by Mitchell Plitnick
James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, is about to wrap up his tenure on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He is not leaving quietly.
Zogby, who was appointed to two terms on the commission by former President Barack Obama, sent a stunning letter to the commission, expressing his dissent from the latest report as well as his dissatisfaction with the way the commission goes about its business. New congressional legislation, he writes, “does not propose a new strategy. Instead, it doubles down on the failed approaches of the past. Micro-managing how the Administration organizes its foreign policy apparatus; establishing a false hierarchy of human rights; adding new staff, creating new mandates, and requiring more reporting – will not make change. These measures will only serve to add confusion to an already dysfunctional system.”
A major flaw that Zogby highlighted in his letter of departure was the commission’s refusal to address issues of religious freedom in the Israel. At a press conference presenting these issues on Wednesday, Zogby repeatedly stated that the USCIRF’s double standard when it comes to Israel both undermines its credibility when it criticizes other countries and sends the message that those who face religious discrimination from Israel—citizens as well as Palestinians living under Israeli occupation—do not merit having their rights defended.
“It doesn’t serve Israel for us to be silent,” Zogby said. “It doesn’t serve the cause of religious freedom and it doesn’t serve the victims (of discrimination). If the commission can’t be responsive to these issues, then what’s the point of it?”
Numerous Requests for Investigation of Israel Rejected
Despite requests from 11 religious communities and 34 Christian groups in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—and even one from a leading Israeli religious freedom organization—the USCIRF refused to consider reporting on religious freedom within Israel and the areas it occupies, according to the Arab American Institute, which Zogby heads.
The Israeli NGO Freedom of Religion in Israel (Hiddush) had independently requested that the commission look at Israel’s discriminatory practices. Hiddush’s Board Chair, Stanley Gold, and its president, Rabbi Uri Regev, noted that the issue in Israel is a political one, and asked for the commission to examine the issue in light of the US State Department’s own report on the matter.
In order to further examine the findings of that report, Gold and Regev requested that the USCIRF “conduct a serious review of religious freedom issues in Israel–those that impact non-Orthodox Jews and those that impact all Israelis. We would ask that the standards and principles used to monitor religious freedom issues throughout the world be used as you study and review these issues in Israel.”
Yet, despite these requests, USCIRF declined to investigate the status of religious freedom in Israel. Zogby and Father Drew Christiansen, of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, both relayed accounts of similar efforts having failed in the past.
Zogby and Christiansen pointed out that those who raised this issue were often asked why they were “singling out” Israel. Zogby’s response was that he was trying to treat Israel like every other country, and it was actually those who refused to respond to requests for investigation that were treating Israel in a unique manner.
A Critical Report
Zogby also cited a report from the US-based Palestinian NGO, Palestine Works. That report offered a thorough critique of Israeli transgressions of religious freedom, including those against Christians, Muslims, and non-Orthodox Jews. I had a chance to review the report some time back. It clearly comes from a Palestinian point of view, but it also raises questions that need to be addressed, including discrimination in matters of marriage, citizenship, land ownership, burial, and other issues. Many of these were inextricably intertwined with the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but many also were serious issues for Israeli citizens.
Palestine Works also sent its report to the USCIRF. When I asked Zogby about submitting such a damning report when all that was being requested was that the commission consider investigating Israel, he told me that “the commission is mandated by Congress to review the State Department report on religious freedom and on human rights. It could also examine reports from many other sources, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which it has done with other countries. It is then to make recommendations to Congress and the president for action. The issue is the selective attention to reports.”
Wes Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America, agreed. “This letter is asking for a comprehensive review,” he told me. “It’s making no conclusions or summary judgments. It simply asks that this matter be before the commission. These issues should be raised in a fair and straightforward manner… as they are for all countries.”
The commission did not have to accept the Palestine Works report or those of human rights organizations in order to investigate the issues it raised. Yet it did not see fit to respond positively to the requests from Christian leaders and groups or an Israeli NGO. If any of these groups are unfairly critical of Israeli practices, the commission could have addressed them. The same is true of the State Department report it is mandated to follow up on, a mandate Zogby says the commission routinely ignores.
Special Obstacles Regarding Israel
Anyone who follows Israeli politics knows how touchy religious issues can be. The most obvious point of contention is Jerusalem, but there are many others. Religious freedom becomes even more complicated because Israel defines nationality in terms of citizenship based in large part on religious identity. As a result, the issue of religious freedom becomes even more fraught with broader political issues in a long-term and emotionally charged conflict.
It’s unclear whether that’s the reason the commission declined to examine Israeli practices. The USCIRF has existed since 1998, and it has been criticized in the past for its alleged bias against Muslims and for focusing to an excessive degree on anti-Christian persecution in other countries. Those factors would certainly play out in the commission’s lack of attention to religious freedom in Israel.
Yet the letter sent to USCIRF from a wide range of US-based and Middle Eastern Christian voices—including James Zogby himself—would not be atypical of the attitude US institutions display toward Palestinian Christians. Attention is sometimes paid to Palestinian Christians’ suffering as a result of Israeli policies, but it’s rare.
Moreover, Zogby and Christiansen both spoke of incidents where members of the commission expressed fear that they would lose congressional funding or become so embroiled with accusations of anti-Semitism that they would be unable to do their work if they investigated Israel.
Aundreia Alexander of the National Council of Churches echoed Zogby’s point. “When the commission’s work is selectively applied, it becomes not what it’s supposed to be, but a tool of US foreign policy,” she says. “Hostility exhibited by commissioners to carrying out a fair inquiry is more than troubling. We reiterate our call and urge the commission to conduct a comprehensive review of religious freedom in Israel.”
Zogby frames the issue of Israel within a broader critique of the work of USCIRF. “The sad truth is that, by any objective measure, the state of international religious freedom has worsened in the almost two decades since Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA),” he wrote in his letter of dissent. “The questions we should ask are why have we not made a difference and what can we do to become more effective.”
Zogby says that a major reason why the USCIRF has performed poorly is that it has acted more like a congressionally funded NGO that issues a variety of materials “naming and shaming” countries that violate religious freedom, rather than working to monitor and report on all countries in an even-handed manner.
Zogby, who will be replaced by an appointee of Donald Trump’s, says that he and others will continue to press for an investigation. Israel, of course, repeatedly claims to honor and uphold freedom of religion. In that case, an investigation by the USCIRF would hardly seem to be threatening.
If the issues raised by Palestine Works, Hiddush, the State Department, and others are without merit, or even not as bad as they might seem, Israel should welcome an investigation by USCIRF. Clearly, this is a body that would like nothing better than to report that Israel is being unfairly criticized.
Photo: James Zogby courtesy New America via Flickr.