2016-06-30
Here we go again indeed! In this new century, as in the past, it is incumbent upon the ecumenical community not only to repeat its calls for justice and peace but, in light of criticism, to explain the basis for those calls. Upon reading the final statement of our Ecumenical Delegation to Jerusalem, Elliott Abrams has written a challenging article, questioning and criticizing the motivations, expectations, methods, and conclusions of the U.S. church leaders' pastoral visit to Israel and Palestine in December 2000. It is important to correct a number of errors that he makes in his portrayal of our experience.

First, Mr. Abrams correctly notes that a primary purpose of the trip was to "express solidarity with Christian Churches there." The deep bonds between the American and Palestinian churches and their peoples are natural and should be expected, as are those between American Jews and Israeli Jews. Christianity began, after all, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Mr. Abrams then asserts that we "express greater solidarity with the Palestinian Authority and its political goals." This is really quite an illogical leap. While on the trip, there was not a single day that our delegation of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant church leaders did not have extensive engagement with Palestinian Christians and Christian leaders. These were not briefing statements made by government officials but rather people talking about their lives and those of their families neighbors. Each conversation was filled with stories about the extreme duress under which all the Palestinian people live. Such encounters were part of the pastoral nature of the trip.

Mr. Abrams states that we only heard the voices of the Palestinians, based upon his reading of the statement. If a main purpose of the trip was to walk with the Christian churches, then it is only natural that many of our encounters would be with Palestinians, since the overwhelming majority of the Christians in Israel and Palestine are Palestinian Arabs. More to the point, important meetings were held with Israeli Jews, including some rabbis; peace and human rights activists; the mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Ehud Olmert; and officials from the Foreign Ministry of the Israeli government. (Other meetings scheduled with Israeli officials were cancelled because of the turmoil caused by Prime Minister Barak's resignation.) These were opportunities to gain insight into a spectrum of views held by Israeli Jews, and clearly there are major differences! It might be helpful for Mr. Abrams to read our daily reports to get a better sense of these conversations.

With the accusation that "there is no evidence that they met with one single Israeli victim of Palestinian terrorism or violence," Abrams attempts to deflect attention from the fact that 90% of the 350-plus deaths during the events since Sept. 28, and a similar percentage of the thousands of injured, have been Palestinian. Mr. Abrams resorts to blaming the victims, and engaging in dehumanization, by callously charging that the delegation said "nothing about Palestinian use of children in the front lines." We state that "we mourn each precious life lost in the violence of recent weeks" without blaming either the Palestinian or Israeli settler parents for the suffering of their children. Human life is human life, be it Israeli or Palestinian, adult or child. Any parent would weep at such a tremendous loss.

Mr. Abrams claims that "this delegation wants an indefensible Israel with its 1967 borders--but wants it flooded with enough Palestinians under the so-called 'right of return' to be sure the Jewish character of the state would be in jeopardy." We cannot find any part of the statement that makes any such claim. The statement leans upon United Nations resolutions, including those that call for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied militarily during the 1967 war and that affirm that the refugees wishing to return to their homes might do so or receive compensation for property lost in the establishment of Israel in 1948. Such affirmation does in no way imply that we seek to jeopardize the State of Israel. To the contrary, the delegates and their churches see Israel's compliance with these UN resolutions as "the way to Israel's long-term security and acceptance by Arab nations in the region"--a phrase in the statement that Mr. Abrams chose to ignore. In fact, all our churches have recognized Israel's right to exist peacefully within recognized and secure borders. All our churches support this right for others in the region, too, including a future Palestinian state.

By implying that the delegation is an apologist for terrorism, Mr. Abrams baldly attempts to divert attention from the delegation's critique of Israel's disproportionate use of force and the use of attack helicopters against civilians. In their statement, the delegates wrote, "we have heard the fears from both sides and ask each side to hear the other. We reach out with concern to our sisters and brothers in the Israeli Jewish community to caution them that their government's disproportionate use of violence further deteriorates hopes for their aspirations for peace with security. Oppression breeds terrorism. As one Jewish voice said, 'There can be no Palestinian freedom without Israeli security, just as there can be no Israeli security without Palestinian freedom.'" Both Israelis and Palestinians feel oppressed, and both have reacted violently. The fact is that the violent reaction by Israel has been grossly disproportionate and has been condemned by the United Nations and many governments around the world.

The churches of the United States, be they Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, have been critical of Israel, that is true. It often seems to the defenders of those criticized that the churches' call for justice and liberation is based on a specific bias or prejudice, but it is important to remember that these churches have been critical of dictators and military and other oppressive regimes throughout the world, regardless of their faith. The churches have been critical of Arab governments, and have been critical of the PLO/Palestinian Authority, especially in regard to human rights. The oppression of the Palestinian people, however, has merited the kind of serious attention the churches have given it. And the churches will continue to make similar calls for the affirmation of international law and a peace based upon justice and security for all peoples, which alone can bring security and international acceptance of the State of Israel.

It is difficult to give much credence to Mr. Abram's critique of the delegation's trip, since it is based on misinterpretations, error, and ill will. His broader argument is therefore even more dubious. Our hope is that Mr. Abrams, and others like him, would join in our commitment for a just peace for both communities in fulfillment of the common mandate of the three Abrahamic faiths to love our neighbors. We encourage our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers to join us in a prayer vigil until a genuine and lasting peace is achieved.

This statement was signed by Inez Allan Chair, Worldwide Ministries Division Committee Presbyterian Church (USA); Bishop Viken Aykazian, Ecumenical Officer, Armenian Apostolic Church, Diocese of America; The Rev. Herbert Chilstrom, Former Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Donella Clemens, Member, Executive Committee, Mennonite Central Committee; Bishop Dimitrios, Ecumenical Officer, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; The Very Rev. Brother Stephen Glodek, S.M., President, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes; Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister for Justice and Peace Ministries, United Church of Christ; Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee; Bishop William Oden, President, Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church; Bishop Vincent Warner, Diocese of Olympia, The Episcopal Church; The Right Rev. Edmond Browning, Former Presiding Bishop, the Episcopal Church USA; The Rev. Margaret Payne, Bishop, New England Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and the Rev. Theodore F. Schneider, Bishop, Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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