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Op-Ed: Christians’ letter was reasonable, worded sensitively

CHICAGO (JTA) — There has long been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: “We can talk about any religious issues we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.”

Over the past few weeks, we’ve painfully witnessed what can happen when Christians break this covenant by speaking their religious conscience.

On Oct. 5, 15 prominent American Christian leaders released a letter that called on Congress to make military aid to Israel “contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.”

While most Americans wouldn’t consider it unreasonable for our nation to insist that an aid recipient abide by U.S. laws, some Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, lashed out at their Christian colleagues, eventually walking out on a scheduled Jewish-Christian roundtable. They are now requesting that the Christian leaders come to a “summit meeting” to discuss the situation.

Considering the vehemence of such a response, one might assume that the Christian leaders’ letter was filled with outrageous and incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric.

But in fact their letter is a sensitively worded and faithful call supporting “both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being,” as well as acknowledging “the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions,” the “horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings,” and “the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.”

Yes, the authors of the letter also expressed their concern over “widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others.”

As painful as it might be for these Jewish groups to hear, however, these are not scurrilous or arguable “allegations.” They long have been documented by international human rights groups, including the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. The letter points out that a 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices has detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.

Why has the Jewish establishment reacted so violently to a relatively balanced and religiously based call? Because by speaking their conscience, these Christian leaders had the audacity to break the unwritten covenant: If you want to have a dialogue with us, leave Israel alone.

A recent JTA Op-Ed by Rabbi Noam E. Marans, who serves as director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, provided an interesting window into the mechanics of this covenant. In his Oct. 21 piece, “Christians’ letter is an unworthy tactic,” Marans said nothing about the substance of the letter itself, choosing instead to vehemently attack the Protestant leaders and reject the statement as nothing less than “the opening of a new anti-Israel front.”

Marans went on to surmise that this reasonable, religiously based call for justice was the product of “certain leaders” who are frustrated with “their own failure to convince denominations to use divestment as a club to pressure Israel.” Nowhere did he address the issue of Israeli human rights violations (except to refer to them as “allegations.”) In the end, he suggested that this letter represents “the 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.”

It is difficult to read such a statement without concluding that Marans’ definition of “postive Christian-Jewish relations” means anything other than “no criticism of Israel allowed.”

It is important to note that the letter to Congress was not written by a few angry church renegades; it was authored by 15 prominent church leaders representing a wide spectrum of the Protestant faith community, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker agency) and the Mennonite Central Committee.

While it is painful to read such accusations leveled at respected Christian leaders by a Jewish director of interreligious and intergroup relations, it is even more saddening that some Jewish organizations have chosen to walk away from a scheduled interfaith roundtable, then demand that the Christian leaders attend a “summit” on their own dictated terms.

It is not the role of Jewish organizations to dictate how their Christian partners can live out their conscience or their values, no matter how much they may disagree. Unpleasant realities cannot be discarded simply because these organizations regard such issues as off limits.

We can only hope that these Christian leaders will stand firm and that this sad episode will lead us to a new kind of interfaith covenant — one based on trust and respect, a willingness to face down our fear and suspicion of one another, and a readiness to discuss the painful, difficult issues that may divide us.

Will the American Jewish establishment be up to such a task?

(Rabbi Brant Rosen is the co-chair of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace and a congregational rabbi in Evanston, Ill.)

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