Historic Christian-Jewish Relationships at the Brink

The recent flap over the letter signed by the 15 mainline Christian leaders asking for a Congressional investigation into military aid to Israel and the response by many of the Jewish groups engaged in interfaith relations have raised some questions.

The Jewish agencies felt blindsided by the letter that, on its own, was upsetting, but even more so because it was yet another escalation in an unrelenting campaign to punish Israel while whitewashing other factors in the conflict. When we read the letter, we said "enough is enough." And we determined that the mechanisms we have in place to work through and ideally prevent this type of disagreement simply are not working.

What did we do? We canceled a regularly scheduled meeting of those who work in interfaith and policy positions in favor of a proposed summit of the principal leaders from both communities.

Considering the relationships we have had and the gulf that has emerged, I would think this is not too much to ask.

As the leader of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, one of the groups engaged in these meetings, this measured course seems a possible way to save the relationships between the two faith communities. Why are we upset?

A core issue for the Jewish community.

The continued strength and survival of the state of Israel is, as these leaders know so well, a central concern of the Jewish community. U.S. aid is and has been central to ensuring Israel's survival in the face of unrelenting and growing threats in the region. Israel faces a broad range of enemies -- including Iran and its nuclear ambitions and Hamas and Hezbollah with their tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel. Israel is a reliable American ally in an unstable part of the world. This aid has also become part of the deep connection between our two nations. Our love for America and for Israel and our commitment to Israel's safety all combine to intensify the reasons below.

A false accusation, intended or not.

The accusation in the letter is that U.S. military aid to Israel is "unconditional," as if Israel is not subject to the U.S. laws and conditions that govern its aid. What does that mean? If it means that the U.S. government does not exercise oversight over the weapons America gives to Israel and how they are used, those assertions fly in the face of reality over the past several decades. Any credible reports of the misuse of U.S. equipment have been investigated by several different administrations and appropriate responses implemented. Every country has reported some violations. All countries are subject to the same restrictions and conditions, including the Arms Export Control Act. U.S. security assistance would also be affected if the government of a recipient country is found to be in "substantial violation of internationally recognized human rights." Israel, like other aid recipients, is under constant review and has not been found to be guilty of such violation. So, we are left to wonder why the Christian letter would use the word "unconditional" when the facts tell an entirely different story.

Double standards and one-sided criticism against Israel.

The Christian leaders in their letter cite Israeli human rights violations described in a State Department report as grounds to reexamine aid. However their letter makes no mention of Palestinian Authority violations described in the very same report. While their letter makes vague reference to Israeli grievances against Palestinians, there are no specifics given and no calls for any action to address these grievances. (Just to be clear, the JCPA has consistently supported U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and does not believe that these reported violations should be used as grounds to investigate such aid.)

Also, other than a benign footnote, there is no mention of other countries accused of human rights violations while receiving American military aid. Countries like Egypt, which offers little protection to the Coptic Christians whose communities are often treated horrifically by Muslims there, or Pakistan and Iraq, Muslim states which have Christian communities who are treated very poorly. If Congress should investigate foreign aid to these countries, please say so in something other than a footnote. Why would they single out the Jewish state?

Notice and discussion of the issue with dialogue partners.

For JCPA, this last reason is the most concerning. In any relationship, communication is key. No one likes to be surprised. An important principle of dialogue is that close interfaith relationships require the sometimes difficult step of giving notice when one is about to take some action that may cause discomfort to the other. This was certainly the operating principle between Rev. Michael Kinnamon, immediate past general-secretary of the National Council of Churches, and me. This communication does not mean that differences will not remain after the discussion. It does mean that steps have been taken to ensure that one party understands what the other is proposing and has had the chance to make its case before a matter becomes public. Neither JCPA nor any of the other Jewish groups in dialogue were given any prior notice. Friends do not surprise friends.

Christian-Jewish relations matter. We work together on a host of issues that are basic to our theological and political understanding of who we are as religious communities. Our joint work against poverty in America, a reasonable climate and energy policy, a humane immigration policy, and deep concerns against torture, genocide and human trafficking have made a difference in our nation and what it stands for.

We hope we can find a way to deal with the issues of the Middle East -- even if we differ -- and that we may continue to work together more harmoniously on all the other issues that matter to us. We have asked for a meeting of the top leaders of both communities. Surely, if the Christian leaders felt a need to write the letter they wrote, they ought to be willing to meet and discuss their letter and the breakdown in relationship that preceded and most certainly follows it. We may not find a path forward, but at least we will have tried.