Church steps up economic action versus Israeli firms

United Church of Canada crest

The United Church of Canada (UCC) is implementing a measure advocated by its General Council, which could see its members boycott products manufactured in “Israeli settlements.”

But before congregants are going to be asked to reject products that carry the SodaStream, Ahava and Keter Plastic labels, the church is going to ask those companies to pull out of the West Bank.

Letters have been sent to the companies to try and create “conversation and dialogue,” said Wendy Gichuru, program co-ordinator of Africa and Middle East partnerships for the United Church. “At the moment,” the church has embarked on a “careful campaign to proceed by approaching the companies active in the settlements, whose products are available in Canada,” Gichuru said.

Items produced by Keter, SodaStream and Ahava are carried by Canadian Tire, Home Depot, Rona, Future Shop, the Bay, Walmart, Sears and Costco.

The UCC’s move is part of a three-step program to implement a campaign approved by the executive of the church’s General Council. The measures include engagement with the companies, which is currently underway; promoting consumer economic action, particularly in the Advent, Christmas and Lenten seasons, and evaluating the success of the program, followed by a report to the executive.

“The campaign has been named Unsettling Goods: Choose Peace in Palestine and Israel, which focuses on the illegal Israeli settlements and the obstacles they pose for peace,” the UCC said in a statement.

Gichuru said the UCC and other churches around the world believe the peace process “has had little or no effect and the impact on the ground are getting worse.” She said the UCC acted after Christian Palestinians called on it for non-violent action. “Some pressure is needed to bring about peace and end the occupation,” she said.

Israeli Consul General DJ Schneeweiss criticized the church’s measures: “I think it’s regrettable they’re pressing a zero sum path of exclusion and withdrawal from the win-win path of constructive engagement,” he said.

“The notion that [they’re] going to advance any worthy goal in the Middle East is wrong. It won’t bring peace. It’s not going to achieve anything any decent person would want.”

Schneeweiss said a far better route for the church to take would be one that promoted reconciliation, mutual acceptance and tolerance.

“It’s wrong to presume that the existence of Israeli companies in Israeli communities over the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 borders] are the cause of the conflict or the reason it hasn’t been resolved,” he added.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) adopted a similar position: “Last year, the General Council of the UCC rejected our call to take up concrete measures to build up the Palestinian economy and instead opted to take destructive measures targeting Israelis,” said CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel. “This year, the General Council announced a boycott of various companies including, in the case of SodaStream, one that employs hundreds of Palestinian workers.

“Such a position, which claims to advance Palestinian aspirations by increasing the number of unemployed Palestinians, can only be described as intellectually dishonest. Its goal seems to be the self-satisfaction of the General Council rather than an improvement in the life of the average Palestinian.”

CIJA subsequently issued a call for a “buycott” of the Israeli-made products as a practical step to support the companies.

Last April, an attempted boycott of SodaStream products at a Halifax retailer “fizzled,” according to CIJA consultant Mark David. Only about a dozen protesters appeared at a Planet Organic retail outlet to call for a boycott, and they were shooed away by management.

At the time, SodaStream’s president and CEO, Marta Mikita-Wilson, said very little had come of boycott attempts over the years, other than to stimulate consumer interest in the company’s products.

SodaStream sells soda-making gas cylinders that allow consumers to make their own carbonated beverages.

She said about half the company’s workforce at its Mishor Adumim factory are Palestinians. “We create the work for them. We give them a chance to make a decent living.”

A video produced by SodaStream suggests Palestinians benefit from the factory’s presence. It would make more economic sense to locate it close to suppliers, technicians and Israel’s port, said company CEO Daniel Birnbaum.

Gichuru said the UCC had spoken to “Palestinians on the ground” about the repercussions of a successful boycott. They were told that Palestinians have to make a living, so they work in settlements. “They recognize that factories may close and they’ll be out of a job.”

But with Israeli withdrawal and the opportunity to move freely, economic activity would pick up. Citing the World Bank, Gichuru said settlements are an impediment to the Palestinian economy.

According to SodaStream, the company pays Palestinians more than the prevailing wage in the West Bank at the cost of corporate profits.