More than 25 national leaders of Jewish, Christian and Muslim American religious organizations affirmed President Barack Obama's speech last week aimed at pushing Israelis and Palestinians to pursue peace.
President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as they walk from the Oval Office following their meetings on May 20. (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
During a 45-minute speech on May 19 at the State Department, Obama spoke admirably about the self-determination movement sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.
"The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder," he warned authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders.
Obama said that the United States had "a historic opportunity" to demonstrate American values with humility.
The U.S. supports universal rights, opposes the use of violence and repression, and backs political and economic reform, said the president.
"In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain," said Obama. "What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women."
Speaking critically of leaders who have used "antagonism toward Israel" to maintain political power, the president warned Hamas against violence.
Equally sharp words were offered to Israel, when he said, "The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace."
Obama said, "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."
In a letter addressed to the president, American leaders from the Abrahamic faith traditions expressed their support for a two-state peace solution.
"If the opportunity for a two-state solution is missed, there almost inevitably will be renewed violent conflict with more suffering for Israelis and Palestinians, and increased dangers of extremism," read the letter.
The interfaith leaders pledged their prayers and public support.
Among the Christian signers were Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington; Richard Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary; David Neff, editor-in-chief and vice president, Christianity Today; and John Buchanan, editor and publisher, Christian Century.
Jewish and Muslim singers included Elliot Dorff, rector, American Jewish University; Freddi Cooper, president, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly; Sayyid Syeed, national director, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); and Naeem Baig, executive director, Islamic Circle of North America.
The Christian Post quoted Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian "intellectual" from India, who criticized Obama's speech, saying that the president "personified" the "secular intelligentsia in America."
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Mangalwadi said that no Muslim nation had created a free society. America had because of its belief in God.
"[T]he Protestant West became free because people were seeking the Kingdom of God," he said.
ISNA issued a statement welcoming Obama's support for the democratic struggles of the Arab world.
"We were pleased to hear the President's promise that the U.S. would not put the interests of those in power above the desires of those oppressed and his comprehensive plan to support reform in the Arab world as the people free themselves of oppression," said Mohamed Magid, president of ISNA and an interviewee in the EthicsDaily.com documentary Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.
Michael Lerner, a rabbi and editor of Tikkun magazine, commended "President Obama for his call for the US to align with democratic forces in the Middle East, and for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Palestine based on the 1967 borders, his recognition that the Palestinian people have the right to govern themselves and reach their potential in a sovereign and contiguous state, and his reaffirmation of Israel's right to complete security."
Lerner said, "Unfortunately, the current leadership of Israel is not interested in any reasonable peace accord."
The Tikkun editor criticized the president for lacking the courage to confront the "Israel Lobby and the Christian Zionists" who, he suggested, are the real obstacles for peace.
Aryeh Spero, a rabbi and founder of Caucus for America, charged that Obama was "asking for ethnic cleansing" in his position on the 1967 borders.
Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House the day after his State Department speech.
In a blunt and direct lecture, Netanyahu rejected Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries and suggested that Obama was unrealistic.
Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, said Netanyahu "tried to embarrass his host, President Obama...delivering a pedantic attack on him."
Cole, who blogs on the West and Muslim world, said, "Netanyahu made many false assertions about Israeli policy toward the Palestinian West Bank being driven solely by security concerns, when it is in fact a vast land grab of the 'settler-industrial complex.' Israel's colonization of territories occupied from the Palestinians in 1967 is illegal in international law and deeply immoral."