Controversy on Israel aid intensifies and threatens interfaith cooperation

A few weeks ago we reported on a controversial letter sent to the U.S. Congress by a group of officials from Christian organizations. Signers included the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly. The letter implored the lawmakers to launch “an immediate investigation” into alleged human rights violations by Israel that would call into question the provision of security assistance and other aid.

The Rev. Parsons attempted to clarify his stance in a New York Times story by saying “We asked Congress to treat Israel like it would any other country, to make sure our military aid is going to a country espousing the values we would as Americans — that it’s not being used to continually violate the human rights of other people.” This statement is consistent with a similar statement from the 219th General Assembly (2010). However, the fact that only Israel was cited for investigation belies the Rev. Parsons’ contention that Israel is being treated like “any other country”. Egypt and numerous other well-documented violators of human rights receive U.S. military aid and were not cited in the letter to Congress for investigation. The letter also violated the directive of the 218th GA (2008) to avoid giving either side preferential consideration.   Finally, the 220th GA (2012), just completed this past summer, called for “a process of engagement that will bring Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the U.S. into effective partnering for study, travel, and social action”. The Stated Clerk’s actions are moving the PC(USA) in the opposite direction.

Equal and unbiased treatment implies that the human rights record of Israel should be judged alongside the human rights records of the Palestinian group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank (The United States provides direct aid to the PA, and indirect aid to Hamas-governed Gaza through the U.N.). We think all of the Jewish groups offended by the letter to Congress, and a great many Christians, ourselves included, would more than welcome such a side-by-side comparison.

Ironically, just a few weeks ago, the widely respected organization Human Rights Watch issued a comprehensive report on the extent of human rights violations by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The report documented a pervasive practice of beatings, torture, and executions by firing squad without fair trial. The Charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and claims that Muslims have a religious obligation to kill Jews. Hamas openly describes the intentional killing of Israeli civilians as a legitimate tactic of  “resistance”. This year alone, over 500 rockets have been launched from Gaza at Israeli homes and schools.

The letter to Congress made no call for an investigation of human rights violations by Hamas. Instead, On October 18 the Stated Clerk sent a letter to the leadership of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, urging them to join in a “unified front” with Israel: We have been heartened in recent months by the public statements of leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority of your intention to come together and forge a unity agreement. That is a prerequisite to your ability to show a united “face” to the Israelis at the negotiating table”. There was no call for the leaders of Hamas to renounce violence or end their quest to “annihilate” Israel.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, has made important strides establishing the rule of law, discouraging violence, and advancing the welfare of ordinary Palestinians. Nonetheless, Palestinians have been arrested for nothing more than criticizing PA leadership. Earlier this year, A Palestinian man in the West Bank, Muhammad Abu Shahala, was sentenced to death for selling land to a Jew, a capital crime under Palestinian Authority laws. Were a law passed anywhere in the United States calling for the death penalty for selling land to a person of a particular race, religion, or ethnicity, the outcry from the American people would be deafening.

Presbyterians for Middle East Peace does not call for an end to U.S. aid to Palestinians, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of horrific human rights violations, particularly in Hamas-run Gaza. Were the U.S. to cut off funding for Gaza, ordinary Palestinians would suffer and the leaders of Hamas would continue to rule as they do today. In the West Bank, collapse of the Palestinian Authority would be catastrophic for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The reaction to the letter to Congress from the Jewish Community was one of disappointment and deep concern. Given the outspoken commitment of the leaders of Iran, in alliance with Hamas and Hezbollah, to “annihilate” Israel, loss of security assistance and military aid would threaten Israel’s very existence and the lives of its people. The strong reaction is understandable.

Eight major Jewish groups have cancelled participation in an annual interfaith meeting with Protestant officials that has been held annually since 2004. The Jewish organizations were the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Anti-Defamation League.

We at Presbyterians for Middle East Peace see this as a tragic and destructive development that need not and should not have happened. Many of the leaders and officials of these organizations have been important supporters of a two-state solution and creation of a peaceful Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. They have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to human rights that spans decades. The Presbyterian community may have lost valued partners in advocating for peace, and the Stated Clerk’s actions have accomplished nothing but furthering a perception that the PC(USA) has an extreme and hostile agenda toward Israel.

Human rights must be a priority. A peaceful and secure Middle East is an equally important priority. Decisions balancing these essential priorities must be made thoughtfully and carefully, and, unfortunately, are not simple and easy. The faith community can play an important and constructive role, but only if all people of good will work together. It has now been more than two years that the position of PC(USA) Associate for Interfaith Relations has gone unfilled, sending the faith community a message that interfaith cooperation is not a priority. Our PC(USA) officials must honor their obligation to serve the entire Presbyterian community fairly and faithfully, not just the agenda of a few. Sadly, we are still falling short of this important goal, and our recent public actions are diminishing our role as potential peacemakers.