Last week, a letter was sent to Congress by several prominent American Christian leaders that called on lawmakers to "make U.S. military aid to Israel contingent upon its government's compliance with applicable US laws and policies." While most wouldn't consider it unreasonable for our nation to insist that an aid recipient abide by U.S. laws, a number of Jewish organizations nonetheless chose to attack the letter publicly, all but labeling it anti-Semitic, and pulled out of a planned Christian-Jewish Roundtable.
Last Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) announced it was withdrawing from a national Jewish-Christian dialogue planned for Oct. 22 (Washington Post, Oct. 11). Now, seven other Jewish organizations are following suit and stepping away from the planned roundtable. Explained ADL director Abraham Foxman: "The blatant lack of sensitivity by the Protestant dialogue partners we had been planning to meet with has seriously damaged the foundation for mutual respect, which is essential for meaningful interfaith dialogue."
As fellow Jewish leaders, we are profoundly disappointed that some in our community have chosen to literally walk away from the table of dialogue. Actions such as these run directly counter to the spirit and mission of interfaith understanding. Indeed, true dialogue does not only occur in the areas in which both parties find agreement, but particularly in those difficult places where there is disagreement and divergence of opinion.
Considering the vehemence of such a response, one might assume the Christian leaders' letter was filled with outrageous and incendiary anti-Israel rhetoric. In fact, the letter is a sensitively worded and faithful call, citing "both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being," acknowledging "the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions," the "horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings," and "the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society."
Yes, the signatories of the letter also express their concern over "widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others." But as difficult as it might be for some Israel-supporters to accept such claims, these are not spurious or arguable allegations.
We believe this decision is a terrible mistake, and reveals these Jewish organizations' confusion about the nature of interfaith cooperation. It is not the role of these Jewish organizations to dictate how their Christian partners can live out their conscience or their values -- no matter how much they may disagree. After all, the signers of the letter, and the churches they represent, have ancient and continuing ties to the land of Israel just as we do -- and we must be ready to admit that their concerns for the safety and dignity of Christian Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are just as compelling as our concern for the safety and dignity of Jews there. Indeed, these Christian organizations have expressed their concern for the security of Jews in the Holy Land, while the ADL letter, as well as the one released by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, denies the reality of Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians. Unpleasant realities cannot be discarded simply because these organizations regard such issues as off limits. Attempting to control what, when, and how our interfaith partners can live out their moral convictions undermines the entire premise of true dialogue and the potential for interfaith partnership.
It is hardly outrageous for American taxpayers to require Israel's compliance with our nation's laws and policies. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act specifically prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations, limiting the use of U.S. weapons to "internal security" or "legitimate self-defense."
As the letter notes, the most recent 2011 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories detailed numerous human rights violations committed by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians -- many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.
As Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out, in response to the current economic downturn, Congress has been scrutinizing all domestic assistance programs to ensure that they are being carried out legally and in compliance with stated U.S. policy. If we are willing to scrutinize such venerable programs as Social Security and food stamps, why should U.S. military aid to Israel be exempt?
By contrast, U.S. aid to the Palestinians, though miniscule in comparison to the massive unconditional military aid we send to Israel, has, as Rosenberg himself points out, "so many conditions [that] USAID barely knows how to legally deliver it."
While some might feel that requiring assistance to be compliant with U.S. law would compromise Israel's security, there is every reason to believe that precisely the opposite is true. Israel's human rights abuses do not make it more secure; they serve only to create further instability and resentment in a profoundly unstable part of the world. As Israel's primary ally, our country alone is able to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians -- and true security for all who live in the region.
We regret that these Jewish organizations opted to disengage from their Christian colleagues on this painful issue that is of such deep concern to both faith communities. We believe that if we face down our fear and suspicion, Jews and Christians will invariably find that we do indeed have much to learn from one another.
Rabbis Alissa Wise and Brant Rosen are the co-founders of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council.