How debate is choked by the pro-Israel lobby

James Zogby reviews Israel’s discriminatory behaviour towards Palestinian Christians and Muslims and non-orthodox Jews

Christian worshipers light candles inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Mussa Qawasma / Reuters
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This week, nearing the end of four years of service as an Obama presidential appointee to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, I felt compelled to issue a public dissent to the commission’s annual report.

While the larger part of my dissent dealt with the way the commission does its work, what moved me to go public was the refusal of some commissioners to allow even a consideration of religious freedom in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

I did not bring this matter before the commission. It was brought to our attention by two letters urging us to consider Israel’s discriminatory behaviour towards Palestinian Christians and Muslims and non-orthodox Jews. The first of these was signed by leaders representing 11 major US religious communities and 34 Christian groups from the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

Their letter noted that the commission had “never reported on religious freedom in Israel and the occupied territories” calling it a “conspicuous gap”. They argued that Israel has established “the dominant privileged position of Jewish Israelis in a manner that discriminated against the Christian and Muslim Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories ... while also negatively affecting non-orthodox and secular Jews.” The letter closed by urging the commission to conduct “a comprehensive review of religious freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, consistent with the principles it has established with respect to other states”.

The commission also received a letter from the chair and president of Hiddush, “an organisation of Israeli and North American Jewish leaders ... who work to promote religious freedom and diversity in Israel”. Their letter cited a broad range of concerns, including the “freedom to worship” and “discrimination in state funding for religious services”. It requested that the commission “conduct a serious review of religious freedom issues in Israel”.

While I was troubled that a slim majority of commissioners voted against both requests, more disturbing was the way the debate took place. The level of vehemence was so great that it was clear that there could be no rational discussion of this issue. Some commissioners expressed concern that if we were to conduct a review of Israeli policy it would consume the commission in endless debate.

The upshot was that these appeals were dismissed and the commission was, in effect, bullied into silence. This was not the first time during my tenure that the commission rejected an appeal of this sort. In 2014, we were visited by the Roman Catholic bishop of Jerusalem. He raised four concerns: the impact of the wall that Israel was building to separate its settlements from Palestinians, citing its impact on a Catholic convent and monastery; the hardships imposed on Palestinians as a result of Israel’s refusal to allow family unification in East Jerusalem; restrictions on the freedom of movement of clergy; and Israel’s efforts to create a “Christian ID” that would divide the Palestinian citizens of Israel by religion.

He was treated so harshly by some commissioners that he left the meeting shaken by the hostility he had encountered. When I raised his concerns later, I was asked why I was singling Israel out for criticism. I said I couldn’t accept that Israel could not be criticised.

By refusing to examine Israeli behaviour, the commission is not only insulting the major faith leaders who wrote to us, it is also saying to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and non-orthodox or secular Jews in Israel that their freedoms and rights do not matter. In addition, the commission’s silence contributes to Israel’s sense of impunity and exposes it to the charge of having a double standard: that it will criticise every other country, but never Israel. In fact, much of the behaviour we cite in our criticisms of other countries – for example, Turkey in Cyprus or Russia in Crimea – is replicated by Israel in the occupied territories.

In this context, it is important to consider the findings of the annual Pew study of religious freedom in countries around the world. In its most recent study, Pew gives Israel the world’s fifth worst score on its “social hostilities index”. On Pew’s “government restriction index”, Israel’s score is worse than many of the countries the commission examines in its annual report.

The charge that the commission has a double standard particularly undermines its ability to effectively advocate religious freedom in other countries, the leaders of which can ignore the substance of the critique of their record and instead dismiss the commission as hypocritical.

Given this, I decided to make my dissent public because I value religious freedom and cannot turn a blind eye to any victim community and because I know that the commission’s refusal to be balanced in its assessment of religious freedom concerns reduces its stature and calls into question its credibility.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa