Tensions are running high between Jewish groups and an alliance of mainline denominations that includes the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). – a disagreement fueled by a letter the Christian representatives sent to Congress early in October, asking that aid the United States sends to Israel be reconsidered in light of Israel’s track record in human rights.
In response, leaders of Jewish groups have canceled a meeting of an interfaith group that had been scheduled for Oct. 22-23. Leaders of Reformed and Conservative Jewish groups, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups sent a letter Oct. 17 expressing their distress and saying they would not attend a planned meeting of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable, an interfaith discussion group formed in 2004.
Seven Jewish groups sent a letter to the Christian representatives, stating in part that “while we remain committed to continuing our dialogue and our collaboration on the many issues of common concern, the letter represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach.”
The letter the Protestant group sent to Congress on Oct. 5 was signed by 15 religious leaders, including Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the PC(USA), and representatives of the National Council of Churches USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. The letter asked Congress to open “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of the way weapons sold by the United States have allegedly used against Palestinians.
The letter speaks of a desire to seek a “just peace” for Jews and Palestinians, and acknowledge that both have contributed to violence in the region. It expresses “grave concern about the deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and states that “unconditional military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration.”
And it states that “as Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel,” as continuing such aid “will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
It describes a “troubling pattern of disregard” by Israel for U.S. policies that support peace – a pattern that includes an increase in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an escalation in attacks by settlers against Palestinians.
It asks Congress to hold hearings to investigate Israel’s compliance with the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Control Act, which prohibit aid to any country with a consistent pattern of human rights violations, and which limit the use of U.S.-provided weapons to “internal security” and “legitimate self-defense.” The letter asks Congress to “undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace.”
Parsons also issued a second letter, on Oct. 16, urging Palestinian leaders to end their internal struggles and to approve a unity agreement that would allow Palestinians to approach negotiations with Israel in a more unified way. That letter was sent to leaders of the Fatah and Hamas movements, urging them to reconcile and to “lay aside your differences and give us hope for peace.”
The letter states that as long as the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas persists, “the Israelis’ accusation that they have no ‘partner’ with whom to negotiate a peace agreement remains true.” And it expresses concern about potential obstacles to the upcoming elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
“We have spoken strongly and consistently against our own government’s years of military aid and other forms of support for Israel’s violations of human rights and international law,” the letter states. “Yet our voice is weakened and ignored as long as we cannot point to Palestinian leaders that will sit at the table with Israel as unified, viable representatives of the Palestinian people.”
PC(USA) policy towards Israel and the Palestinian people continues to be closely scrutinized – and controversial. In July, the General Assembly voted by an extraordinarily close margin not to divest in three companies – Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions – which its committee governing socially responsible investing had determined to be engaged in “non-peaceful” ways in Israel.
But relations between Presbyterians and Jews remain strained, and the Oct.5 letter drew immediate fire – both from inside and outside the church.
The seven Jewish groups which pulled out of Christian-Jewish roundtable meeting are the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Presbyterians for Middle East Peace issued a news release expressing its view that Parsons had overstepped his authority – claiming the stated clerk “is not allowed to take public positions that are not firmly rooted in PC(USA) policy. He has no authority to create church policy or to make judgments on behalf of the denomination regarding American foreign policy, nor authority to personally investigate and make judgments upon the practices or conduct of any country.”
That news release, which the organization has not yet posted on its website, states that the Oct. 8 letter “contradicts and diminishes carefully worded GA (General Assembly) policy,” in which the 2008 assembly “explicitly disavowed a one-sided approach to peacemaking in the Middle East.”
The news release states that Parsons “misrepresented PC(USA) policy on this important issue” and as a result “our entire denomination is under attack for something it has never adopted as policy.”
The Jewish leaders, in their letter, say the Christian-Jewish Roundtable was created in 2004 in the wake of an earlier controversy over proposed divestment in companies doing business in Israel and frustration over the lack of progress towards a two-state solution.
While canceling the Oct. 22-23 meeting, the Jewish leaders are calling for a meeting with the senior leadership of the Christian groups that signed the letter and have participated in the roundtable, “to communicate face-to-face at the highest levels and determine a more positive path forward for our communities.”