NEW YORK (May. 15)
More than 100 church activists descended on Capitol Hill this week to lobby for a sovereign Palestinian homeland and a halt to U.S. aid to Israel because of its recent settlement activity in the administered territories.
Known as Washington Advocacy Days, the three-day lobbying effort is thought to be the first public campaign on these issues by the American Christian church establishment.
The program was organized by Churches for Middle East Peace, a joint program of the central bodies of the major American church denominations launched in 1984 to “communicate to Congress and the executive branch the perspectives and concerns reflected in the policy statements and Middle East exposure of our denominations and church agencies.”
Washington Advocacy Days is the latest sign of what appears to be a growing trend of pro-Palestinian activism on the part of church groups, particularly mainline Protestant groups, that tends to cast Israel in a negative light.
“This is a most serious attack on Israel,” said Dr. Franklin Littell, a Protestant minister who is national president of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East.
“Washington Advocacy Days is not a unique effort. We’re getting rumblings from all over,” he said. “It’s a massive campaign.
“These churches have been an open road for PLO propaganda for years,” he added. “It’s another form of warfare, and it should be taken very seriously.”
‘ANXIETY’ AMONG JEWISH GROUPS
In fact, Jewish organizations are doing just that, according to Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a longtime expert on Christian-Jewish relations who is immediate past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.
“There is anxiety about this new activity,” he said. “All of the major Jewish organizations in Washington have it on their agenda.”
Despite the fact that so many Jewish organizations are anxious about organized pro-Palestinian lobbying on the part of some church groups, the issue is rarely discussed publicly.
One reason is a reluctance to antagonize the Christian institutions and thereby risk harming Christian-Jewish relations. Another is the diversity of the various church groups themselves, as well as the subgroups within them.
“It’s not all one way or the other,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.
“There are some factions within each denomination that are committed to the missionizing concept and the super-Arab point of view, and people on the other side who are strongly committed to improved Christian-Jewish relations and are pro-Israel in orientation,” he said.
Although there are subgroups within most churches that fall into different political camps regarding Israel, the Presbyterian Church USA has been among the most consistently critical.
“The Presbyterian Church historically has been the most troublesome because of its missionary activity,” as well as its intellectual and democratic tendencies, Rudin explained.
For over 150 years, the Presbyterian Church has established schools, colleges and orphanages throughout the Middle East. The American University in Cairo, Bir Zeit University in Ramallah and the American University in Beirut, which has recently been a center for anti-Israel activity, were all founded by the Presbyterian Church.
CALL FOR A PALESTINIAN STATE
The Presbyterian Church USA, the church’s 3.1 million-member central body, has taken strong positions on many human rights issues.
While the organization did issue a landmark document on Christian-Jewish relations in 1987 which acknowledged the biblical “promise of land to the people of Israel,” it has also taken a number of strongly pro-Palestinian positions.
At its general assembly last July, the Presbyterian Church USA called for the United States to undertake “substantive discussion” with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel, “with a view to the establishment of a Palestinian state.” It also urged use of foreign aid to Israel “in relation to human rights abuses during the uprising” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Various local presbyteries have been particularly active in pro-Palestinian activities. The Chicago Presbytery’s Task Force on the Middle East, for instance, has worked hand in hand with the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign.
The two groups have jointly sponsored numerous missions to Israel, where they have met with Palestinian leaders but not Israeli officials. The tours tend to raise sympathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees without getting the Israeli government’s views on the peace process.
In November 1989, the Presbytery of Philadelphia sponsored an 11-day tour of Israel, Jordan and the administered territories. At its conclusion, the 36 participants issued a two-page covenant that accused Israel of “repression,” endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state and expressed sympathy for the allegation that Israel’s treatment of Arabs is comparable to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during World War II.
PRO-ISRAEL GROUPS WITHIN CHURCH
Yet while there seems to be a growing pro-Palestinian tilt to church positions, there are also strong countervailing winds within the Presbyterian Church.
Presbyterians for Christian-Jewish Relations and the Presbyterian Lay Committee, two organizations of lay leaders opposed to the Middle East positions of Presbyterian Church USA, have taken staunchly pro-Israel postures.
“There is a kind of civil war going on within the Presbyterian Church,” said Rudin. “It’s a battle that is being waged for the soul of the church, and it’s pretty well organized on both sides.”
It is the pro-Palestinian groups, like Presbyterian Advocates for Middle East Peace, Presbyterian Church USA’s Social Justice and Peacemaking Office and the local presbyteries, however, that have been most public in their advocacy.
“They’re using the name of the church and upsetting people,” explained Alan Wisdom, research director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Christian think tank.
“I wouldn’t describe it as a broad-based movement whatsoever. They’ve got a certain network of people to get their voice heard, but they are not widely known or accepted within the denomination,” he said.