Two weeks ago, fifteen religious leaders representing major Protestant denominations dared to challenge one of Washington's most powerful taboos. They wrote a letter urging Congress to investigate whether unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel is contributing to violations of Palestinian human rights.
Noting that U.S. law specifically limits the use of U.S. supplied weapons to countries for "internal security" or "legitimate self-defense" and "prohibits assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations”, the signatories expressed the concern that U.S. law may be being violated by Israel.
It was an impressive group that came together to sign the letter, including Evangelical, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, and Methodist church leaders.
The letter, itself, was also quite impressive. It was temperate in tone and extraordinarily balanced in content. The Christian leaders expressed compassion for the "pain and suffering" of Israelis and Palestinians, "the insecurity and fear" that impacts the lives of many Israelis and their right to legitimate self-defense. But they went on to note how the daily lives of Palestinians are marked by the "killing of civilians, home demolitions..., forced displacement and restrictions of Palestinian movement". After detailing these abuses, the leaders called on Congress to hold hearings to determine the degree to which U.S. assistance is contributing to these Israeli behaviors. They concluded noting that if Israel were found to be in non-compliance with the U.S. human rights provisions, then the law should be enforced and aid should be cut.
The reaction was both hysterical and predictable. Using excessive and abusive language, some major Jewish groups denounced the letter and the churches represented by the signatories, charging them with "participation...in yet another one-sided anti-Israel campaign" and "vicious anti-Zionism" and accusing them of "stony silence to the use of anti-Judaism and relentless attacks on the Jewish state". The Jewish groups coupled this attack with an announcement that they would boycott a regularly scheduled "Jewish-Christian dialogue" session that was to have met next week. They countered with a call for an inter-faith summit to discuss the pain caused by the letter. Some leaders went so far as to suggest that they might go to friends in Congress and request a hearing into the behavior of the Christian groups.
Now while this flare-up is new, the underlying tensions have been with us for a generation. So too has the bullying behavior of some of the mainstream Jewish organizations.
It was 34 years ago that we formed the Palestine Human Rights Committee (PHRC). The PHRC had as its principle objectives the defense of Palestinian human rights victims and the application of provisions of U.S. law requiring that recipients of U.S. assistance not use that aid to violate human rights. Bringing together Arab Americans, African American civil rights leaders, leaders of the peace movement, and leaders from many of the same Christian churches who signed the recent letter to Congress, the PHRC achieved some success in elevating human rights concerns, but incurred the wrath of some major Jewish organizations. We were subjected to exclusion and defamation. We were denounced as "pro-terrorist" and our efforts to join a major progressive peace coalition were blocked. Despite winning the support of over 90% of the coalition's members, two Jewish groups threatened to abandon the group if we were allowed to join. The executive committee of the coalition was cowed by these threats and twice rejected our application for membership.
There have been many other examples of this behavior but it all boils down to the same modus operandi: the use of hysterical and exaggerated rhetoric in an effort to intimidate opponents, coupled with the ultimate threat to "take my ball and not play anymore".
What all these childish and bullying antics attempt to do is to obscure the real issues being raised (in this case, the charge that U.S. aid enables Israel to violate Palestinian human rights in contravention of U.S. law) and to substitute the "pretend" insult (in this case, that the letter signed by the Christian groups is a form of anti-Zionism or anti-Judaism) as the issue that takes precedence and must be discussed first.
The net results of these tactics are: a silencing of any discussion or examination of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians; aid to Israel continues to be delivered without questions, oversight, or any conditions; the very meaning of anti-Semitism or, in this recent case, "anti-Judaism" is cheapened and equated not just with criticism of Israeli policy, but even with the mere call to examine that policy; Palestinians continue to suffer; Israelis who support peace and human rights for Palestinians find they have no allies in the U.S. government; and U.S. credibility in the Middle East continues to suffer.
It is, to be sure, bullying. It is counter-productive and damaging to discourse and respect amongst peoples. These tactics have worked in the past. Will it work again? We'll wait to see how the Christian groups respond, but I, for one, hope that the church leaders stand their ground. They do not owe anyone an apology for their letter. Instead they deserve to be commended by all Americans for their brave and balanced commitment to peace, justice, and human rights.