Ever since Israel won the 1967 Mideast war and expanded its borders, it has faced calls from some Christian churches to cede back land to the displaced Palestinians.
But 10 months of continuing violence in the Holy Land are further raising tensions between Jewish and mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders in the United States.
As deaths mount and the Mideast peace process grinds to a near-halt, these churches are stepping up criticism of Israeli policy and military tactics. The Christian leaders have been careful to condemn violence by Palestinians too, but Jewish leaders say the criticism has been unbalanced, falling too heavily on Israel.
At least 492 Palestinians, 129 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September after peace talks stalled. Persistent Palestinian attacks on Israel have been met with Israeli government crackdowns.
In the last several months, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches has accused Israel of a "pattern of discrimination, routine humiliation, segregation and exclusion" of Palestinians, and the "disproportionate use of military force."
Meanwhile, a delegation of ranking mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders in the United States met privately with Secretary of State Colin Powell last month and urged the Bush administration to hold up the sale of attack helicopters and jet fighters to Israel. They also asked Powell to consider economic pressure to force Israel to halt the building and expansion of Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank and Gaza areas.
The nation's Roman Catholic bishops recently issued what was seen by Jewish leaders as an even-handed appeal for peace. The bishops declared that Palestinians "rightly insist" on an end to Israel's 30-year "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, while Israelis "rightly see the failure of Palestinians to demonstrate full respect for Israel's right to exist and flourish within secure borders."
Reform Rabbis Criticize Settlements
Meanwhile, Reform rabbis in the United States--long wary of Israel's expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza--last month declared at their national convention in Monterey that the settlements "erect serious impediments to peace." The rabbis also called on the Palestinian Authority to denounce the use of force.
The tensions have "heightened and sharpened," said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor of the American Jewish Committee.
The Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director of Church World Service and a member of the delegation that visited Powell, agreed. The often-shocking violence in the Middle East has put "some real strain" on interfaith relations, he said.
The American Jewish Committee called the Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestant criticism a "deep disappointment." The committee called the presentation, underscored in a letter the delegation presented to Powell, "an unbalanced perspective on the conflict."
Rabbi David Rosen, director of international interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, charged that Christians visiting Powell made "no condemnation . . . of the violent abuse of and perversion of religion contained in the encouragement and blessing of suicide terrorism by extremist Islamic leaders."
This week, the Christians wrote back, saying they had "consistently condemned" violence by both sides. In a letter to Rosen, the Rev. Canon Brian J. Grieves of the Episcopal Church also disputed Rosen's view that Israel has reacted to Palestinian provocation with "remarkable and perhaps unparalleled restraint."
Grieves, who joined a June 6 protest at the United Nations against Israeli occupation and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, told Rosen, "It has also been clear that Israel's capability and willingness to punish Palestinian acts have been disproportionate and excessive."
Mainline Protestants also say they cannot ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians, many of whom are emigrating from the land of Jesus' birth because of violence and economic hardships.
Televangelist Denounces Arafat
Israel is not without support among American Christians, particularly evangelicals. This month while on a visit to Israel, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson strongly defended Israeli military attacks on suspected terrorists and sharply criticized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"He no longer should be considered a legitimate partner for Israel," Robertson said. "It is incumbent on [Palestinians] to choose a leader who is responsible and not dedicated to terror."
The Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestant leaders who wrote to Powell represent about 25 million U.S. members. They included leaders of the United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox, African Methodist Episcopal, American Baptist, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches.
"Few things have done more to destroy the hope and pursuit of peace through negotiations than Israel's unrelenting settlement activity," they wrote. "While we condemn the violent words and actions of Palestinians, we understand the rage that comes from decades of occupation, dislocation and the feeling of having been betrayed by the peace process."
They added that they understood Israel's need for security but condemned the "disproportionately violent and destructive means it is using."
Rosen said Christian churches are responding to appeals by coreligionists in Jerusalem, who he said are being pressured by Palestinian Muslims to join the cause. He said churches in the Holy Land are "caught between the hammer and the anvil."
Some Christians in the U.S. and the Middle East reject such a view.
"To treat Palestinian Christians as a purely religious community without any legitimate national aspirations or distinct culture dehumanizes them," Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told U.S. Catholic bishops last month in Atlanta.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said criticism of Israel by mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches has traditionally been "very harsh."
He said they remained silent when Arafat turned down a landmark offer by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David that would have given Palestinians 95% of what they wanted.
"If you look carefully at the time the Camp David accords collapsed, when Arafat said no, you will not see Protestant Christian leaders of these same churches fault Arafat for that collapse. He set peace back decades," Hier said.
Criticism of Israel is likely to continue. Next month the World Council of Churches will hold an international ecumenical consultation in Geneva to carry out the organization's recommendations. Among the ideas is placing an ecumenical observer team in the Holy Land to obtain first-hand information on abuses.
Little Impact on U.S. Policy Expected
Jewish leaders as well as some Christians believe that protests by American mainline Protestants and Orthodox clergy will have minimal impact on U.S. policy. For example, the Bush administration has not halted deliveries of attack helicopters and jet fighters to Israel.
Moreover, although national church leaders are speaking out, how much of their message is reaching the pews is questionable. "I don't think it's gotten to the grass-roots, where the people are," said the Rev. Said Ailabouni, program director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's division of global missions.
The Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic member of Congress from Pennsylvania and now general-secretary of the National Council of Churches, agreed. He said mainline Protestants and Orthodox are "weak" in leveraging their partnerships to influence public policy.
"Clearly, when I was a member of Congress, there were only a few examples where religious communities had an impact. . . . The Jewish community was the best organized, but many mainline churches were all over the map."