The showdown started earlier this year when two mainstream Protestant denominations, Presbyterian and Methodist, discussed but ultimately rejected the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel. Few doubted that strong condemnation of Israeli behavior would again be raised—and that day arrived on October 5, when fifteen Christian denominations delivered a strongly-worded letter to Congress on Israeli human rights violations. Because of these violations, the letter pointed out, Israel was probably in violation of the US Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits sale of arms to human rights violators.
The letter-writers appended a well-documented account of Israeli human rights violations, and made it clear what they wanted: “We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance [with the laws], and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.” In other words, the denominations—which included the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church and the United Methodists—want Israel to follow the same laws as everybody else, and wants the US to document any refusal to comply. If Israel continues to violate Palestinian human rights, military aid would be ended.
The American Jewish Committee declared itself “outraged” at this modest proposal; and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman predictably declared in classic Foxman-ese that the letter had done “serious damage to mutual respect.” (Foxman’s definition of respect evidently applies only to those who agree with him.) But the faux outrage comes a little late, because there hasn’t been any real interfaith dialogue between Christian and Jewish leaders for some time now. How can you have dialogue when one party declares that the most important issue is permanently off the table?
Much of the blame for this unseemly situation can be summed up in the single word, “impunity.” The so-called ‘international community’ has sat on its collective backsides while the IDF has continued slow ethnic cleansing in the Territories, using settler theft and violence, torture and indefinite detention. Similarly, the US Israel Lobby has been able to get away with tactics that lowered the level of civil discourse and ruined a fair number of lives and careers. This impunity from normal standards is caused mainly by the West’s guilt about the Holocaust; but the West—in a spectacular demonstration of its patented imperial hypocrisy—has managed to compound its own worst crime.
By not holding Israel to the same standards as everybody else, it has created a situation that empowered the most demagogic and rightwing elements, both in Israel and in the US. Netahyahu’s far-right Likud party is now merging with the venomously racist Israel Beiteinu party, consolidating the power of proto-fascist ideology in the Israeli political class. These toxic ideas have percolated down to its proxies in the American Israel Lobby, which accounts in part for its undemocratic behavior, semi-hysterical tone and irrational demands. It is both defined and driven by Likud demagoguery.
The rightwing Israeli leaders have carefully kept the excruciating trauma of the Holocaust alive in Israel by constantly referring to it. They have managed to create the idea among both US and Israeli Jews that every objection to Israeli behavior is based on a desire to destroy the Jewish people. Thus both Israelis and their proxies in the US Israel Lobby have come to feel that any contradiction of their wishes is based on a subtle plan to engineer a new Holocaust. Furthermore, there has been a crisis of faith among Jews. Where was God when six million innocent Jews perished in Hitler’s gas chambers? There is a widespread feeling among Jews, even those that don’t like to talk about it, that God is in a kind of eclipse. Thus the state of Israel comes easily to fill the space left by an absent God, and the feeling of God’s closeness has been replaced by religious nationalism and the collective emotional experience of newfound national power.
Considering what happened to Jews in the past, there is nothing wrong with Jews wanting power—they need it to protect themselves. The problem is that power in Israel/Palestine is based on a form of systemic evil, in which the democratic privilege of Israeli Jews is denied to Palestinians. Furthermore, with the growth of a proto-fascist state ideology, there are increasing religious attacks accompanied by an unwillingness to allow Muslims to administer their own sacred sites, typified by the shameful Israeli disinterment of Muslim remains in Jerusalem’s Mamilla Cemetery. It is Israel’s misfortune that the proto-fascist ideology of its political class causes them to egregiously violate religious sites that should be the pride of all three Abrahmic faiths—worse, it seems to demonstrate clearly that its current leaders have no desire to integrate their nation into the Middle East, but seek rather to insult and dominate it.
We’ve seen this movie earlier in the 20th century, but with a political plot and a different cast of characters. In 1918 many intellectuals saw the Russian Revolution as the hope of the world—but over time they came slowly to see that their dream was becoming a nightmare. Something similar has happened with Israel. The difference is that followers of Marxism-Leninism never had much power in the US, whereas the pressure groups than constitute the US Israel Lobby have enormous economic and political resources. And underlying their frequently irrational allegations is a tragic and unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust, which is often acted out in highly aggressive and self-destructive ways.
It is natural for some people to be obsessively devoted to events in other countries, of course. Irish-Americans have long done it; the Bangladeshis and Filipinos in my extended families do the same. On the other hand, there would be a real danger if they began to form political “factions” in the US, as Alexander Hamilton warned us. Even George Washington warned his listeners in his Farewell Address about “[s]ympathy for a favorite nation facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest where no interest exists.” I’ve never heard a better description of the Israel Lobby.
First, the Lobby doesn’t represent a government that is admirable and democratic, but a government that continues to subject racial and religious minorities to a brutal and unremitting repression. Secondly, there is a sovereignty problem. By giving money to a majority of our elected Congresspersons through its proxies to vote as Netanyahu tells them to, Israel interferes in American politics and violates our nation’s sovereignty.
It a 2006 essay in Commentary magazine, from which I take the Washington quote above, Gabriel Schoenfeld argued that dual loyalties might be permissible if a group’s foreign loyalties were acted out “in terms of standards that had universal currency among all their fellow citizens—the spread of democracy through the world, the self-determination of nations, international action for peace, the desirability of aiding small peoples against great oppressors.” And that is precisely the argument against the Israel Lobby: the current Israeli government violates those standards on a daily basis. It is wrong for interfering in our political process, but it is also wrong because its rampant immorality violates and offends the consensus values of most Americans.
Lawrence Swaim writes a regular column on religion, politics and the culture wars for InFocus News, a Muslim newspaper in California. The column is written from a Christian or Interfaith point of view. Lawrence Swaim is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation, which defends the rights of religious minorities and advocates religious liberty for all. If you liked this column, read Swaim’s latest book, The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, published by Circle Books.