Protestant churches’ letter on Israel straining ties with Jews


When 15 prominent American Protestant leaders sent a letter to Congress last week calling for an investigation and possible suspension of U.S. aid to Israel, at least one outcome was certain: The Jews wouldn’t like it.

Already, one major American Jewish group has canceled its participation in an Oct. 22 annual Christian-Jewish roundtable involving representatives from 12 Jewish and 12 Christian groups in New York. And other Jewish groups are expressing consternation.

“We’re not going to sit around the table and say ‘kumbaya,’ ” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which pulled out of the program and urged other Jewish groups to follow suit. “This is the clearest message I know to say, ‘You don’t get it. Maybe think about what you don’t get, and at a later date we’ll sit down and talk.’ ”

The letter, sent to every member of Congress, was signed by leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

Saying they have “witnessed the pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, the signers said that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The letter called for the launching of “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel” of agreements with Washington for alleged illegal use of U.S.-sold weapons against Palestinians. The signers also asked for “regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.”

In the past, many of these same church leaders have sent notes to Congress criticizing specific Israeli efforts, particularly settlement building. However, this is the first salvo against the $3 billion annual U.S. aid package to Israel.

A number of mainline Protestant churches have had fights at recent conventions over boycotting products made in the West Bank, divesting in companies doing business with Israel or harshly criticizing Israel’s rule of the West Bank.

This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected divestment from companies doing business with Israeli security forces in the West Bank by a 333-331 vote. A similar call was defeated more decisively at a Methodist assembly in May. And in September, the Quaker group Friends Fiduciary Corporation voted to remove a French and an American company from its financial portfolio over what it said was the companies’ involvement with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian areas.

The timing of last week’s letter is further straining ties between American Jewish and Protestant groups. For one thing, it came just weeks before the annual national meeting meant to ensure smoother ties between the two sides. The Christian-Jewish roundtable, as it is known informally, was developed in 2004, when the divestment issue rose in prominence in Protestant circles.

For another, Jewish groups were upset that they had no advance warning of the letter and that it was released on the first day of a two-day Jewish holiday, when most Jewish organizations were closed in observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

“Things are not in a good place,” said Ethan Felson, vice president and general counsel of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) umbrella group.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, and a co-chair of the roundtable, said boycotting the meeting is not the right response.

“As disheartening as this initiative is, it is critical to continue in our wider commitment to Christian-Jewish dialogue, because it has contributed in a positive way over time to the betterment of the Jewish experience,” Marans said. “After all, until two generations ago, Christian anti-Jewish sentiment was not uncommon, and today it is marginalized within the churches. That’s a very important historic development. We cannot lose perspective.”

Felson said JCPA is considering as a response asking Congress to investigate delegitimizers of Israel and to issue a resolution against their efforts. He said he has not yet decided if he will attend the roundtable.

“We feel strongly that if you want the parties to reconcile, we should model reconciliation,” Felson said. “But that’s difficult to do when we’re up against this brand of antipathy.”

Suggesting that American Jewish groups could retaliate by advocating against U.S. aid to the Palestinians, Felson said the signers of the letter are “opening up a Pandora’s box.”

Marans said Jewish groups should continue pursuing local Christian-Jewish ties in addition to national ones.

“Liberal Protestants live side by side with Jews, and rabbis have relationships with local ministers,” Marans said. “Once the antipathy toward Israel of some national leaders is communicated in the context of these relationships, the local religious leadership is heard from and communicates to their national leadership their concerns.

“The Jewish community understands that the overwhelming majority of Americans and American Christians understand that Israel must defend itself and that Israel is not an aggressor, that Israel is on the front lines of terrorism and has modeled how to create a balance between security and concern for the individual rights of all of the inhabitants.”

Indeed, some Presbyterians are openly angry with their leader, the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who signed the letter.

“We know there’s a very small, very vocal group in the Presbyterian Church that wants to see Israel punished,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, co-moderator of an unofficial group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. “We think we represent the 70 percent of Presbyterians polled in 2009 who said that maintaining a strong diplomatic and military relationship with Israel should be a U.S. priority.”

He said Parsons’ signing of the letter “makes a lot of people mad and a larger number of people embarrassed.”

Parsons did not return calls for comment.

David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a largely evangelical group often billed as the Christian AIPAC, called the move by the mainline Protestant churches to reach out to Congress an “accelerating trend” with a message for the Jewish community.

“This should be a wake-up call,” said Brog, who is Jewish. “Christians will be involved in Israel and the Middle East, whether Jews accept that or not. We cannot take Christian support for Israel for granted. We have to actively engage our Christian neighbors and take the case to them, so that when they are active on this issue, they support Israel.”

Israel, U.S. Act on Request for Renewable Energy


Israel and the United States will pool their scientific brainpower to find and develop alternative energy sources under a bill passed by the House and now wending its way through the Senate.

Under the proposed U.S.-Israel Energy Cooperation Act, scientists and engineers from both countries would focus on research, development and commercial use of renewable energy from solar, wind, hydrogen and biofuel sources.

