Jewish community ‘outraged’ at United Church

TORONTO — Canadian Jewish community organizations expressed outrage at the United Church of Canada’s Aug. 17 decision to boycott products from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

The boycott motion, put forward at the church’s 41st General Council, which took place in Ottawa last week and ended on Aug. 19, stemmed from a report by its Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy.

The 29-page report, released in May after two years of consultations and visits by the group’s members to both Israel and the West Bank, called on the church to boycott all products made in West Bank settlements, but it stopped short of asking for a total boycott of all Israeli goods.

The United Church is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, with an estimated 525,000 members and 2.8 million adherents, according to figures from the church and Statistics Canada.

The church’s Aug. 17 vote approved a final set of resolutions that included a call for church members “to avoid any and all products produced in the settlements,” requests that the Canadian government ensure that “all products produced in the settlements be labelled clearly and differently from products of Israel,” and requests that products produced in the settlements “not be given preferential treatment under the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.”

Other resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict singled out the settlements as a principal obstacle to peace in the region, called on Israel to suspend settlement expansion, and expressed regret for previously asking Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition to peace.

Details of how the boycott will be applied will be determined in the coming weeks and months, church officials said.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) was furious with the church’s boycott stance, as well as its expression of regret for previously calling for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character. 

Members of CIJA were on hand at the General Council last week to advocate for the dismissal of the working group’s report and came away feeling frustrated and disappointed.

According to CIJA, the boycott decision represents a radical shift in the United Church’s policies, betrays the views of the vast majority of its members, and flies in the face of decades of constructive interfaith dialogue.

In a statement, CIJA chair David Koschitzky said the church had chosen a “morally reckless path.”

“The United Church has equally dismissed the concerns of the overwhelming majority of the Canadian Jewish community [and its own members]. No mainstream Jewish organization, including Canadian Friends of Peace Now [CFPN], endorses boycott. Even the leadership of the American left-wing group J-Street has publicly condemned boycotts as counterproductive,” he said.

However, the left-leaning CFPN said CIJA did not speak for it.

An Aug. 13 statement by CFPN called on CIJA to think about its own position, saying that United Church members who support the report don’t “necessarily represent part of the movement to isolate and delegitimize Israel within the international community as CIJA has charged.”

A July 5 letter to The CJN by Stephen Scheinberg, co-chair of CFPN, noted his organization supported the church’s call for a boycott of settlement products and said CIJA was “out of line” in defending the “settlement enterprise.”

“Peace Now joined the settlement boycott after the Knesset made it illegal to advocate such actions and subject to civil damages,” he wrote.

CIJA said an independent survey it commissioned in partnership with a grassroots group within the United Church, Faithful Witness, revealed the extent to which the new policy is at odds with the views of the majority of the church’s congregants. 

CIJA’s CEO, Shimon Fogel, said the survey was shared with all church clergy and with the commissioners at the General Council in an attempt to convince them the report was wrongheaded.

“The church’s decision to support boycott in full knowledge of these survey results confirms the extent to which this decision was driven by narrow ideology rather than by a desire to faithfully represent the views of the membership,” CIJA said in a statement.

“Support for the boycott tactic is limited to a small fringe. Tragically, the United Church of Canada chose to join that fringe, rather than listen to the nearly 100,000 families who are members of Jewish federations across Canada, and on whose behalf [we] speak. The church equally ignored some 70 Canadian rabbis of all streams and from every province, representing tens of thousands of Canadian Jewish families, who made their opposition known in writing,” Koschitzky said.

In June, nine Canadian senators, all United Church members, sent a joint letter to the church’s then-moderator, Mardi Tindal, warning her that a deep schism between the Jewish and Protestant communities could emerge if the church adopted the controversial boycott proposal.

Their request was rebuffed by both Tindal and the head of the church’s Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy, Rev. Bruce Gregersen.

Last week, the church chose Rev. Gary Paterson as its new moderator. Rev. Paterson, who recently went on a two-month sabbatical in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said he is anxious to talk with Jewish leaders “about the plight of the Palestinian people in the settlements and also to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

“I think if you read the report rather than the headlines, you will see that there is a deep commitment we have always had to Israel and the Jewish people, and we recognize the existence of antisemitism and legitimate fears,” Rev. Paterson told the QMI news agency.

Koschitzky said that in adopting a boycott policy, the United Church “has rejected the path of balance and has chosen to explicitly ally itself with those who formally reject the two-state solution and who deny the historical right of the Jewish people to a homeland. In so doing, they have damaged the church’s standing amongst Canadians and have profoundly compromised its ability to play any constructive role in making a positive impact for peace.”

The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) for Holocaust Studies said it, too, was troubled to learn the proposed anti-Israel boycott had passed.

FSWC president and CEO Avi Benlolo said he was “saddened” and “distressed” by the decision.

“We… fear a relationship of trust and friendship is irreparably broken,” he said. “I don’t know if church members truly understand how utterly offensive and imbalanced this proposal is, or whether a latent antisemitism within the church is slowly coming back to life. What is certain is that the era of goodwill… is over, and that the supporters of antisemitic hatred have found a new friend.”

Condemnation for the boycott decision also came from B’nai Brith Canada.

“At a time when thousands of Syrian citizens are being slaughtered, we find this obsession with the Jewish state highly suspect,” CEO Frank Dimant said. “The subtext of these recommendations is that Jews cannot legitimately establish working communities in biblical Israel – this is a first step towards calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from these areas.

“These recommendations only serve to undermine the goodwill that Jewish and Christian communities in Canada have worked tirelessly to establish and maintain. Such biased recommendations coming from United Church members who can complacently enjoy safety and security here in Canada are not only entirely ineffective in addressing the realities on the ground, but are a barrier towards future negotiations between the parties themselves.”

ARZA Canada, the umbrella body of the Canadian Reform movement, also criticized the church’s boycott position, calling it “unfair” and biased.”

“Canadian Reform congregations have had a recent history of working together with the United Church of Canada congregations and this recent action has put the work of this inter-denominational activity in jeopardy,” Les Rothschild, president of ARZA Canada, said in an Aug. 20 statement.

“ARZA Canada is particularly concerned with the part of the resolution that states the United Church has reversed its previous position and now does not require the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state. We fundamentally disagree. For peace to be achieved, ARZA Canada expects all parties concerned to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”

At its 2009 General Council, the church adopted policy items that called for full Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines, recognition of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as occupied territories and “ending all forms of violence by the Israeli government upon the Palestinian people.”

The church, however, voted down a proposal for boycott, divestment and sanctions, in part due to lobbying efforts by Canadian Jewish Congress.

With files from JTA