United Church strengthens call to end Israeli occupation

Rev. Andrew Love

The United Church of Canada’s general council voted last week to strengthen its opposition to what it calls Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, but it voted down a controversial proposal to end the church’s support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The council, which sets policy for the church, passed a resolution in favour of “initiating and developing a program of education and advocacy in co-operation with our partners, related to divestment from and economic sanctions against all corporations and institutions complicit in and benefiting from the illegal occupation. This would include education about tourism, which bolsters the oppression of Palestinians.”

The council also urged “all courts, bodies and members of the United Church of Canada to apply such divestment strategies and sanctions, until such time as the occupation of the Palestinian territories ends.”

On its website, the church said this resolution “was understood as advocacy and encouragement, rather than a mandatory or binding direction to the church.”

The council additionally voted to support trust-building initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians and between the church and Jewish communities in Canada.

The Aug. 11 decisions on Israel were among a host of issues debated at the national meeting of the church’s 42nd General Council, held in Corner Brook, Nfld., Aug. 8 to 15, and attended by regional church representatives from across the country, both clergy and lay people who are elected to the council.

At its last national meeting, in 2012, the council’s decision to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements led the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) to cut ties with the church.

Proposals put forward this year for the church to end its support for a two-state solution and extend its boycott campaign led Rev. Andrew Love, a United Church pastor in Arnprior, Ont., to launch a campaign Aug. 10 to spread awareness for what he said is growing anti-Semitism within the church.

In a statement, he claimed the proposals reflected “a growing cancer of a anti-Semitism taking hold of the body of the UCC.” He told The CJN “there is an activist community within the UCC that will not be satisfied until the very existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish People ends.”

He said the church’s existing boycott campaign, which was finalized at the 41st General Council’s national meeting in 2012 and entailed the boycott of goods exported by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, was merely a step toward the ultimate goal of “replacing Israel with a different state.”

He warned that this year’s proposals signified an “ominous and discouraging” rise of traditional Christian anti-Semitism.

“I believe we’re seeing… a lot of old prejudices being re-formulated against Israel… That old denial of historical and religious aspirations of the Jewish People in relation to Israel,” Rev. Love told The CJN.

He said the process that elects delegates to the council leaves the voting body “vulnerable to campaigns from activists who want to push a particular agenda,” and he dismissed the idea that the people behind these proposals are motivated by concern for Palestinian human rights. “If that were the case, why are they silent about the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria? Why are they silent about what’s happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria?” he asked.

Patti Talbot, a general council staff member and acting team lead for global partnerships, said the council ultimately didn’t reject a two-state solution because it wanted to re-affirm the right of self-determination for Palestinians and Israelis and ensure that people of the region make the decisions on resolving the conflict, guided by international law.

She stressed the church is focused on the occupation, but doesn’t align itself with the goals of the overall boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

She said concern about keeping good relations with outside groups, including the Jewish community, “was palpable” at the meeting, and she emphasized that the United Church has zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.

“These decisions come out of a continued love for our partners, and that includes Israelis and Palestinians. These actions aren’t anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. We’re focused on the occupation… and the effects it has on both Palestinians and Israelis.”

Regarding what Rev. Love referred to in his statement as the United Church’s “obsessive” focus on Israel, Talbot said the church has for years received requests from Palestinians and Israelis to support ending the occupation and that there has been “a rising awareness in North America and other places about the effects of the occupation.”

CIJA’s CEO Shimon Fogel told The CJN that the church “lost all credibility on this issue when it first adopted BDS in 2012. These latest resolutions demonstrate that the General Council continues to be held captive by the extreme margins of the church, regardless of the significant dam-age it does to the UCC itself. Such moves destroy interfaith ties, alienate the church from the mainstream peace movement, and betray the moderate views of the overwhelming majority of [church] members.”

Pro-Israel group StandWithUs Canada said it was “profoundly saddened and disappointed” by the church’s latest actions, which it called “clearly anti-Israel.” It said the resolution followed “intense lobbying” by backers of the international BDS movement. “[The church] has decided to punish Israel with their bigoted, divisive, anti-peace resolution,” executive director Meryle Kates said.

Bernie Farber, former president of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), said Congress sent representatives to attend the church’s General Council meetings for years in order to advocate on Israel’s behalf.

“There was always a radical element… that wanted to delegitimize the State of Israel… After the CJC disappeared, I can only imagine the UCC, which had great respect for the CJC, didn’t know CIJA,” Farber said, speculating that the UCC likely views CIJA as “strictly a lobbyist organization for Israel,” and is therefore turned off by it.

As for whether the church’s proposals reflect old-school Christian anti-Semitism, Farber said it’s important to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

Though he’d be opposed to a resolution that rejected a peaceful two-state solution, he said, “I wouldn’t wave the anti-Semitism flag [here], because I think when the Jewish community does that all the time, it confuses people and turns them off. It confuses true Jew-hatred from anti-Zionism, and we must see the two as separate battles.”