, threatens Congressional investigation of ‘delegitimizers’ over Christian letter.”

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