But we cannot count on the U.S. government — which includes the president and Congress — to lead this process because most of our elected leaders depend on the Jewish vote and financial support. They avoid negative criticism of Israel, even remaining silent on decades of well-documented human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
Forceful leadership on this issue must come from elsewhere. Fortunately, it is. Several weeks ago, 15 respected American Christian leaders released a letter asking Congress to hold hearings to reconsider military aid to Israel “contingent upon its government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.”
These church leaders should be applauded for speaking their moral conscience. The hope is that Washington lawmakers finally will muster the courage to do the same. After all, they can change U.S. policy and forge peace in the region.
A signer of the letter, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said: “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.”
The letter was based on the signatories’ firsthand observations in the Holy Land: “killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement.”
The Christians also pointed out Israel’s aggressive settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Incredibly, the construction continues unabated even as the United States pleads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop “claiming territory that under international law and United States policy should belong to a future Palestinian state.”
This is land Palestinians have lived on for millennia. Netanyahu vows to continue building, and he announced that he is joining with his hard-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in coming elections to create a new hawkish bloc in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. Lieberman, an ultranationalist, rejects any concessions to the Palestinians.
Still, American Jewish leaders are excoriating the Christian signatories. They walked out on a scheduled interfaith “summit.” Rabbi Noam E. Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, wrote that the “Christians’ letter is an unworthy tactic ... the opening of a new anti-Israel attack.” He also accused the group of “attempting to hijack the positive trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations.”
Rabbi Brant Rosen, co-chair of the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace and a congregational rabbi in Evanston, Ill., disagrees. He wrote the following of the Jewish response to the Christians’ appeal to Congress: “As painful as it might be for these Jewish groups to hear ... these are not scurrilous or arguable ‘allegations.’ They long have been documented by international human rights groups, including the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. The letter points out that a 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices has detailed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.”
Rosen wrote that although the Christians’ letter was reasonable and worded sensitively, it breached protocol: “There long has been an unwritten covenant between the Jewish establishment and Christian leaders when it comes to interfaith dialogue: ‘We can talk about any religious issue we like, but criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is off limits.’ “ Criticism of Israel is the third rail for presidential candidates. During the last debate, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney again accused President Barack Obama of creating “daylight” between the United States and Israel, suggesting that Obama is critical of select Israeli actions, especially its treatment of the Palestinians.
It is true that Obama has tried to nudge Israel to halt settlements in the occupied territories and construction in East Jerusalem. And it is known that Obama and Netanyahu disagree on many issues and have an icy relationship. Does this represent so-called “daylight”? Although the president has not been as publicly critical as the Christians who wrote to Congress, he apparently believes that the United States should treat Israel like it treats other nations that take our tax dollars for military purposes.
There should be preconditions. Israel must share our human rights values. This stance is not anti-Semitic. It is ethical.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times.