11/02/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Misplaced Outrage Over Christian Leaders' Letter on Israel


The reaction from parts of the American Jewish community to a letter to Congress from a group of Christian leaders is deeply disturbing.

Why did this letter elicit such outrage? Was it the suggestion that U.S. funding shouldn't support policies that undermine the prospects for peace? There's nothing inherently anti-Israel about this suggestion -- and in the context of the full letter, it is clearly an expression of these leaders' frustration in the face of Israeli government policies that undermine a future two-state solution.

Many of us in the Jewish community share this frustration, but we nonetheless support military aid to Israel, without such a condition. We know that U.S. assistance is vital to Israel's security and aren't willing to endanger Israel's citizens just to punish an Israeli leader, no matter how intransigent or anti-peace he might be. We know that if there is ever going to be a peace agreement, the Israeli people must know that U.S. support for their security is truly unconditional.

Given this difference of opinion, wouldn't the appropriate course of action be to engage Christian leaders on the issue, to urge them to take greater care to be attentive to Israel's legitimate security concerns? And it would be fair to point out the importance of their also denouncing Palestinian violence when it occurs, recognizing that neither the cause of peace nor the Palestinian people are served by letting Palestinian leaders off the hook. Surely this is a more constructive approach than canceling inter-faith dialogue and vehemently attacking the letter's authors.

Perhaps this vehemence is more about the Christian leaders' call for Congress to investigate whether Israel is violating U.S. laws governing arms exports. For many in the American Jewish community, the idea that Israel might have violated U.S. laws is indeed very scary. Even scarier is the suggestion that Israel should be subjected to public scrutiny that might reveal these violations, even if such scrutiny is at the hands of a U.S. Congress that is deeply supportive and protective of Israel.

Nevertheless, U.S. arms export laws exist for a good reason: to leverage U.S. military assistance as a force for good. Among other things, such aid should promote respect for red lines that the U.S. believes are vital to responsible governance and the functioning of a healthy, accountable military -- the kind of military that knows it cannot operate with impunity.

Many have concluded that such a sense of impunity may have led to Israeli actions in the last wars in Lebanon and Gaza that exacted a heavy price on Israel's international standing. A similar sense of impunity appears to be a factor in current Israeli policies in the West Bank. These policies -- documented by Israeli organizations like Btselem and Breaking the Silence -- are, every day, eroding Israel's own values, undermining Israel's democracy and the rule of law, and feeding "delegitimization" efforts around the world.

True friends of Israel should recognize that Israel is strongest when it is acting in ways that withstand public scrutiny. Israel is strongest when it is accountable, rather than on the defensive over policies and actions that it knows look ugly, or even indefensible, under the harsh light of public inspection.

Some have suggested Christian leaders are unfairly singling Israel out for accountability. The reality is that Congressional oversight of Israel -- its use of U.S. funding, its use of U.S. arms and munitions, its settlement activities, or anything else -- is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, the Palestinians are arguably the most reported-on, overseen, and held-accountable recipient of U.S. aid in the world. The huge and ever-expanding body of legislation related to the Palestinians requires reporting on their use of U.S. funds, their textbooks, their record on incitement, and the functioning of their security services, to name just a few.

Ultimately, at the heart of the current crisis is the Jewish community's relationship with the non-dispensationalist Christian faith community. Leaders of this community are sending a clear message that they will not sit by idly as the situation in the Holy Land -- where they have their own stake -- deteriorates.

Not long ago, many in the American Jewish community heaved a sigh of relief when the Presbyterian Church, under tremendous pressure from the Jewish community, defeated (barely) a proposal to support divestment from companies that support the occupation and settlements. These same people should take a careful look at the situation today. They should recognize that the longer this conflict persists, the greater pressure there will be, both from within the Christian faith community and from other quarters, for more biting activism. So long as the government of Israel appears determined to pursue policies that are anathema to peace, and is permitted to do so with apparent impunity, this pressure will only grow stronger.

Some have suggested that the real issue with the Christian leaders' letter is that it is a betrayal -- that these Christian leaders had an obligation to consult certain Jewish groups before doing or saying anything related to Israel. Consultation, however, increasingly appears to be code for a demand that these same Jewish groups get to dictate to Christians the boundaries of "kosher" activism on Israel.

Such a demand is untenable. Many of these same Jewish groups failed to rally behind President Obama's peace efforts. Many have actively or tacitly defended Prime Minister Netanyahu in his anti-peace policies. All of these groups rejected Americans for Peace Now's call to make a distinction between Israel and the occupation of the West Bank by rejecting BDS -- boycotts, divestment and sanctions -- targeting Israel, but boycotting settlement products; in doing so they sent the very problematic message that even such narrowly targeted activism is somehow beyond the pale.

Now, in the absence of credible efforts by these same major American Jewish groups to get Israel to change its policies, they are enjoying ever-diminishing authority when seeking to influence church leaders with respect to Israel-focused activism. American Jewish groups that choose to continue in this vein shouldn't be surprised when others who have a stake in the Holy Land stop seeking their advice and approval.