Op-Ed: Christians’ letter is an unworthy tactic

NEW YORK (JTA) — Iran is threatening Israel, the Middle East and the world with the specter of nuclear weapons. Christians across the Middle East are persecuted and martyred in the repercussions of the so-called Arab Spring. But some American Christian leaders are busy dedicating time, money and resources to their habitual demonization of Israel.

The latest tactic is an Oct. 5 letter to Congress alleging human rights violations by Israel and calling for an investigation of U.S. military aid to the country. The signatories include certain leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the National Council of Churches, among others.

What motivates these individuals to open a new anti-Israel front? One could be the frustration of their own failure to convince denominations to use divestment as a club to pressure Israel. The letter’s signatories are grappling with the reality that Methodists and Presbyterians again rejected their leaders’ divestment proposals in May and July.

Criticism of the letter to Congress by diverse Christians has been sharp, including a call for leadership accountability. Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, for example, declared, “It is unjust and disrespectful to the many General Assembly commissioners who worked so hard to serve the church at past assemblies to see their work undermined and misrepresented by church officials and staff with no authority to make policy.”

The new initiative led to the cancellation of the annual Christian-Jewish Roundtable, which was founded in 2004 to open lines of communication between Christian and Jewish leaders in the wake of initiatives by liberal Protestant movements to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Jewish organizations expecting to discuss Arab-Israeli peace efforts at the Roundtable on Oct. 22-23 were  blindsided when they learned of the Christian outreach to Congress.

In lieu of this year’s Roundtable, a broad spectrum of seven Jewish organizations joined to call for an extraordinary meeting of Jewish organizations and the senior leadership of the Christian institutions that signed the letter to Congress and have participated in the Roundtable. At that meeting a more positive path forward for our communities might be determined.

Even as we hold specific Christian denominations accountable for the excesses of some of their leaders, we should not generalize about all Christians or even all Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc. Americans are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, and at least 75 percent of Americans are Christians. They understand that Israel is on the front line of the worldwide terrorism threat. They know that Israel strives mightily to avoid inadvertent harm to civilians while protecting all of its citizens — Jews, Christians and Muslims. They believe that Israel has pursued peace relentlessly and, when there is a partner — as there was with President Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan — has obtained sustainable peace and security with its neighbors. They comprehend that Israel is America’s only reliable ally in the Middle East, with shared democratic and religious freedom values, in a dangerous part of the world.

Interfaith dialogue has had a transformative positive impact on the Jewish experience; we must never take that for granted. Christian-Jewish relations in the past two generations have changed the course of the unfortunate first two millennia of Christian enmity and persecution of Jews and Judaism. Even as we continue to labor in the religious relations vineyard, we should be ever vigilant that the successes of the past 50 years not be undermined by a non-representative anti-Israel sentiment of some Christian leaders and their small but vocal, energetic and well-funded following who are attempting to hijack the positive trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations.

So it is important for American rabbis and other Jews to share their concerns with their Christian clergy colleagues and neighbors about this latest effort to demonize Israel and damage American-Israeli relations.

The people in the pews, Christian and Jewish, deserve better. Time will tell whether Christian leaders will take this crisis opportunity as a moment to reflect and offer a credible reset to Jewish leaders who have called upon them to step up to the plate.

Peace for Palestinians and Israelis will arrive only though direct negotiations between the parties leading to a two-state solution, the Jewish State of Israel and a future Palestinian state, dwelling in peace and security. New tactics that ultimately are not about peacemaking but are about demonizing Israel will not bring the peace that Israelis and Palestinians so much desire.

(Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.)

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