As Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel. Realizing a just and lasting peace will require this accountability, as continued U.S. military assistance to Israel — offered without conditions or accountability — will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. ~ from Letter of 15 Church Leaders to U.S. Congress
On October 5, 2012, fifteen Christian leaders in the United States issued a letter to members of Congress that rocked American Christian-Jewish relationships. The letter addressed the American legislators who approve all economic and military aid to Israel and are charged with the responsibility of oversight for how that 3.1 billion dollar annual aid package is implemented.
No one saw this coming. The statement stunned the Jewish community used to the unquestioned support of the State of Israel as a preferential ally of the United States. The 2012 denominational national meetings, with their heated debates on divestment from American corporations benefiting from supporting the Palestinian occupation, concluded with votes among the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians “to invest” in Palestine rather than divest church funds from U.S. corporations profiting from Israel’s military occupation. Those votes were influenced by threats from Jewish organizations that pro-divestment actions would cause a rupture in the decades of Christian-Jewish interfaith partnerships.
Within months of the national meetings, the heads of mainline churches and other Christian organizations turned their attention the United States Congress, asking its members to investigate human rights abuses and violations of federal laws that Congress itself had placed on all foreign military aid. The intense reaction from Jewish organizations reveals a significant divide in nationalistic loyalties, focused on Christian U.S. citizens calling Congress to an honest examination of military aid under United States law against the actions of the country that so many Americans regard as the rightful Jewish homeland.
What the letter said about Palestinian and Israeli suffering
Each of the Christian churches and organizations that signed on (see list below) to the letter has an established ethical commitment to peacemaking in the region. Many of these churches have actively supported a two-state solution and encouraged Israelis and Palestinians to continue to negotiate for a just peace. The ecumenical letter sought to lift up the long history of suffering in the region, noting that the longing for security and peace for both sides is genuine and that each party bears responsibility. It affirms the deaths and horror resulting from past suicide bombings and the broad fearfulness resulting from Gaza rocket attacks upon the broader Israeli society. The Letter underscores the churches’ witness to Palestinian home demolitions, the killing of civilians by the Israeli military and other human rights violations. Its text reflects the churches’ usual “balanced” approach to suffering and security. It is careful not to characterize or criticize any faith group’s stance on the conflicts.
Kairos Palestine and the United States Congress
The Kairos Palestine confessional document insists on defining Christ’s commandment to love as inclusive of the friend and the enemy. It also claims resistance as both a right and duty of the Christian, using love as its logic. [KP: 4.2.3] Such love is corrective, refusing to resist evil with evil, and seeking respect of all life. It affirms that one may defend his or her life, freedom and land. [KP: 4.2.5] However, with regard to the international community, Kairos Palestine challenges the international community to resist “selective application of international law” which “threatens to leave us vulnerable to a law of the jungle. It legitimizes the claims by certain armed groups and states that the international community only understands the logic of force.” [KP: 7]
The reality on the ground, asserts Kairos Palestine, is one of daily inhuman conditions, enforced by the Israeli military, including military checkpoints, the use of guns, tear gas and bombs against civilians in situations which do not rise to the level of military threat. Other policies of occupation defy and break international UN laws and, in all likelihood, United States laws, on the use of military aid provided to an allied government. This is the logic of force, and this is why it is so important that Christian leaders spoke truth to power, in this case the United States Congress.
The ecumenical document, often referred to as “The Letter of 15, ” urges Congress to conduct “ 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.” These two laws form the basis for the Letter of 15 issuing a call to Congress to engage in its responsibility to investigate and report on its findings.
The Arms Export Control Act (AECA, 1976) is a comprehensive policy regulating how arms are traded, sold or supplied for a country’s lawful self-defense and imposes restrictions on the development and proliferation of certain kinds of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The Foreign Assistance Act dates from 1961 and includes the separation of military and non-military aid, also creating the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This law states that no assistance will be provided to a government which
“engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.” [Legislation on Foreign Relations,The Government Printing Office]
The 2011 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covered Israel and the Occupied Territories, describing numerous human rights violations committed by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians — many of which involve the misuse of US-supplied weapons.
When viewed through the lens of Kairos Palestine, the Letter of 15 is a collaboration of Christian organizations in the U.S. urging Congress to take responsibility for enforcing its own laws, decades old, and uphold these legal restrictions that Congress bound itself to as the legislative branch of our government, and at the same time to address how the military actions and policies of the State of Israel might be in violation of its agreements with the U.S. to abide by the laws conditional to the preferential aid it receives. Both sides are accountable for upholding United States and international laws and human rights. Congress has an accountability relationship to U.S. taxpayers to abide by our standards in providing aid. Israel is not exempt. [KP: 1.2, 1.4]
Responses to the Ecumenical Letter
The Letter of 15 elicited a fierce exchange of accusations, as well as much commentary in both secular and religious media. One of the most telling is the following set of interviews from the HuffPost Live: Faith Leaders on Aid to Israel, which interviewed Jewish and Christian leaders on the Letter and its impact. Watch the video interviews on HuffPost Live Source.
Jewish organizations had swift angry reactions to the Letter. The Rabbinical Assembly asked Congress to reject the call for oversight. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs characterized the letter signed by 15 church leaders as “a step too far,” according to JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “The participation of these leaders in yet another one-sided anti-Israel campaign cannot be viewed apart from the vicious anti-Zionism that has gone virtually unchecked in several of these denominations.” Never mind that anti-Zionism was used as synonymous with anti-semitism, which it is not.
The Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council supported the call for Congressional oversight, noting that Mideast analyst MJ Rosenberg has rightly pointed out that such programs as Social Security and food stamps were under congressional scrutiny for compliance, asking why not the same for Israel? “…the U.S. alone is in a place to create the kind of leverage that might challenge Israel to turn away from policies that impede the cause of a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians and true security for all who live in the region.”
At the same time, the churches which had signed the letter to Congress quickly moved to interpret its contents in light of established denominational policies. The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of the signatories, noted that in 2010 that body had explicitly noted the problems with compliance on the part of the State of Israel with regard to military aid and directed him to communicate these issues to Congress.
In an essay published by Mondoweiss, author and activist Dr. Mark Braverman asserted that beyond the issues of interfaith bullying, the churches’ letter addresses the need to look at the unconditional financial and diplomatic support by the U.S. government for Israel under the guise of security. “We know that responsible advocacy for human rights for Palestinians and a sane, compassionate U.S. policy have nothing to do with anti-Jewish feeling,” Braverman writes, “But make no mistake—we are seeing only the beginning of the battle that will be waged to silence this church movement.”
A final word
Military aid to the State of Israel from the United States is the single most important international aid factor–beyond any government’s humanitarian aid–in addressing how the conflict between Palestine and Israel will be resolved with justice. Our government arms the Israelis, a major contribution to the power imbalance between both parties, and insures the occupier’s military and colonial initiatives and logistics will succeed.
B’Tselem’s May 2013 report on human rights violations during operation “Pillar of Defense” in November 2012 states the Israeli military killed 167 Palestinians, including at least 87 who did not take part in the hostilities, 31 of whom were minors. Should our congress not be concerned with loss of innocent civilian life? Should it not also seek firm answers about whether or not US military aid was used in Pillar of Defense?
This is precisely why the Letter of 15 is a cry for justice to the Congress and to the churches. It requests that our government honor its legal responsibilities to those supplied military aid and to the taxpayers themselves who fund it. The Letter confronts the church to keep bringing that demand forward to the legislators and candidates for office: Have we been faithful to the laws of our land? Will we subject aid to the State of Israel to the same scrutiny we do other countries, and even to domestic aid programs of the Federal government? Will justice and human rights be served on our own end, even as the government calls other countries to do the same in their international relations?
Kairos Palestine issues a challenge to the churches of the world: “Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?” [KP: 6] How do we Christians in North America respond?
Rev. Katherine Cunningham is the moderator of the Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In joyful obedience to the call of Christ, and in solidarity with churches and our other partners in the Middle East, this network covenants to engage, consolidate, nourish, and channel its energy toward the goal of a just peace in Israel /Palestine by facilitating education, promoting partnerships, and coordinating advocacy. Please visit the network’s website at www,theIPMN.org.
Signatories of the Letter of 15:
Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
United Methodist Council of Bishops President Rosemarie Wenner
Peg Birk, transitional General Secretary of the National Council of Churches
Shan Cretin, General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee
J. Ron Byler, Executive Director of the Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Alexander Patico, North American Secretary for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
Diane Randall, Executive Secretary of the Friends Committee on Legislation
A. Roy Medley, General Secretary of American Baptist Churches
Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President of United Church of Christ
Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Julia Brown Karimu, President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Division of Overseas Ministries
James A. Moos, Executive Minister for the United Church of Christ’s Wider Church Ministries
Eli S. McCarthy, Justice and Peace Director for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Kathy McKneely, Acting Director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns