Heading Toward an Irreparable Rift Between U.S. Jews and Protestants

Relations between Jews and mainline Protestants in the U.S. hit a 45-year low after 15 Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress urging that aid to Israel be reconsidered.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

There have always been ups and downs in the relations between mainline Protestants and American Jews, but they have now hit a 45-year low. And this time, they may not recover.

On October 5, fifteen mainline Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress urging that American aid to Israel be reconsidered because of settlement building and human rights violations by Israel in the West Bank. Leaders of the Jewish community, across the ideological and religious spectrum, responded with dismay, disbelief, and outrage.

Relations between Jews and mainline Protestants have long been stormy. The exception is the honeymoon period of roughly 20 years following World War II. On the Protestant side, there was guilt over Christian silence during the Holocaust. On the Jewish side, there was a craving for respectability and acceptance that came with the Jewish migration from the cities to the suburbs. In addition, there was a broad convergence of values and interests; both sides were champions of civil rights and strict church-state separation.

But all of this came crashing down in May of 1967. As Egypt’s Nasser prepared for war and proclaimed his intention to annihilate millions of Jews, the American Jewish community expected its Protestant allies to rally to Israel’s defense. But most remained silent, and the relations so carefully nurtured during previous decades collapsed. At that moment, the issues were clear: Israel’s existence was threatened and Jewish lives were at stake. Jewish leaders wondered if there was not some profound theological animus at work on the Protestant side, beyond the reach of polite discussion.

Still, cooperation continued in many areas; both sides promoted dialogue, and efforts were made to understand each other’s concerns. But the Jews could not shake an underlying suspicion and absence of trust. And inevitably, the ebb and flow of Jewish-Protestant relations were intimately connected to political developments in Israel and the Middle East; as each new crisis unfolded, the Jews came to Israel’s defense while the mainline Protestant championed the Palestinian cause, often in a way that seemed indifferent to Israel’s well-being. Most recently, divestment from Israel proposed by Protestant church leaders, beginning with the Presbyterians in 2004, has poisoned the atmosphere yet again.

The Congressional letter of October 5 must be seen in this context. Criticism of settlements is completely legitimate; I am an outspoken settlement critic myself. But the Protestant leaders made no effort to include in their letter words that might have reassured Jews and others that this effort was not motivated by hostility to Israel. They could have expressed the hope that the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table in the days ahead. They could have said that just as the Jewish people must welcome the Palestinian people as neighbors in a sovereign Palestinian state, so too must the Palestinian people welcome the Jewish people as neighbors in a sovereign Jewish state. They could have said that just as a two-state solution will require Israel to radically change its settlement policy, so too will it require the Palestinians to renounce the Right of Return and to declare the conflict with Israel over—once and for all.

But the Protestant leaders did none of these things. And by failing to do so, they aroused all of the suspicions that exist in the Jewish community about the real intentions of the letter.

To be sure, no matter what the wording, Jewish leaders would never agree to a reduction of American aid to Israel. Except for a few fringe groups, this is a consensus position of the Jewish community. For all their differences, American Jews see military aid, to which the letter refers, as being of vital importance, both practically and symbolically. The fact is that no matter how strong her army, Israel remains a small state in a hostile neighborhood, threatened by the uncertainties of the Arab Spring and by the Jew-hating, Holocaust-denying government of Iran; and American military and political support are Israel’s lifeline and security umbrella. A reduction in aid would be seen as America distancing herself from Israel’s security concerns and as an invitation to attack and mischief by Israel’s enemies.

Still, the Jewish community does not expect other religious and ethnic groups to agree with it on everything; neither does it expect that all Americans will endorse a settlement policy that the American government regularly criticizes. But it does expect that Israel’s critics will employ a single standard of moral judgment when evaluating Israeli/Palestinian realities; it does expect that those who speak the language of fairness and balance will actually be fair and balanced; and it does expect that those who have, in the past, been insufficiently concerned about Israel’s security and survival will exercise special care in their political statements. None of these things happened with the October 5th letter.

Should American Jews and mainline Protestants continue to talk? They should, and I am pleased that Jewish leaders proposed a special summit to clear the air. But for now, Jews are deeply disappointed, proceeding cautiously, and rightly wary about where their troubled relations with Protestants will go.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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