Nine Canadian senators sent a joint letter to the United Church of Canada Moderator Mardi Tindal in late June warning her that a deep schism between the Jewish and Protestant communities could emerge if the church adopts a controversial boycott proposal on Israel at its general council in Ottawa next month.
The senators, all of whom are United Church members, urged the church to reject a proposal being brought forward by its Working Group on Israel Palestine Policy that asks the church to boycott all products made in West Bank settlements, but stops short of asking for a total boycott of all Israeli goods.
Senator Nancy Ruth sent the letter from her office. Its co-signatories are senators Bert Brown, Yonah Martin, Dennis Patterson, Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Jim Munson, George Baker, James Cowan and Elizabeth Hubley.
They asked the church to remember that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex. “Humility would dictate that we approach this matter with care and respect to all parties,” they wrote.
The senators called the boycott proposal “strange” and “baffling” and said the Jewish community worldwide and Israelis won’t understand any distinction the working group makes between boycotting products from Israeli settlements versus Israel as a whole.
“What will be made clear to them is that the United Church has chosen sides, declaring Israel guilty and the Palestinians the only injured party,” they said.
The senators also rebuked the church’s working group for failing in its proposal to “mention a single expectation of the Palestinians” in its recommendations.
“To put it bluntly, the church cannot maintain credibility in criticizing Israeli policies… while relieving the Palestinian leadership of its own duty to advance peace,” they wrote.
The senators asked Tindal to use her position as moderator to denounce the boycott proposal and remind church leaders that peace between Israelis and Palestinians requires that both sides “make the concessions necessary to end the conflict that has harmed so many.”
The United Church posted the letter on its website last week and responded with letters from both Tindal and Rev. Bruce Gregersen, head of the church’s working group on Palestine, to Ruth and the other senators on July 3.
The United Church is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination. It has 650,000 members, but more than 2.5 million people identify themselves as followers.
In her letter, Tindal thanked the senators for expressing their concerns and acknowledged the upcoming challenge to the Jewish-United Church relationship.
She said she visited “Israel Palestine” last year with the working group, but withdrew from the group once it started deliberations on how to write up its report “recognizing the need to remain neutral and unattached to its recommendations, given that I will be presiding during the council.”
As such, she said it would be inappropriate for her to make any comment on the report prior to the general council.
Gregersen’s letter addressed the senator’s concerns more bluntly, saying the working group “struggled” for two years over the wording and nuance of its report because of the complexity of the situation.
“We find it hard to justify a neutral stance to this reality, which in the end means that it is in Israel’s interest to delay any resolution while continuing to create ‘facts on the ground,’” he wrote.
“The group has also experienced and witnessed the harsh reality of the occupation, which remains invisible to most Jewish colleagues and to those who are not able to visit and talk directly with Palestinians.”
Gregersen also said his group’s decision to “continue to recognize Israel as a Jewish state” is controversial among Christian Palestinians, who fear that it provides “support to those who wish to have Palestine become an Islamic state.”
Palestinian Christians want a secular democratic state, he said.
The United Church itself acknowledges Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, although it qualifies that statement by noting there is no agreed-upon definition of what “Jewish” means.
In 2009, at the church’s 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C., representatives of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress helped ensure the church didn’t adopt numerous anti-Israel resolutions it was considering at the time.
Congress’ then-CEO Bernie Farber and its then-immediate past co-president Rabbi Reuven Bulka attended the council and negotiated directly with Gregersen and other church members to help tone down the rhetoric on Israel.
The church eventually rejected proposals from members to adopt, among others, resolutions calling for a “comprehensive boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions.”
Those resolutions were shelved, but the church’s working group on Israel Palestine policy was established soon after.
Reached by phone at his congregation in Ottawa, Rabbi Bulka said the latest boycott proposal by the working group is just more of the same vilification of Israel he witnessed from members of the group at the 2009 council.
“Whatever nuance you put on it, a boycott is a boycott is a boycott. And its corollary is the assignment of blame,” he said. “But at the time, I was invited to talk to many United Church congregations. I believe this was a sign that the majority of their membership did not agree with these proposals. I’m getting the same [requests] this time around.”
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the organization that succeeded Congress, said the working group’s proposal is “ill-informed, unconstructive and even harmful.”
He said the senators’ letter confirms CIJA’s position, that the report doesn’t reflect the vast majority of the United Church members’ perspectives on Israel.
The report puts the church outside those genuinely interested in advancing peace, Fogel said.
“Boycott, fundamentally, is a negative thing. Those who want to make a positive contribution don’t look to negative approaches to achieve reconciliation.”
Like Congress in 2009, CIJA will also be represented at the church’s general council next month. Victor Goldbloom will speak on the organization’s behalf and will be accompanied by other CIJA staff. He will address the main plenary.
From 1980 to 1987, Goldbloom was CEO of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.
Fogel said he’d met with UCC general secretary Nora Sanders last week to try to work things out with the church.
“If we can’t have confidence in our partner on so fundamental an issue as Israel as a Jewish state, then it’s difficult for us to see ourselves collaborating with them on other initiatives” in the future, he said.
The United Church’s 41st General Council runs Aug. 11 to 18 in Ottawa.