A group of US Protestant church leaders asked a polite question about US aid to Israel. The result was hysteria and vilification.
US Christians come to Palestinians' aid, and pay the price
Two weeks ago, 15 religious leaders representing major Protestant denominations challenged one of Washington's most powerful taboos. They wrote a letter urging Congress to investigate whether unconditional US military assistance to Israel is contributing to violations of Palestinian human rights.
Noting that US law specifically limits the use of US supplied weapons to countries for "internal security" or "legitimate self-defence" and "prohibits assistance to any country that engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations", the signatories expressed the concern that this US law may be being violated.
It was an impressive group that came together to sign the letter, including Evangelical, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Mennonite and Methodist 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 affects the lives of many Israelis and their right to legitimate self-defence.
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 US assistance is contributing to these Israeli behaviours. They concluded that if Israel were found to be in noncompliance with US 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".
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 interfaith 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 behaviour of the Christian groups.
The flare-up is new but the underlying tensions have been with us for a generation. So too has the bullying behaviour of some of the mainstream Jewish organisations.
It was 34 years ago that the Palestine Human Rights Committee (PHRC) was formed. The PHRC had as its principle objectives the defence of Palestinian human rights victims and the application of provisions of US law, requiring that recipients of US assistance not use that aid to violate human rights.
In bringing together Arab Americans, African-American civil rights leaders 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 it incurred the wrath of major Jewish organisations. The group was denounced as "pro-terrorist" and its efforts to join a major progressive peace coalition were blocked.
There have been many other examples of this behaviour 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 US aid enables Israel to violate Palestinians' human rights in contravention of US 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 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 US government; and US credibility in the Middle East continues to suffer. It is, to be sure, bullying.
This bullying is divisive and damaging to discourse and respect among peoples.
But these tactics have worked in the past. Will they work again?
We'll have to wait and see how the Christian groups respond, but I 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.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa