Saturday, June 14, 2008

New York Times on Christians for a Fair Witness on the Middle East

Lawyer-Turned-Nun Rises to Israel’s Defense - New York Times profiles the founder of Christians for a Fair Witness:
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.


Little in Sister Ruth’s professional background anticipated her current cause. Before she joined the Dominican order in 1996, she had earned a law degree from New York University and worked at Skadden, Arps. Even after becoming a sister, she continued to litigate cases for a smaller firm on Long Island, close to the Dominican residence where she lived.

Sister Ruth did, however, earn a master’s degree in Jewish-Christian Studies from Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and participated in several ecumenical groups on Long Island.

While she said that she received a divine call to advocate for Israel, that call coincided with a rising tide of protests against Israel for sending its army back into the West Bank’s major cities after a rash of suicide bombings in early 2002. The criticism of Israel from liberal churches grew even greater with construction of the separation barrier, which for portions of its route crosses into Palestinian territory.

Sister Ruth made her first trip to Israel in 2003. (Since then she has returned five times, generally visiting the West Bank as well.) In December 2005, she incorporated Fair Witness and sent out its first news release.

Although the group has a board with Roman Catholic and Protestant members, the operation is essentially all Sister Ruth, all the time. She raises the money for its $120,000 annual budget. She assembled its database on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the positions of mainline Protestant groups. She leads Protestant delegations on study tours to the region — African-American clergy members will be going in August, Lutherans in November — and gives her historical analysis of Zionism and Israel to Christian audiences.

In a typical speech last November at Boston College, she commended the liberal churches for “a wholesome, Gospel-centered concern for Palestinian suffering, which is real,” and endorsed a two-state solution. But she also made the case for Israeli self-defense, even in the form of the separation barrier.

“I need to question how people feel they have the right in the name of peace and justice, to tell other people not to try to preserve their own lives,” she said at one point. “You’re not obligated to lay down and die.”