BOSTON – An unprecedented letter by mainline Protestant churches asking Congress to reconsider U.S. military aid to Israel contained "rhetoric that was destructive and negative," a leading Conservative rabbi said this week, undersco increasingly fraught relationship between American Jewish leaders and the churches.
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“This letter, both in terms of its content that dealt with delegitimization and the manner it was delivered was like a sucker punch in terms of what we assumed and believed we were achieving,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
As a result, several major Jewish organizations have pulled out of next week’s scheduled dialogue group between the two sides. The national Christian-Jewish Roundtable dates to 2004, when it was founded in an effort to defuse tensions over outspoken Protestant criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, which included calls for divestment.
It appears that seven years later, relations are again facing a difficult moment.
“This has been a very tense time in the relationship and it’s okay that we have legitimate differences in opinion, but as mature religious groups in America, it would be nice not to find ourselves back at this place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Felson blamed tensions on those members of Protestant groups “promulgating some really vicious anti-Israel educational materials and seriously debating divestment or resolutions branding Israel as an apartheid state.”
But despite the challenges, Felson said there had been a feeling of progress and dialogue since the group was established and a sense that they could address divergent views respectfully.
The October 5 letter sent to Congress and signed by four of the largest of the mainline Protestant church organizations argues that U.S. military aid to Israel is responsible for “sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians share responsibility for the conflict, the co-signers of the letter said, but the leadership highlighted what they described as Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians and asked Congress to investigate if such acts were in violation of U.S. laws.
Peter Makari, executive director of Middle East and Europe Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church, said the letter reflected clear policies that the church groups had held for a long time.
“The churches who are signatories to the letter support peace in the region, and earnestly hope, pray, and work for a resolution of the conflict that will ensure Israel’s stability and security, as well as the rights of the Palestinians, and that would establish a fair and just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Our churches are equally concerned about the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians, and are concerned about the massive amounts of U.S. military aid for Israel, and how those funds are used to perpetuate occupation,” Makari wrote in an email to Haaretz.
As for the tensions in relations described by some of his Jewish colleagues in the dialogue group, he added: “The Roundtable is a setting where we have discussed the very difficult issues of the Middle East together, where there are passionate perspectives expressed. Different perspectives should not be a reason to suspend meeting; this is a setting where we should be present to discuss such issues, perhaps especially when we may not agree.”
But there were voices within the Protestant community that were unhappy with the letter.
John Wimberly, co-moderator of the centrist Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, said the letter reflected leadership within his denomination which he described as out of touch with the majority of Presbyterians. He cited recent polls and votes which show most of his fellow Presbyterians in support of a strong political and military alliance with Israel.
Responding to his understanding of the Roundtable’s purpose, Wimberly said, “We were going to condemn both sides when they do things that are wrong and support both sides to be self-governing, autonomous nations and this [the letter] went way, way over the line.”
“We’ve got a strong, vocal minority within our denomination constantly putting pressure on our officials to sign things like this and that’s how something like this happens,” said Wimberly.