Jewish, Christian groups clash over U.S. aid to Israel
WASHINGTON (IPS) — Jewish groups have reacted furiously to a letter to Congress by 15 leaders of Christian denominations asking for a review of whether some of the three billion dollars in annual United States aid to Israel is being used in violation of U.S. law and policies.
After pulling out of an interfaith dialogue conference, several Jewish groups stepped up their attacks on the Christian leaders, accusing them of bias against Israel and even of anti-Semitism.
The Christians’ letter stated that they believed that the unconditional U.S. aid given to Israel contributes to the “deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace… sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The letter was sent to Congress by leaders of such prominent Protestant denominations as the Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches (USA), among others.
It called for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’”
The church leaders state that their concerns are based on witnessing the questionable use of U.S. weapons firsthand as well as the annual report of the U.S. State Department, which, they say, “details widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.”
Jewish groups, led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), responded angrily. The JCPA stated, “(The churches’) stony silence to the use of anti-Judaism and relentless attacks on the Jewish state, often from within their own ranks, speaks loudly to their failure to stand up and speak the whole truth about what is occurring in the Middle East.”
The criticism spanned a wide spectrum of U.S.-Jewish politics. Prominent neoconservative Elliott Abrams, a former U.S. official who also headed the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he frequently clashed with church peace groups, called it “the latest chapter in the unending hostility to Israel that has marked several of the mainline Protestant denominations.”
Abrams, like the more mainstream Jewish groups, sees the letter as motivated by hostility toward Israel. Like them, he does not engage directly with the substance of the letter, nor does he answer the charges of systematic human rights abuses by Israel, but instead raises questions not directly related to the letter’s content to support his contention that the letter is motivated by anti-Israel malice.
And, while Abrams is surely correct in asserting that “It is unlikely that the churches’ letter will affect the level of aid to Israel,” he does not explain why, if that is the case, such a wide spectrum of the Jewish community has reacted so strongly to it.
The centrist J Street was just as critical as Abrams, though with a far more conciliatory tone. In an op-ed on Newsweek’s Daily Beast web site, the vice president of their education fund, Rachel Lerner wrote: “J Street opposes proposals to condition or cut security assistance to Israel…As with so many efforts to address this complex situation, the letter fails to weigh criticism of Israel’s behavior with appropriate criticism of, for instance, rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli civilian areas…
“We also question the timing of the letter – coming as it does a few short weeks before Election Day, when this sensitive issue has already become too much of a political football.”
These specifics were cited by Abrams, the JCPA and the ADL as well. But the letter asks not for a cut or conditioning of aid, but a review of whether that aid is being given in compliance with U.S. law, something that has been done frequently with U.S. foreign aid.
The letter also makes several mentions of Israeli hardships, specifically rockets fired from Gaza, and consistently equates Israeli and Palestinian suffering.
“Over the years, a number of members of Congress have asked the State Department to report on whether specific incidents constituted violations of the Arms Export Control Act, Foreign Assistance Act or other U.S. laws by Israel,” Joshua Ruebner, the National Advocacy Director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told IPS.
“Even though the State Department’s annual report on human rights in the Occupied Territories regularly documents abuses, the reports come back clean every time. Even though the Christian leaders’ letter asks for a comprehensive review, which has never been done before, the Jewish groups’ response seems like an overreaction.”
Indeed, Ruebner documents that just under the last two U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the U.S. has cut or placed under review aid to five countries – Zimbabwe, Colombia, the Phillipines, Pakistan and Bahrain – due to violations of U.S. law in the use of weapons supplied through U.S. military aid.
“The United States has in the past sanctioned both Israel and other countries for violations of U.S. laws,” Ruebner said. “Yet, despite Israel’s systematic human rights abuses during this period, not once since 2000 has any administration formally or publicly held Israel accountable for its misuse of U.S. weapons in violation of its own laws.”
The Christian leaders who wrote the open letter have remained quiet, neither responding to the attacks on them nor backing away from the substance of their letter. But they have also received support from some Jewish circles. The group Jewish Voice for Peace, and more importantly, their Rabbinical Council, came out in strong support of the Christian letter.
As dismay among more liberal U.S. citizens with Israel’s ongoing occupation and intransigence on negotiations grows, it is possible that this letter will come to be seen as the beginning of a wider debate within mainstream churches over U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Some church organizations which have been actively working for peace for some time and are part of denominations which signed the letter are apparently energized.
“Israel’s grave and systematic abuses of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law have been thoroughly documented for many years by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and even by the U.S. State Department,” said Rev. Jeff DeYoe, Advocacy Chair of Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“We’re pleased and encouraged that church leaders from a growing number of denominations are recognizing this and taking a stand in favor of justice and freedom for all the peoples of the Holy Land. We hope members of Congress will do the same.”