The act would appropriate $20 million annually through 2012 for grants to researchers at universities and business enterprises, awarded by a newly established International Energy Advisory Board in the U.S. Department of Energy.

All the funds are to come from the United States.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the energy act was introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Phoenix), and approved by an overwhelming voice vote in the House last month.

Essentially the same bill has been sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and 14 of his colleagues. Although the bill faces the usual committee and appropriations hurdles, Smith’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, expressed confidence that the measure would pass the full Senate by the end of the current session.

The act received a boost from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his May 24 address to a joint session of Congress, when he stressed America and Israel’s common “desire for energy security” and praised the pending legislation.

Ron Dermer, minister of economic affairs at the Israeli embassy in Washington, said that the act would build on previous collaboration through the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation.

Dermer also pointed to the large pool of Israeli scientific talent, such as at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and its ability to tackle new research fields.

Similarly, Sherman noted past technological collaboration between the two countries, as in the development of the Arrow missile, and Israeli pioneer work in developing more efficient batteries, solar energy and fuel cells.

In the language of the bill, he and Shadegg stressed that energy independence was “in the highest national security interest of the United States,” and warned that the U.S. now imports from foreign countries 58 percent of its oil.

Such dependence will increase by 33 percent over the next 20 years, the legislators projected, with some of the exporting countries using their profits to fund terrorism and hostile propaganda.

In a phone interview, Sherman said that when he introduced a similar measure last year, it died in committee hearing, contrasted to the overwhelming support this year.

He paid special tribute to the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), which has been lobbying for effective energy legislation for many years and has mobilized public support for the House measure.

Gary P. Ratner, AJCongress western regional executive director, said that his national organization had sent e-mails to some 25,000 members in support of the House bill. He urged that voters now contact their senators to advocate passage of Senate Bill 1862.

AJCongress National Executive Director Neil B. Goldstein said he was optimistic that the legislation would be passed by the Senate and signed by President Bush, noting that Senate majority leaders Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had expressed interest in presenting the bill to the full Senate for an early vote.In a related development, American and Israeli business, academic and financial leaders will meet in Tel Aviv on Nov. 8 for a high-level Alternative and Renewable Energy Conference, according to Shai Aizin, Israel West Coast consul for economic affairs.

For information on the conference, call (323) 658-7924, or e-mail losangeles@moital.gov.il. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Anchors Let Slip Plaintiff’s Name

Two Israeli radio disc jockeys were suspended for broadcasting the first name of a woman who alleges that President Moshe Katsav sexually assaulted her. Shai Goldstein and Dror Raphael, irreverent anchors on Tel Aviv Radio, were suspended for a week following a recent surprise phone call they made on air to the former Katsav aide, who previously had been identified in the media only by her first initial “A” due to the sensitivity of the case. Before she hung up on the duo, they used her full first name. The radio station apologized for the indiscretion but noted that the name is so common in Israel that the chance that the woman had been unmasked was slim. Shai and Dror, as they are popularly known, are famous for their broadcast pranks, which have included making crank calls to Israeli leaders and even enemy countries like Iran and Iraq.

Olmert Limits Inquiry Into War

Ehud Olmert announced that his government would conduct a limited inquiry into Israel’s handling of the Lebanon war. The prime minister said Monday that a former Mossad chief, Nahum Admoni, would lead the government-appointed commission to investigate whether the military and political echelons mishandled the 34-day offensive against Hezbollah. Olmert’s decision fell short of the independent judicial commission that his opponents had called for, and which might have had the power to recommend the prime minister’s resignation. Olmert said such a probe would take too long and would neglect the need to rehabilitate Israel’s defense apparatus ahead of possible future conflicts with Hezbollah or its patron, Iran.

Poll: Israelis Want Olmert Resignation

Sixty-three percent of Israelis want Ehud Olmert to resign, according to a new poll. Results of the Yediot Achronot poll, released Friday, showed for the first time that a majority of Israelis favor the resignation of the prime minister, elected in March, because of his handling of Israel’s war with Hezbollah. The poll showed 45 percent backing Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who heads the Likud Party.

New Orleans Shul Dedicates New Torah

A New Orleans synagogue that lost its Torah scrolls to flooding dedicated a new scroll for the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. On Sunday, Congregation Beth Israel dedicated a scroll donated by the Los Angeles Jewish community through a fundraising drive by 16-year-old Hayley Fields of Hancock Park, who raised $18,000 to buy the Torah. Seven ruined Torah scrolls were recovered and buried after last year’s flood. National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox umbrella body, facilitated the dedication.

Argentine Jews Complain Over Blocked Protest

Argentine Jewish leaders met with the country’s interior minister after left-wing activists prevented Jews from holding a demonstration against Iran.Luis Grynwald, president of the community’s central AMIA institution, and Jorge Kirszenbaum, president of the DAIA political umbrella group, talked with Anibal Fernandez for more than an hour Friday morning about an incident Thursday in which the Quebracho group blocked a street where Jews were to demonstrate. Many saw the move as anti-Semitic.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.