How should we respond to a letter signed by 15 leaders of Christian churches on Oct 5, 2012, calling for Congress to reconsider giving aid to Israel because of accusations of human rights violations (see New York Times article published: Oct 20, 2012)?
[Administrator's note: This question seems again quite relevant in light of the vote by the Presbyterian Church USA to divest from companies doing business with Israel in June 2014.]
This is but one of a long list of examples where a group of, at best, misinformed people singles out Israel for opprobrium, selecting specific statistics to conform to a bizarre world-view which totally obscures and obfuscates the reality of Israel’s existence. Comparing Israel’s defensive actions to Palestinian terror that aims to kill and maim as many people as possible and totally ignoring the context of such Israeli measures, as this letter does, is simply obscene. The fact that such people seem to only emerge to condemn Israel while remaining silent over massacres of thousands committed by Syria, Sudan and China, the trampling of human rights by US aid recipients such as Egypt, Pakistan and Russia (yes, look it up) or the occupation by Turkey of Cyprus, etc. etc. etc. only strengthens the supposition that the attacks on Israel stem from the new/old illness of Jew Obsession and its more poisonous disorders. (For more thorough treatments of the topsy-turvy world we inhabit, please check out such sites as www.camera.org and www.honestreporting.com.)
Before one of you gets all up in arms, yes, I know that criticizing Israel does not make one into an anti-Semite, that Israel is surely not perfect (show me any nation or person that is) and that reasonable people can disagree over certain Israeli actions, but such letters cross the lines of rational discourse. Of course, this is nothing new for us Jews-there have always been people opposed to what we stand for, applying immoral double standards to our actions. We do believe that we have to live at a higher standard, and should be open to criticism, but I challenge anyone to objectively compare Israel’s behavior to any other nation on earth and find me a more moral country (i.e. how many other countries drop thousands of leaflets and make thousands of phone calls to warn civilians to move before bombing terrorist infrastructure, such as Israel does?).
Nevertheless, calling these Orwellian Church leaders or others of their ilk Jew or Israel haters, or just ignoring them is not the way to go. If we are to be successful in changing the narrative and highlighting what a role model Israel truly is for all nations, we must engage in serious debate and dialogue. On a global level, we must respond to all the misinformation about Israel, but also be proactive in emphasizing the tremendous, life-affirming accomplishments of Israel. On a local level, nothing can replace relationships, so we must reach out to such Church leaders and others who take these skewed views, and invite them to learn together about Israel over a low-fat, double espresso caramel latte. Clearly, that means that we have to educate ourselves and be well-informed about Israel and the often impossible choices it must make between protecting its own citizens and neutralizing the constant threats against her.
On a rational level, there is no explanation to the delegitimization of Israel by so many, but we must try, through a combination of exposing the facts and personal outreach, to effect small changes, which over time will hopefully transform the world’s worldview. Thankfully, the American public stands solidly behind Israel and such Church leaders are unrepresentative of their views. With help from God, without whom the miracle of Israel wouldn’t exist, more and more people around the world, especially those who fashion themselves as liberal, will be able to distinguish between fact and fashion, and right and wrong when it comes to Israel.
A sense of frustration is almost inevitable when supporters of Israel are faced with task of trying to influence institutions into changing their policy when these institutions seem to be operating under innumerable misconceptions. When these misconceptions are held to be self-evident truths, the daunting task to try to correct them becomes nearly impossible. Given this state of affairs, the tendency to give up on the project is understandable. But the prophet Isaiah (62:1) reminds us that: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet.” In that support for Israel – or its absence – is an existential issue, it may even be argued that remaining silent is a violation of the commandment not to stand idly by while your neighbor’s life is at risk (Leviticus 19:16). While discussions with other religious bodies is the task of Jewish organizations better suited to that purpose, every Jew should be personally involved in setting the record straight by writing letters to the editor, organizing petitions, or simply speaking to friends and colleagues who will, in turn, speak to their respective religious leaders. The BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanction) campaign against Israel, after all, has been driven by a tiny minority of activists who have hijacked every union meeting or student government they can and then leverage those small successes into greater influence. Jewish tradition has always emphasized the transformative power of truth. Disseminating the truth cleverly and persistently is what the moment demands of us.
If you scan the JVO questions related to Israel you will find several variations on this theme. The general question regarding the appropriate boundaries in discussing Israel – as a private individual or as a community leader, as one concerned about aspects of Israel's policies or as one disturbed by the public pronouncements of others – can be complicated. The questions and responses found elsewhere on the JVO site will be instructive.
The NYTimes article you refer to can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/us/church-appeal-on-israel-angers-jewish-groups.html ). The statement by the 15 church leaders is particularly disturbing because it seems, according to news reports, to have also broken a long-standing conversation that existed between these leaders and various national Jewish leaders. I gather, without any direct knowledge, that there was a sense of betrayal felt by some Jewish leaders when this statement appeared.
Your question suggests that you are not a community leader who bears a particular obligation to represent the Jewish point-of-view to the general public, and I will frame my response on that assumption.
I believe there are a few avenues of action open to any concerned Jew.
Education begins at home – I understand the anger that one might feel about a statement such as this, but effective responses are based on knowledge more than emotion. So the most basic step is to be clear on your own grasp of the relevant facts. Continued reading, conversation and study on the situation of Israel and her neighbors is essential if one wishes to be heard in the public arena.
Community action – There are any number of agencies who work to present Israel's case to the American public. Your active support for any of these organizations that match your concerns and outlook allows you to have a voice in the public debate.
Political support for Israel – It is certainly possible and responsible to counter this appeal to Congress with one's own appeal. Calling your own congressional representative and signing on to any petitions (if they exist) supporting continued aid to Israel and/or a repudiation of this letter is an effective way to participate in this debate.
Dialogue – We have seen evidence in similar instances that the leaders may not reflect the beliefs of their followers. There were many local contacts made between the Jewish community and the Presbyterian Church USA regarding their move toward divestment, and the effect of local dialogue was decisive in the narrow vote to defeat the resolution. The continued honest dialogue between individuals can have a dramatic effect.
Confrontation – There are times when confrontation is crucial. The Torah describes a process for rebuke when one steps over a line of misconduct. The rules are complex, because you bear a similar responsibility not to shame the offender. Nonetheless it can be helpful to speak directly to the offender and to let them know in what ways their concerns have crossed the line. Would such an approach, change the mind of these leaders? Perhaps not in the short term, but it may serve to open direct or indirect lines of communication for the longer term. It also puts the disagreement into the public eye, encouraging others to take a stand.
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