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October 10, 2012 3:59 am

To Counter Christian anti-Israelism, It’s Time to go Local

avatar by Dexter Van Zile

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The UMC Church in Watertown.

Every year it seems that they put the Christmas decorations into the stores earlier and earlier. When I was a kid, you wouldn’t see the decorations until after Thanksgiving, but these days you can see them just about everywhere a few days after Halloween.

Thanksgiving is almost skipped altogether. The kids like to see the decorations when they are first put up, but by the end of the season, they are exhausted with the holiday.

A similar process is taking place in American mainline churches. Preparations for the debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict that takes place every summer at the national gatherings of these churches used to start sometime in the spring.

Not this year. Preparations for next summer’s mainline assemblies began in early October – last Friday to be exact – when officials from five denominations sent a letter to a lame duck Congress asking that it examine foreign aid sent to Israel.

The letter, issued late in the day on Oct. 5, urges Congress to start “an immediate investigation into the possible violations” of federal laws that 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 letter goes on to urge Congress “to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine the prospects for peace” and urges Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance with U.S. law and to examine whether or not Israel should continue to get aid.

The letter, signed by 15 Christian leaders, including representatives from the National Council of Churches and a number of mainline Protestant denominations, provoked angry and articulate responses from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Rabbis (RA). The JCPA was spot-on when it said the letter represents an escalation in anti-Israel activity.

Taken together these statements make all the relevant points – that the letter singles Israel out for condemnation, ignores human rights abuses elsewhere in the region and exhibits a troubling antipathy toward the Jewish state. The RA points out that the letter was “released on the eve of Shabbat, just before a long weekend of Jewish and American holidays. And it was distributed at a time when Congress is out of session, in the midst of a general election campaign.”

That is remarkable, isn’t it? The letter was sent to a lame-duck Congress whose members were out campaigning! It is also remarkable that the letter was not precipitated by any event in the news. It makes no reference to any specific outrage or tragedy, but instead speaks in global terms about the deaths of civilians, home demolitions, settler violence and other problems all of which are highlighted to undermine U.S. financial support for Israel. There is simply no news hook for this letter.

What is going on?

Enter CMEP

Interestingly enough, the letter dovetails quite nicely with the recent electioneering efforts of Churches for Middle East Peace, or CMEP for short. CMEP, a group supported in large part by mainline churches, lobbies Congress, the State Department and the White House. The organization states that it promotes the cause of peace, but ultimately, the organization behaves as a pro-Palestinian lobby in Washington, D.C.

It’s too strong to say it works as an adjunct to the PLO Mission in our nation’s capitol, but not by much. In years past, when Corinne Whitlach, an inveterate anti-Israel activist led the organization, it recycled Palestinian accusations that Israel was trying to undermine the Al Aqsa Mosque. Accusations like this have gotten people killed.

These days, under the leadership of former State Department Ambassador Warren Clark, the organization is much more circumspect and focuses a lot of its attention on protecting foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. In this statement, CMEP says cutting aid “to the Palestinian government and people is detrimental to Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. interests alike.”

And in its most recent electioneering material, CMEP asks its supporters to send a letter to their U.S. Representatives and Senators that reads in part as follows:

As a Christian and supporter of Churches for Middle East Peace, I am concerned about the uncertainty of U.S. aid to Palestinians in the budget and how some lawmakers want to use the funds to score political points. Last year, several politicians supported cutting this funding for humanitarian aid, development and security to punish the Palestinians for pursuing recognition in the United Nations. Do you support continued aid to Palestinians at reasonable levels and what conditions do you think are appropriate to maintain aid to Palestinians in future budgets?

Do you see what’s going on?

The CMEP letter sent to Congress via its supporters protects Palestinian funding.

The letter sent to Congress by leaders of mainline churches – which support CMEP – attacks Israeli funding.

You can draw your own conclusions about whether or not there is any coordination going on, but the double standard is obvious. One could just as easily ask that Congress investigate the Palestinian Authority, which receives substantial support from American taxpayers, for violations of the laws that mainline Protestants are invoking.

Setting the stage

There is more going on here than partisan electioneering, however. The letter is also a signal that the Israel will be on the agenda at next year’s national gatherings of three mainline churches – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ.

To understand what’s going on, we need some background, so here goes:

Every summer a few of the mainline churches have their national assemblies at which they typically fight over gay marriage (or ordination) and over how to reorganize their denominational bureaucracies in the face of declining membership. The churches are shrinking, so are budgets. Somebody has to lose his or her job; the only question is who. It’s a deeply political and painful process that takes place at these national gatherings.

As a distracting palliative, these churches also talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or more to the point, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has caused the deaths of several thousand people since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000. The discussion surrounds resolutions or reports introduced to the denominations’ membership sometime in the spring. The impetus for these resolutions is a stated desire to stay in solidarity with Palestinian Christians, most of whom live in the West Bank and blame Israel for their suffering.

The crucial factor is that these Christians blame the Jewish state for their suffering. Just as Jews have historically been the low-cost, no-cost target of defamation and abuse, so is their homeland.

By way of comparison, Muslim oppression against Christians in Muslim-majority countries simply does not merit attention from these churches. In the past two summers, violence against Copts in Egypt and Assyrian Christians in Iraq has largely gone unnoticed at mainline assemblies, as has violence against Christians in Nigeria.

Signs of Spring

In any event, the release of these reports or resolutions, which assail the Jewish state and remain silent about the sins of its adversaries, are a sure sign that spring has arrived and that summer of anti-Israel discontent will soon follow.

These resolutions (or “overtures” as the Presbyterians call them), are as perennial as the grass. Once these resolutions start appearing on denominational websites, you can rest assured that a few months later, mainline “peace” activists will be queuing up at microphones at convention centers throughout the country in support of a resolution portraying the Arab-Israeli conflict as the great insuperable wound on humanity that requires all good people to engage in a campaign of economic isolation against the Jewish state.

Before the resolutions make it to the floor of the assembly, Jewish peace activists testify in committee hearings to reassure delegates that singling Israel out for condemnation is not anti-Semitic (perish the thought!) and that there are Jews who support the distorted, whack-job narrative offered by the “peace” activists in their church. (Forgive me. “Whack-job” is not in my AP Style Manual, but it seems appropriate.)

Activists who have visited Gaza and the West Bank then complain about the evils of the occupation and argue that the suffering of the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust does not justify the oppression of the Palestinians decades later. They talk of the hospitality they have enjoyed at Palestinian dinner tables and how evil the Israeli soldiers are. The role of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah play in fomenting violence against Israel and Jews is ignored and the theological roots of Islamist hostility toward Israel are not discussed.

Pro-Israel activists, who generally play a game of defense against the anti-Israel resolutions, oppose the passage of these resolutions, with good effect. The craziest anti-Israel resolutions don’t make it out of committee, but some of the more “reasonable” resolutions get passed while the suffering of Christians in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia goes ignored.

After the assemblies end a new fight begins in which people argue about what actually happened and what it means. Then activist groups like Sabeel conduct their fall tours and use their recent success, however muted, to encourage the faithful and recruit new members to their cause. The pro-Israel activists continue in their game of defense and try to convince the leaders of the denominational headquarters in places like Louisville, New York or Chicago to rein in the anti-Israel activism. It doesn’t work.

Things are quiet until Advent, which brings with it a blip of anti-Israel activism as anti-Israel activists start portraying the poor, pitiful Palestinians as the modern-day equivalent of Mary and Joseph who are unable to find a place to give birth to the infant Jesus because of the misdeeds of an evil, oppressive empire.

To take advantage of this blip, CMEP regularly issues Advent related materials to highlight Palestinian problems while ignoring the failings of Palestinian leaders. It does the same thing for Lent, in the weeks prior to Easter.

The anti-Israel activism kicks into high-gear after Easter, however, when regional or state assemblies or conferences of the mainline churches meet and submit resolutions about the conflict to their national assemblies. Some resolutions call for the church to declare Israel an apartheid state, others call for a boycott of products made in the West Bank and yet others call upon the churches to sell their stock in companies like Caterpillar. The texts of these resolutions are posted on the denominational websites and the cycle begins again.

As a result of this cumulative process, a boycott of goods made in the West Bank is gathering steam.

The process is hugely divisive and damaging to the collective lives of the churches that embrace it and as a result, some churches have taken a breather from anti-Israel activism. This is done through skillful stage managing on the part of denomination leaders who want to keep their churches from fighting over yet another divisive issue at their national assemblies.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) never seems to tire from the fight, but a few churches, like the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have kept a lid on the anti-Israelism in their churches for the past few years.

In light of this relative quiescence, the signatures from the leaders of the UCC, ELCA and the Disciples of Christ on this letter are remarkable.

Their call to investigate Israeli human rights violations gives peace activists in these churches the pretext they need to recount – at next summer’s assemblies – all of the “terrible things” that Israel has done – without having to recount or acknowledge the mistakes the Palestinians have made.

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask some questions of the anti-Israel activists who drive this process and the denominational leaders who stage manage it.

Where are the letters calling on Congress to withhold funds from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip? (Hint: There aren’t any.)

Where are the letters from these churches calling on the PA to put a stop to anti-Israel incitement on TV stations run by Fatah and Hamas? (Hint: There aren’t any. In fact, CMEP is working to ensure the money keeps flowing into the PA and by extension, to Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.)

And while we’re at it, where are the letters calling on Congress to investigate how another recipient of U.S. aid – Egypt – has failed to protect the rights of Coptic Christians in the land of their birth? (Do I have to say it? There aren’t any.)

George Orwell would call the people who engage in this type of peacemaking functionally pro-Islamist, but that type of logic just does not compute with the people who run these churches. They have been living in a bubble of their own making for so long that they feel invulnerable to any factual or logical challenge to the story they’ve been telling.

It is time to pierce this bubble at its most vulnerable point – local churches. Just as the CMEP has encouraged anti-Israel activists to put their legislators on the spot about the funding they provide to Israel, it is time for people to put local churches on the spot for the funding they provide to the ongoing campaign of defamation of the Jewish state.

It is the local churches that pay the salaries of the people who write these letters and support institutions such as CMEP, which as I stated before, has called upon its supporters to write letters to local newspapers challenging lawmakers about their stand on American aid to the Palestinians.

It is time to write letters to the local newspapers that put local churches, their pastors, their deacons, elders or presbyters on the spot about the story their denominations tell about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Do they support the ongoing attack on Israel that has been perpetrated by their church leaders, and extremists in their denomination for most of the past decade?

Do they support the ugly double standard their denominations have applied to the conflict? Do they support the demonization of Israel?

If they do not, then what are they going to do to rein in the so-called peace activists that have hijacked their denominations?

What are they going to do to hold their denominational leaders accountable?

These are legitimate questions that need to be presented to congregants and leaders of local churches in the months ahead.

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