Winnipeg United Church rejects boycott proposal

Westminster United Church

A Winnipeg United Church congregation is attempting to undo the “damage” caused by the church’s national General Council by publicly opposing the council’s call for an economic boycott of products from Israeli settlements.

In a letter sent to the church’s national office and released publicly, the Westminster United Church criticized the General Council’s call for a boycott last summer. Such a step would be divisive, “with the potential to undermine interfaith conversations locally and nationally,” the letter asserts.

“We do not support the economic boycott… The strategy recommended in the General Council statement has had and will continue to have a deleterious effect on the good relations established between the United Church and Jewish communities in Canada and in particular in Winnipeg,” the letter states.

Last August, the United Church adopted several resolutions at its General Council in Ottawa that outraged supporters of Israel. Based on findings of a working group, the resolutions singled out the settlements as a principal obstacle to peace, 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.

The Jewish community reacted angrily, with some rabbis and other leaders saying it could spell the end of interfaith dialogue with the church.

Sherrie Steiner, vice-chair of the board of the Westminster United Church, said she “heard from Jewish people in a personal and a professional capacity… Some Jewish friends said [the resolution] had an antisemitic tone.”

“It was like the Mideast position was taking over the relationship,” she said. It threatened to poison relations between the two communities.

At the same time, lay members of her own congregation were raising similar concerns that the local inter-community relationship was being defined by Mideast politics and resolutions adopted at the national council level.

Members of the Westminster church did not accept that it had “to be the defining statement between us. There’s a complex relationship here that goes way back. Life is not just politics and economics, it’s about friendship, culture and appreciating one’s history,” Steiner said.

 The national church’s statements, she continued, “didn’t consider the entire region and the huge network of nations trying to eliminate one group.”

Lay church members approached the board with their concerns, and the board reached out to its Jewish interlocutors. A meeting was set up in mid-November.

It was quite clear that “our Jewish colleagues were quite upset by the General Council statements. It was pretty tense around the table,” Steiner said.

Afterward, church officials discussed the possibility of the relationship deteriorating. The board decided to issue its public letter, and send another one to the church’s national office. Steiner wouldn’t make the second letter available, but she did say it raised concerns about the process that led to adoption of the resolutions.

“History would lend itself to the interpretation that when there’s a complete vetting, it’s been voted down,” she said.

For his part, Zane Tessler is gratified at the Westminster Church’s stand. The national church’s position has the potential for creating  “a great divide in the relationship that’s been going in the proper direction,” said Tessler, chair of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

“There were some tensions locally, but they’ve been smoothed over.”

The community understood the church decision was taken at the national level and did not necessarily represent the views of local churches, he continued. The federation “did not consider ending the dialogue. We took the approach to press forward with joint dialogue… to mend the harms that could have been caused.”

In addition to participating in interfaith dialogue, the Winnipeg church, which has 450 members and another 300 to 350 supporting families, hosted Names Not Numbers, a travelling educational display that told the story of people interned at Dachau. Church representatives have also participated in Holocaust memorial events and in an interfaith concert that featured choirs from the church and Congregation Shaarey Zedek that raised money for the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, currently under construction in Winnipeg, said Rev. Robert Campbell, the church’s spiritual leader.

As well, the church supports projects in Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), a co-operative village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that brings together Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The General Council’s resolution “seemed to take sides, and I would like us to take everybody’s side, to show we’re concerned for the well-being of Palestinians and Israelis both,” Rev. Campbell said.