Group mobilizes against United Church boycott

Gary Patterson

TORONTO — A group of United Church leaders is speaking out against the call from the church’s General Council to boycott products made in Israel settlements.

 “We believe that this decision of the General Council has damaged relationships that are vital to growing a just peace,” the 47 members of United Against Boycott wrote in an open letter on the group’s website. “We will work against the boycott campaign and the other policies including divestment and sanctions against Israel.”

The General Council originally announced its intentions to boycott in August 2012, in a campaign called “Unsettling Goods,” but the church reiterated the call last month, sending out packages to its congregations encouraging them to speak to their members about the issue.

Rev. John Joseph Mastandrea, who is both a minister and chair of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto (CJDT), wrote a letter to the head of the church, Moderator Rev. Gary Paterson, rejecting the General Council’s boycott call.

Rev. Mastandrea is the minister of Metropolitan United Church, the Toronto church where the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI), a group consisting mostly of United Church members, hosted a Dec. 3 press conference launching a holiday boycott drive. The group then headed to a Canadian Tire store where members handed out leaflets urging shoppers to boycott home carbonation products made by SodaStream, which has a factory in the West Bank.

In his letter, co-written with CJDT executive director Barbara Boraks to Rev. Paterson, Rev. Mastandrea wrote that the boycott has “significantly damaged Christian-Jewish relations here in Canada, an inevitable consequence of the United Church lending its name to a movement that can only be characterized as anti-Israel.”

He said his past conversations with Rev. Paterson about the boycott made him think the moderator was opposed to it, but he said Rev. Paterson’s letter in the package sent to congregations last month showed otherwise.

“With [the Unsettling Goods campaign] efforts, we join with many other striving to bring peace with justice to the Holy Land,” Rev. Paterson wrote. “This outstretched branch and these courageous actions for peace are signs of our belief that God calls us to embody and pass the peace of Christ so that all might live with fullness of life.”

A spokesperson for Rev. Paterson said he wasn’t available to comment for this story, but Patti Talbot, a United Church team leader, said that the “the boycott is not about Israel” but to show that “the settlement project is diminishing the possibility of peace.”

She added: “The attempt is to focus not on Israel but the action of deepening the occupation through the building of settlements, and so this action has been to try to focus on the settlements as an obstacle to peace.”

Rev. Mastandrea told The CJN that he and many United Church members resent the boycott initiative so much that they threatened to leave if their own individual churches endorse it.

“I contemplated rescinding my ordination, that we had crossed the line in the sand,” Rev. Mastandrea said.

One member of the United Church's pension plan advisory committee did resign because on the boycott, according to the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.

“I find the UCC's position on these matters to be offensive both personally and professionally,” the anonymous member reportedly wrote. “Sometimes in life, things reach a point where one has to take a stand. That point has been overreached for me in this case.”

Rev. Andrew Love, an Ottawa-area United Church minister, wrote a letter Dec. 7 in the National Post in which he criticized the boycott movement.

“[T]he heart and soul of the UCC is not embracing this boycott,” he wrote. “Still further, a lot of congregations are strengthening ties with the Jewish community in their own neighbourhoods and distancing themselves from the boycott.”

Rev. Mastandrea said one of UNJPPI’s members attends his church and asked to book it for the group’s press conference. The person who confirmed it didn’t realize what it was for, he said.

He considered cancelling the group’s reservation, but decided against it.

“We thought, if we cancel this, then it might draw more attention to it,” he said. “As it was, nine people attended and there was no press, no media. It was a non-event, which is what we were hoping would happen.”

He said average church members aren’t concerned with boycotting Israel.

“People are more worried about their church staying alive. People are worried about day to day, caring for the sick and helping to feed the hungry,” he said.

Len Rudner, director of community relations and outreach for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which is affiliated with CJDT, said Rev. Mastandrea’s letter is helping to further Christian-Jewish relations.

“It sends a message to the Jewish community” that it’s not the whole church that supports the boycott, he said. “You have friends. You’re not alone.”

Rev. Mastandrea is hoping Rev. Paterson will read his letter and help bring together both supporters and opponents of the boycott, but because of church protocol, it may not be possible to change course until the next General Council meeting in 2015.

“The great dream is that they would rescind the motion at the 2015 General Council meeting,” he said,