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United Church not against Israel, says official

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Rev. Bruce Gregersen, left, and Rabbi Dow Marmur [Frances Kraft photo]

TORONTO — Rev. Bruce Gregersen, program officer of the General Council of the United Church, believes there has been much misunderstanding of the United Church of Canada’s “Report of the Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy,” released earlier this year.

Rev. Gregersen spoke Dec. 3 at Holy Blossom Temple as part of the synagogue’s Schwartz/Reisman Israel series. Rabbi Dow Marmur, the congregation’s rabbi emeritus, interviewed him after his presentation.

The United Church is the only mainstream church that has affirmed Israel as a Jewish state, Rev. Gregersen said.

“We’ve encouraged the purchase of Israeli goods. The only thing we’ve moved forward on is settlement products. We did not want to confuse it with the boycott, divestment and sanctions issue [regarding all of Israel]… All these [things] cause me to wonder, what do we have to do to make it clear that we support the existence, safety and thriving of Israel?” he asked.

To provide context, Rev. Gregersen noted that the United Church is among “other mainline churches around the world” that “have decided to initiate economic action” against goods produced in the settlements, he said.

He added that 22 organizations – mostly church-based – produced a report last month recommending to the European Union consumer labelling of products from the settlements.

Such labelling is required in the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa, he added.

As well, “a more comprehensive option of banning settlement products is already proposed by Ireland.”

Rev. Gregersen suggested three reasons why “these kinds of actions [have become] so prevalent.”

He believes that, because of Israel’s expansion of settlements, “the window is closing” on the possibility of a two-state solution that would result in “a secure and safe Israel side by side with a secure Palestinian state.”

As well, he cited an increase in “specific and focused travel from Christian communities to come and see for themselves what is happening in the occupied territories,” and “the call of Palestinian Christians themselves.” He cited “unjust and harsh treatment of Palestinians” including home demolitions, uprooting of olive groves and restrictions to water access.

This summer’s document affirmed “continued support for a two-state solution” as well as for “Israel as a Jewish state… a homeland for the Jewish People and a democratic state,” he said.

The report also said that “the language of apartheid is not helpful and should not be used.” As well, it recognized the Palestinian right of return, which it said “has to be negotiated in a way that doesn’t undermine the demographic integrity of Israel.”

The church “does not support the formal divestment, boycott and sanctions movement… but don’t confuse Israel with the settlements,” Rev. Gregersen said.

A member of the synagogue noted from the audience that the document’s recommendations could damage Israel’s economy “in ways you have said you do not want to do,” because of the difficulty identifying which Israeli products are made in the settlements.

Rabbi Marmur, making a distinction between pro-Arab and anti-Jewish sentiment, commented that the United Church “doesn’t seem to show concern for the many Arabs and Palestinians in other Arab countries who are treated less than graciously” – only for those in Israel.

Rev. Gregersen acknowledged the seriousness of the rabbi’s comment, but said he wasn’t sure he could answer in a way that would satisfy the rabbi. He said that the United Church is a small church without resources and has been involved in this issue for decades, and is relying on reports from Christians in the region.

“I hope you’ll forgive us Jews if we think you’ve moved backward,” Rabbi Marmur said. “There seems to be something in the United Church that has it in for us Jews in the guise of being anti-Israel or critical of Israel.”

In the question period, Rev. Gregersen said that a weakness of the report was that it “did not adequately speak about the threats to Israel and teaching of hatred against Israel.”

Joan Garson, president of Arzenu, the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists, thanked the speakers, acknowledging their “civility, good humour and straightforwardness.”

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