By NEIL RUBIN
WASHINGTON (JTA) — When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it. On Wednesday, Jewish groups unilaterally pulled out of an upcoming annual Christian-Jewish roundtable meeting, saying the Oct. 22-23 forum was no longer viable. Earlier in the week, the Anti-Defamation League had announced that it would skip the meeting and called on representatives from other Jewish groups to follow suit.
The Jewish groups — the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — wrote to their Christian colleagues that the letter to lawmakers “represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach.” They called for senior leadership of Jewish and the Christian groups to meet to “determine a more positive path forward for our communities.”
In addition to its content, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
The annual interfaith roundtable began in 2004 as the issue of Protestant groups divesting from their financial portfolios operations doing business with Israel rose to prominence. This year, participants were to update one another on activities regarding Israel, such as the Palestinian push for membership in the United Nations and the upcoming Israeli elections.
Saying “there’s been a betrayal of trust,” Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs umbrella group told JTA, “We have to discern if there’s a positive path forward.”
The Protestants’ letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.
Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of both Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”
In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.
A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.
This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.
Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, initially told JTA earlier this week that boycotting the meeting was not the right response, despite the legitimate anger of Jewish groups.
However, on Wednesday he said, “Unfortunately, some Christian leaders chose to take their anger regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Washington without any warning to Jewish partners in the roundtable. We need to meet to reset the framework for ongoing dialogue that has and can produce positive results.”
Felson said JCPA is considering asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”
In the meantime, Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in other venues.
“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.
“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”
Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Grayde Parsons, who signed the letter to Congress. “We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”
He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”
Parsons did not return JTA’s calls for comment.
David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.
“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue they support Israel.”