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20 Oct

Efforts to Silence an Appeal for Human Rights

By

President, Arab American Institute; author, ‘Arab Voices’

Posted: 10/20/2012 10:59 am

Two weeks ago, fifteen religious leaders representing major Protestant denominations dared to challenge one of Washington’s most powerful taboos. They wrote a letter (Also see ‘A’ below) urging Congress to investigate whether unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel is contributing to violations of Palestinian human rights.

Noting that U.S. law specifically limits the use of U.S. supplied weapons to countries for “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense” and “prohibits assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations,” the signatories expressed the concern that U.S. law may be being violated by Israel.

It was an impressive group that came together to sign the letter, including Evangelical, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Mennonite, and Methodist church leaders.

The letter, itself, was also quite impressive. It was temperate in tone and extraordinarily balanced in content. The Christian leaders expressed compassion for the “pain and suffering” of Israelis and Palestinians, “the insecurity and fear” that impacts the lives of many Israelis and their right to legitimate self-defense. But they went on to note how the daily lives of Palestinians are marked by the “killing of civilians, home demolitions […] forced displacement and restrictions of Palestinian movement.” After detailing these abuses, the leaders called on Congress to hold hearings to determine the degree to which U.S. assistance is contributing to these Israeli behaviors. They concluded noting that if Israel were found to be in non-compliance with the U.S. human rights provisions, then the law should be enforced and aid should be cut.

The reaction was both hysterical and predictable. Using excessive and abusive language, some major Jewish groups denounced the letter and the churches represented by the signatories, charging them with “participation… in yet another one-sided anti-Israel campaign” and “vicious anti-Zionism” and accusing them of “stony silence to the use of anti-Judaism and relentless attacks on the Jewish state.” The Jewish groups coupled this attack with an announcement that they would boycott a regularly scheduled “Jewish-Christian dialogue” session that was to have met next week. They countered with a call for an inter-faith summit to discuss the pain caused by the letter. Some leaders went so far as to suggest that they might go to friends in Congress and request a hearing into the behavior of the Christian groups.

Now while this flare-up is new, the underlying tensions have been with us for a generation. So too has the bullying behavior of some of the mainstream Jewish organizations.

It was 34 years ago that we formed the Palestine Human Rights Committee (PHRC). The PHRC had as its principle objectives the defense of Palestinian human rights victims and the application of provisions of U.S. law requiring that recipients of U.S. assistance not use that aid to violate human rights. Bringing together Arab Americans, African American civil rights leaders, leaders of the peace movement, and leaders from many of the same Christian churches who signed the recent letter to Congress, the PHRC achieved some success in elevating human rights concerns, but incurred the wrath of some major Jewish organizations. We were subjected to exclusion and defamation. We were denounced as “pro-terrorist” and our efforts to join a major progressive peace coalition were blocked. Despite winning the support of over 90% of the coalition’s members, two Jewish groups threatened to abandon the group if we were allowed to join. The executive committee of the coalition was cowed by these threats and twice rejected our application for membership.

There have been many other examples of this behavior but it all boils down to the same modus operandi: the use of hysterical and exaggerated rhetoric in an effort to intimidate opponents, coupled with the ultimate threat to “take my ball and not play anymore.”

What all these childish and bullying antics attempt to do is to obscure the real issues being raised (in this case, the charge that U.S. aid enables Israel to violate Palestinian human rights in contravention of U.S. law) and to substitute the “pretend” insult (in this case, that the letter signed by the Christian groups is a form of anti-Zionism or anti-Judaism) as the issue that takes precedence and must be discussed first.

The net results of these tactics are: a silencing of any discussion or examination of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; aid to Israel continues to be delivered without questions, oversight, or any conditions; the very meaning of anti-Semitism or, in this recent case, “anti-Judaism” is cheapened and equated not just with criticism of Israeli policy, but even with the mere call to examine that policy; Palestinians continue to suffer; Israelis who support peace and human rights for Palestinians find they have no allies in the U.S. government; and U.S. credibility in the Middle East continues to suffer.

It is, to be sure, bullying. It is counter-productive and damaging to discourse and respect amongst peoples. These tactics have worked in the past. Will it work again? We’ll wait to see how the Christian groups respond, but I, for one, hope that the church leaders stand their ground. They do not owe anyone an apology for their letter. Instead they deserve to be commended by all Americans for their brave and balanced commitment to peace, justice, and human rights.

(A)The full text of the letter, dated Oct. 5:

Dear Member of Congress,

We write to you as Christian leaders representing U.S. churches and religious organizations committed to seeking a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Our organizations have been deeply involved in this pursuit for decades, inspired by the call and promise of Jesus Christ who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In response to our Christian call to be peacemakers, we have worked for decades to support both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being. We have worked alongside our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers to help build a peaceful and resilient Palestinian civil society by supporting hospitals, schools, clinics, and social service agencies. These ministries include cooperative efforts with Israelis and Palestinians as well as with Jews, Muslims, and other neighbors here in the United States. Through our presence in the region, and regular visits to our partners there, we see first-hand the impacts of the conflict on both Palestinians and Israelis and hear from them directly about the reality of their lives.

Through this direct experience we have witnessed the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions and of Palestinians as a result of Israeli actions. In addition to the horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings, we have witnessed the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.

We have also witnessed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others. We recognize that each party—Israeli and Palestinian—bears responsibilities for its actions and we therefore continue to stand against all violence regardless of its source. Our stand against violence is complemented by our commitment to the rights of all Israelis, as well as all Palestinians, to live in peace and security.

It is this experience and these commitments that lead us to write to you today to express our grave concern about the deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace.

Unfortunately, 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. This is made clear in the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, which details widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.

(Weapons in this instance include “crowd control” items such as tear gas. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74) which is included in the US Foreign Military Financing regulations stipulates that “not later than 90 days after enactment of this act and 6 months thereafter, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing any crowd control items, including tear gas, made available with appropriated funds or through export licenses to foreign security forces that the Secretary of State has credible information have repeatedly used excessive force to repress peaceful, lawful, and organized dissent.” )

Accordingly, we urge 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.”

(While this letter focuses on US-Israel relations and the Israel-Palestine conflict, these are laws that we believe should be enforced in all instances regardless of location. All allegations regarding the misuse of US supplied arms should be investigated.)

More broadly, we urge Congress to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace. We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.

In addition to specific rights violations, we see a troubling and consistent pattern of disregard by the government of Israel for U.S. policies that support a just and lasting peace. Specifically, repeated demands by the U.S. government that Israel halt all settlement activity have been ignored. Since 1967, every U.S. administration has decried Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as obstacles to peace. Despite this stance, Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, claiming territory that under international law and U.S. policy should belong to a future Palestinian state. The Oslo peace process, which began in 1993, was publicly promoted as leading Israelis and Palestinians to a just peace based on a two-state solution. Instead, since 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has more than doubled. Rights violations resulting from Israeli settlement activity include separate and unequal legal systems for Palestinians and settlers, confiscation of Palestinian land and natural resources for the benefit of settlers, and violence by settlers against Palestinians.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there has been a dramatic rise in settler attacks against Palestinians this year. They report that these attacks are often intended to drive Palestinians from areas the settlers wish to take over, and that Israeli authorities have failed to take significant action to stop the violence or hold the perpetrators accountable. We believe that these actions directly undermine peace efforts and threaten, rather than support, Israel’s long-term security interests.

We want to be clear that we recognize that Israel faces real security threats and that it has both a right and a duty to protect both the state and its citizens. However, the measures that it uses to protect itself and its citizens, as in the case with any other nation, must conform to international humanitarian and human rights law.

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.

We request, therefore, that Congress hold Israel accountable to these standards by making the disbursement of U.S. military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies.

As Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II, it is especially critical for Israel to comply with the specific U.S. laws that regulate the use of U.S.-supplied weapons. We also encourage Congress to support inclusive, comprehensive, and robust regional diplomacy to secure a just and lasting peace that will benefit Israelis, Palestinians, and all the peoples of the region, and the world.

With respect and gratitude, we offer you our prayers.

In addition to Parsons, the letter was signed by 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.; and Alexander Patico, North American secretary for the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

Also, Diane Randall, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on Legislation; American Baptist Churches General Secretary A. Roy Medley; United Church of Christ General Minister and President Geoffrey A. Black; the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Division of Overseas Ministries; the Rev. 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; and Kathy McKneely, acting director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

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