TORONTO — A longstanding disagreement over United Church statements on Israel burst into the open last week with Jewish leaders slamming a report by the church’s working group on Israel/Palestine.
The report contains “elements that are obscene to Jews,” it “trivializes the Holocaust,” questions Israel as a Jewish state, calls for a boycott and unfairly singles Israel out for condemnation while ignoring the plight of Christians around the world, said Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
The report also distorts history, and focuses on Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace, ignoring several Israeli evacuations of settlements and withdrawals as part of bids for peace, he said.
The document will be debated and voted on at the church’s 41st General Council in August, which means it could be adopted as official church policy.
Forgel was particularly incensed with the document’s reference to the Holocaust. The working group stated that “the deepest meaning of the Holocaust was the denial of human dignity to Jews.” That statement was quickly followed by one lamenting the “loss of dignity” of the Palestinians, which the document asserts is due to Israeli occupation.
Not only does that distort the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, but it “draw[s] moral equivalence of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering in the current situation,” Fogel said.
“That assertion leads to conclusions that other motivations are at play beyond contributions to peace,” he said.
“I think there are people within the United Church, like in academia and the labour movement, who are part of the movement to isolate and delegitimize Israel within the international community,” he added.
Jewish community organizations have been at odds with the United Church over its views on the Middle East for some time. Earlier in the year, a task force of a Toronto presbytery of the church called on members of the church to boycott six Canadian and Israeli companies “who are enabling the illegal occupation.”
In 2009, the church’s General Council adopted policy items that called for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines and called for an end to “all forms of violence by the Israeli government upon the Palestinian people.” The assembly, however, voted down a proposal for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel after Canadian Jewish Congress officials lobbied hard against the measure.
Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who served as co-president of Congress at the time, said “it’s a crying shame that between the last incarnation [of the General Council] in Kelowna [in 2009] and now, nothing seems to have changed.
“There’s an obsession with Israel that is totally distorted. Nothing good can come out of this. It’s unconscionable. It’s gotten to the point that it’s sickening.”
Facing heated critiques of the working group’s recommendations, United Church spokesman Bruce Gregersen said “we’re deeply concerned about the interpretation that’s been given to a section of the report [concerning the Holocaust “dignity” reference]. It’s a small section of the report.
“We are clear that the intention was not in comparing the Holocaust to any other experience,” he said, adding the church has always “upheld the nature of the Holocaust as being distinctive.”
He said the document is consistent with the longstanding church position that removing settlements is the key to peace.
“The church points to ongoing military occupation of Palestinian territory. The church has consistently said this has to be addressed for peace in the region,” said Gregersen, the church’s senior program officer.
He said the report explicitly rejected associating the term “apartheid” with Israel, adding that it accepted Israel as a Jewish state and rejected the suggestion that Israel should take in large numbers of Palestinians who would affect the country’s demographic makeup.
The church, however, supports targeted boycotts of “settlement products,” a position adopted by many churches and some Jews, including American liberal writer Peter Beinart, he said.
The church is inviting dialogue with CIJA to discuss its concerns, he added.
Rabbi Bulka said the measures advocated by the working group are consistently negative and aimed at hurting Israel.
“Don’t give me this garbage of boycott. It’s punishing one side. It’s taking sides, and they don’t have all the facts.”
The working group’s recommendations won’t advance peace, he added.
Rabbi Bulka said it’s likely the recommendations don’t represent the views of the church’s membership. “After Kelowna, I got calls from four church ministers who were fed up by this. I was invited to speak to [half a dozen] congregations, and it was a warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Fogel believes the agenda on the Middle East has been led by a small group of activists who likely aren’t representative of the wider church membership.
He said CIJA would continue to engage with the church in advance of its August gathering in Ottawa, “to reach out to our many friends in the church to reach an accommodation and amend the report.
“We will engage in dialogue with them over the next four months and we hope that we will be able to demonstrate the justification to amend the report in a way that eliminates the offensive sections and references.”
“Failing to achieve that understanding, and if it goes to the General Council as endorsed, we will have to think carefully if there’s any utility to continuing our relationship with the United Church,” he said.