As was widely reported in both religious and secular media, on October 5, 2012, a letter highly critical of Israel was sent to Congress by leaders of most of the major mainline Protestant denominations and the National Council of Churches (which is dominated by them). The denominations include the biggies—the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Church of Christ (once known as Congregationalists). Notably absent were the Episcopalians. And of course so were the Evangelicals (who tend to be very pro-Israel, perhaps more so than many American Jews).
The letter asks Congress to re-evaluate US aid to Israel in the light of its alleged violations of Palestinians’ human rights. Israel is the recipient of the largest amount of US aid, most of it military. The letter suggests that these violations are offences against US law prohibiting aid to any country engaged in a repetitive series of such violations. Also, the letter claims that the large Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands are in violation of international law and are an obstacle to peace. The purpose of the recommended actions is to end the Israeli occupation of what is supposed to be a Palestinian state (which is the avowed goal of US policy). The letter asks for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations”. Specifically, the letter asks for periodical Congressional hearings to examine Israeli compliance with these laws and for the withholding of military aid in case of non-compliance.
For several years now here has been an international campaign to accuse Israel of illegal occupation and human rights violations, instigated by Muslim states and organizations sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and gaining increasing support from the Left in Europe and America. The campaign has advocated different forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions (“BDS”)—some aimed at Israel in general, some more specifically targeting firms supporting the occupation forces or products of the settlements. The critics of the “BDS” campaign have asserted that its purpose is to delegitimize Israel and its very existence, an assertion given credence by the reiterated characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state”. The campaign against apartheid-era South Africa was successful in making it into an international pariah and was at least one factor in bringing about its demise. The present event is not the first time that American Protestant churches have been involved in the campaign. Both the Presbyterians and the Methodists passed resolutions in favor of divestment, only to rescind these after strong objections from outside and within these churches. The World Council of Churches, which is dominated by mainline Protestants, also passed a similar resolution, but did not rescind it. However, the recent letter to Congress went considerably beyond the earlier efforts, directly challenging US policy toward Israel and thus much more threatening to the latter than recommended actions by private organizations or businesses.
Predictably the Jewish reaction was furious. In the days following the publication of the letter to Congress, major Jewish organizations announced their withdrawal from a meeting of the Christian-Jewish Roundtable planned for later in October. The Roundtable had been established precisely to foster amicable discussion about issues creating tensions between the two communities. What is particularly galling is that the Christian participants in the dialogue were not informed beforehand that the letter was about to be published; they first learned of it from the media. This was, understandably, seen as a breach of trust. But the fury was triggered by the substance of the letter, not just by the sneaky way in which it was published. Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League (which ongoingly monitors anti-Semitic developments and which was supposed to attend the planned Roundtable) succinctly expressed the feelings of all the Jewish groups: “It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state”. The rhetorical heat could not have been intensified any more: By one side Israel is implicitly labeled as a pariah state, to be treated as South Africa was in the days of apartheid; by the other side, American Protestant leaders are placed alongside Holocaust deniers and putative Holocaust imitators. Not only is it safe to assume that the Christian-Jewish Roundtable will have a hard time getting back into business, but that the damage to relations between the Jewish community and the liberal wing of American Protestantism is likely to be long-lasting.
The episode suggests a number of questions:
1) Is Israel guilty of violating the human rights of Palestinians? Probably so. Every occupation power does. But a profound bias is obvious in focusing on Israel for such violations, while ignoring the enormously more massive atrocities in other parts of the Middle East, notably right now in neighboring Syria. What is more, the truly grinding cost for Palestinians of the occupation is not primarily the occasional acts of violence by Israeli troops or settlers, but the daily deprivations and humiliations caused by the occupation regime.
2) Is the Israeli occupation a violation of international law? I have no idea. The occupation is the result of the 1967 Six-Day War, which Israel won dramatically against the combined forces of Arab states bent on its destruction. The occupation continues because of the failure by Israel and the Palestinians to arrive at a peace settlement. I rather doubt whether international law is well suited to deal with such a situation.
3) Is the settlement policy of the Israeli government (which goes back many years) an obstacle to peace? It is. Originally initiated for security reasons, it was subsequently “religionized” on the basis of the land promised by God as stated in the Hebrew Bible and, even in secular terms, it fostered the dream of a Greater Israel. By now it is very doubtful whether the realization of a two-state solution is still possible, as it would require the evacuation of tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Alternatively, the one-state solution, with a huge Arab population within the boundaries of such a state, would very quickly put Israel before the impossibility of adhering to its founding principle of being both a Jewish state and a democracy.
4) Is the letter to Congress useful in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace? No, it is not. Leave aside the likelihood that American domestic politics will prevent Congress from acting on the letter’s recommendations—in other words, the letter is a rhetorical rather than politically useful exercise. But even if Congress were to do something on these lines, it would not be “even-handed”, but would substitute its present pro-Israel attitude by a pro-Palestinian one. This would not be useful if the United States is to make a contribution to the solution of this extraordinarily complex problem. Religious leaders have the unfortunate tendency to believe that “speaking truth to power” is a good thing in and of itself, regardless of its practical consequences (and one may add, as in this case, regardless of whether it does indeed represent “truth”). A simple recommendation suggests itself: In political matters, if you have nothing useful to say, keep quiet.
5) Are the signatories to the letter anti-Semites? I don’t think so. It has frequently been asserted that anti-Zionism is a mask for anti-Semitism. This assertion has some plausibility in parts of Europe, but hardly in America. Survey data indicate a steady decline of anti-Semitic attitudes and a concomitant rise of positive feelings toward Jews in the United States. Americans today are much more likely to be anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish. Still, are there anti-Semites in America? I am sure there are. But they are very unlikely to be Protestant church leaders.
6) If anti-Semitism is not lurking behind the letter to Congress, then what motivated it? There are some not very profound explanations: These individuals probably believe (mistakenly, I think) that the unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and that US pro-Israel policy is a negative factor for the quest of peace—and, as mentioned above, they believe that this letter may help to bring about a “reset” of the policy. Also, for many years there have been strong ties between American churches and the (alarmingly shrinking) small community of Arab Protestants in the Holy Land, so that there is a particular empathy with the plight of this community.
However, I think that there is a more profound explanation: Since the 1970s mainline Protestantism has been strongly influenced by every progressive ideology that came down the pike—anti-capitalist neo-Marxism in economic and social perspectives, anti-Americanism and pacifism in world affairs, and every variety of “victimological” identity politics. For some years the pronouncements rolling off the presses of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and mainline Protestant denominations read like reprints of manifestos composed by rioting students on the Berkeley campus.
A core component of this cobbled-together worldview was an idealization of the so-called Third World. In the 1970s this reached a bizarre climax in an enthusiasm for every murderous regime in developing countries, from Maoism on down—as long as a regime was avowedly socialist and anti-American. This particular form of craziness has been more muted in recent years, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet empire and the rise of a radically capitalist China (under the auspices of a government that still calls itself Communist). But the Third-Worldism of the earlier period still lingers on in “postcolonial theory” and, more importantly, in the nostalgic memories of aging revolutionaries in academia—and in mainline Protestant churches: Palestinians are a Third-World people, therefore their cause is just. It is possible to empathize with the Palestinian people, without looking at its situation through this distortive ideological lens.