Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tough Nun Fights Anti-Israel Bias

from the New York Times: Lawyer-Turned-Nun Rises to Israel’s Defense (By Samuel G. Freedman)

Sister Ruth Lautt works from a single room on the 19th floor of the God Box. Such is the nickname for the Interchurch Center, the office building on Riverside Drive in Manhattan that is the closest thing to a Vatican for America’s mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, Sister Ruth’s fellow tenants include agencies of the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Wearing the tapered suits left over from an earlier career in law and the crucifix of her more recent life as a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Ruth cuts an inconspicuous figure at the elevator bank. And on many of the issues that animate the mainline churches — ecumenical outreach, social justice — she makes a perfectly companionable neighbor. On the subject of Israel, however, she qualifies as something more like the enemy within.

Through the organization she founded three years ago, Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, Sister Ruth has frequently and sharply clashed with the very denominations housed under the God Box’s roof. When they have proposed divestment from Israel or more generally condemned its actions against Palestinians, she has fought against those positions, vociferously speaking out for Israel’s right to self-defense and security.

In the rancorous and relentless debate on the Middle East conflict, Sister Ruth stands as a sui generis player. She has little contact with Jewish advocacy groups, none with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby. She disassociates herself from Christian Zionists of the theological and political right. Even while defending Israel’s defensive measures, including the separation barrier, she openly criticizes its occupation of the West Bank and laments Palestinian suffering.

As for her methods, Fair Witness has specialized in behind-the-scenes infighting at denominational meetings. A former litigator with the famously aggressive Manhattan law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Sister Ruth has become both effective and controversial by working the floor at religious conventions, helping opponents of divestment draft motions, applying persuasion at the subcommittee and committee levels.

“We are informed by the Christian mandate to stand for justice and to raise our voices when we see someone being falsely accused,” Sister Ruth, 44, said in an interview at the God Box. “The issue isn’t divestment. Divestment is a symptom, a symptom of bias against the state of Israel and an attempt to lay the blame on the shoulders of Israel.”

Such a viewpoint collides with the political and theological direction of the mainline Protestant churches. Influenced by a version of liberation theology espoused by the Palestinian Christian activist Naim Ateek and his organization Sabeel, which likens Palestinians to the persecuted Jesus, all five of the mainline denominations in the United States (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ) have debated and in some cases adopted policies intended to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on Israel to compromise.

Just last month, with Sister Ruth present as a nonvoting observer, the United Methodist Church defeated three divestment motions. At the same time, however, the church’s general conference approved several motions reiterating opposition to Israel’s settlements and military presence in the West Bank.

To divestment proponents, Sister Ruth is an intrusive irritant.

“It’s inappropriate for an outside group like this one to come in to our conference and seek to influence internal decisions that reflect our values and our previously adopted positions on the occupation,” said Susanne Hoder, a member of the divestment task force of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church. “It’s an odd pursuit for a nun to spend so much of her time seeking to discredit Christians who are trying to protect other Christians who are being persecuted by the occupation.”

Sister Ruth parts ways even with her own order of nuns, the Dominican sisters, in her stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a Web site devoted to “justice and peace,” the Dominican order formally opposes the separation barrier and calls for “solidarity” with Palestinian Christians.

Acknowledging the friction, Sister Ruth said: “The overwhelming majority of these folks are extremely good people trying to be faithful to the Gospel call to justice. But they are mis- and under-informed when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and typically have only seen this conflict from one side.”

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