(March 31, 2017 / JNS) WASHINGTON—Amid growing congressional concern about the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) misuse of U.S. aid, a major mainstream American Jewish organization has been quietly lobbying Congress to cover the PA’s unpaid bills at a Jerusalem hospital.
JNS.org has learned that for the past several years, senior officials of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) have undertaken the task of pressing U.S. officials, including members of Congress, to pay millions in unpaid bills the PA has racked up at the Lutheran-sponsored Augusta Victoria hospital in eastern Jerusalem.
At the beginning of 2014, the hospital was more than $19 million in the red due to “non-payment of fees for patients that are referred to the hospital by the Palestinian Authority,” according to a Lutheran World Federation press release, which added that the PA “pledged to pay for the treatment of these patients but it has not been able to uphold its commitments.” At the end of that year, the PA made a payment of $263,000 and left the remaining $16.6 million unpaid.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)—the country’s largest Lutheran denomination—enlisted the AJC to ask Washington to foot the PA’s bills. Rabbi David Rosen, AJC’s Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs, said he and other leaders from the organization have lobbied members of Congress and U.S. officials to pay the bills. Rosen said he also has spoken to the U.S. ambassador and consul general in Israel about the hospital’s financial problems.
In response to the lobbying, the U.S. sent Augusta Victoria $13 million in 2014, another $13 million in 2015 and an unspecified amount in 2016.
The Rev. Richard H. Graham, bishop of the Lutherans’ Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod, told JNS.org that although he and other Lutheran representatives have also urged the U.S. government to provide the funds, he believes AJC’s intervention has been the decisive factor.
“If it had been a matter of just ‘the Lutherans want something to be done,’ I don’t think it would have happened,” he said. AJC “reminded congressmen” that covering the PA’s bills to the hospital was “very important” not only to Lutherans but also “to Jewish people,” the bishop explained.
Graham praised Rosen for pressing the Israeli government regarding possible tax structure changes that would have affected the hospital.
AJC has not issued any press releases concerning its role in the lobbying. The group’s associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations, Emily Soloff, who has represented AJC in its communication with the Lutherans, declined to comment on the hospital issue.
Graham took part, along with 31 other Lutheran bishops, in an April 2014 lobbying mission to Capitol Hill. According to an ELCA press release at the time, the bishops spoke to lawmakers about both the hospital funding and the church’s other views concerning Israel. The ELCA has called for ending U.S. aid to Israel unless the Israelis stop all Jewish construction in the disputed territories and portions of Jerusalem.
Rosen acknowledged that the PA “mismanages” its finances, is “riddled with corruption,” and is wrong to spend funds on weapons and payments to terrorists. Nevertheless, he said, he considers it a “Jewish moral responsibility” to seek U.S. funds to cover the PA’s bills at Augusta Victoria.
That position is disputed by the Coalition for Jewish Values, a Baltimore-based national organization of Orthodox rabbis, which said in a statement, “There is no moral responsibility to pay the bills of a regime such as the PA, which has enough funds to pay its own bills but refuses to do so in order to use its money to pay salaries to terrorists.”
‘Enabling bad behavior’
Some longtime observers of Israel-Diaspora relations have expressed misgivings about AJC’s actions.
“This is an old story of the U.S. and others enabling the Palestinian Authority to divert funds to honoring terrorists and delegitimizing Israel, rather than taking care of its own people,” Gil Troy, an American presidential historian and professor at Canada’s McGill University, told JNS.org.
“If the choice was between a hospital that does good work going bankrupt, bravo to the AJC and U.S. government for making sure it doesn’t,” he added. “But given the context, one worries that this is a case of naive Jews and naive Americans enabling bad behavior on the part of the anti-Israel elements within some churches and enabling the even worse behavior of the Palestinian Authority.”
Australian-Israeli activist Isi Leibler, a former World Jewish Congress chairman as well as a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, told JNS.org, “On a variety of recent issues, the AJC has moved dramatically away from its previous policy of not getting involved in domestic Israeli affairs, and they now seem to be pandering to their most far-left elements.”
The ELCA, for its part, has just launched an effort to influence the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel. The Lutheran denomination, together with other U.S. churches, last month sent a “briefing paper” to administration officials and all members of Congress, charging that “Israeli violations of human rights and international law have continued without consequence.” The churches urged the U.S. to “apply Leahy vetting processes” when considering aid to Israel. The Leahy amendment—sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)—prohibits U.S. military assistance to countries deemed to be violating human rights.
Members of Congress are currently reviewing the question of U.S. aid to the PA, which has ranged from $100 million to $500 million annually since 1994. The recently introduced Taylor Force Act, spearheaded by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would cut off U.S. aid to the PA unless the PA stops paying imprisoned terrorists and the families of deceased terrorists. The legislation is named after a U.S. Army veteran who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa in March 2016.