In the realm of dirty tricks, it was quite nasty.
As Jews in America were celebrating the last days of the Sukkot festival earlier this month, 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to the U.S. Congress urging the legislators to investigate Israel’s adherence to bilateral agreements with a view to possibly suspending U.S. aid to Israel.
Adding to the betrayal was the fact that these very same Protestant leaders were slated to meet two weeks later, on Oct. 22 and 23, with leaders of the Jewish community for their annual Christian-Jewish roundtable dialogue.
Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the U.S. National Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ signed the letter. It was sent to every member of Congress.
To be sure, the timing of the initiative was profoundly insensitive. But it was the nature of the request to the congressmen and congresswomen that was the real stinging saline drip into the open gash of interfaith relations.
As the letter makes clear, the Protestant leaders are advocating a policy that carries with it the possibility of actual jeopardy to Israel’s security. As reported by JTA, the signatories allege that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to sustaining the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The signatories asked Congress to launch “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. They also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”
This is not merely a ploy to tarnish Israel’s public image or, conversely, to burnish that of the Palestinians. This is a high-level attempt at influencing public policy on the eve of the presidential elections, the purpose of which is ultimately to strike down the $3 billion that Israel annually receives from the United States.
The potential for harm to the Jewish state is quite real.
The clerics’ ploy is sinister and deeply troubling.
Not surprisingly, and indeed quite appropriately, the Jewish leaders decided to cancel their participation in this year’s roundtable meeting.
As reported by JTA, the Jewish groups involved – the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith 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 – told the church leaders that their letter to Congress “represents an escalation in activity that the Jewish participants feel precludes a business-as-usual approach.”
Ethan Felson, vice-president and general counsel of the umbrella group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described the Protestant leaders’ plea to Congress as “a betrayal of trust.”
Canadians are not strangers to this very same sense of betrayal of bona fide interfaith dialogue and of fair-minded, honest, reasonable judgment of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
The lack of fair-minded judgment of Israel was quite dishearteningly on display at the convocation in August of the General Council of the United Church of Canada.
At a recent panel discussion at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto on “Boycotts, the United Church and the future of interfaith dialogue” (see story in this edition of The CJN), Rabbi Jarrod Grover described the letter to Congress as part of “an effort to delegitimize Israel and target aid to Israel, which is really taking root in Liberal Protestant churches.”
But if interfaith communications here and in the United States are to be suspended, temporarily at least, at the national and organizational level, it is neither feasible nor desirable to sever such discussions and relations at the local and individual level. Moreover, the picture is far different for ordinary folk who live and travel in the field of personal interfaith friendships than it is for the ecumenical leaders who dwell on top of the hill, so to speak.
According to Rabbi Noam Marans, director of inter-religious and intergoup relations for the American Jewish Committee, “The overwhelming majority of American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism.”
Even if Rabbi Marans’ observation is correct, it does not abate the worrisome trend unfolding among certain church leaders.
In Rabbi Grover’s words: “We’ve got a real serious problem.”