Churches’ group on the Middle East

To the Editor:

Churches for Middle East Peace is grateful to Rabbi Kenneth Cohen for his sincere reflections about our annual advocacy conference. We hope that Rabbi Cohen’s commentary will open further dialogue between CMEP and the Jewish community.

CMEP is a coalition of 24 national church denominations and organizations from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. Individual CMEP members can and do have differing views, but CMEP statements are consistent with the views of all its members. Regarding our conference, I am glad Rabbi Cohen recognized that participants were people of good will who were ready to listen to him. He acknowledged that criticism of certain policies of the government of Israel does not constitute anti-Semitism. Many of us who admire Israel and share his concerns for Israel’s well-being are also troubled by policies that seem to jeopardize Israel’s survival, such as the expansion of settlements in the West Bank that threatens both the viability of a Palestinian state and Israel’s future as a democratic state.

CMEP believes there is an urgent need to end the occupation of the West Bank and to reach an agreement for two viable states, with recognized borders, living side by side in peace with security. CMEP meets with members of Congress and the administration to urge support for policies that encourage agreement, such as U.S. assistance to strengthen the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, and to refrain from policies that present barriers to peace,  such as attempting to unilaterally define the status of refugees or of Jerusalem that must be part of a comprehensive final status agreement.

The patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem are part of worldwide Christian denominations, some of which are represented on our board.  Naturally the preservation and well-being of the Palestinian Christian community is important to us. We do not agree with Rabbi Cohen that Palestinian nonviolence is nearly a myth. The films "Budrus," "Home Front" and "Five Broken Cameras" provide diverse examples of nonviolent resistance.

I am sorry that Rabbi Cohen singled out a member of CMEP’s board, Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She can speak for herself, but her organization takes no position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I was careful to point out in my own remarks that CMEP has no position on BDS.

We certainly agree with him that those who would be peacemakers must be credible. We seek to hold both sides accountable for their words and deeds, and agree it is a mistake to see this conflict in binary terms of good and evil. Both peoples have suffered tragic histories. Both have failed to live up to their obligations.  Israel has been repeatedly attacked, and has good reason to be concerned about its security. CMEP condemns attacks from terrorists who continue to fire rockets into Israel from Gaza that sometimes kill innocent people. Palestinian efforts to achieve self-determination have been repeatedly frustrated.

With the asymmetry that Rabbi Cohen mentioned, we fear there is a real danger that the stronger power may feel it does not need to make concessions that will meet the minimum demands of the weaker power. Rabbi Cohen touched on the rockets that followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza. Some fear that pattern could be repeated in the case of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Unfortunately, unilateral withdrawal may appear to support claims that violence brings positive results. The conclusion we draw is that a just, lasting and comprehensive peace with security can only be achieved by developing relationships and negotiating agreements in good faith.

The name of Rabbi Cohen’s organization comes from the famous vision of Micah that President George Washington quoted in a 1790 letter to Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I. It expresses Washington’s wish that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid” (Micah 4:4). CMEP can only join with Rabbi Cohen in wishing the same for all Israelis and Palestinians.

Warren Clark
Executive director, Churches for Middle East Peace

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