There has been no shortage of reporting on last month’s United Church convention (technically, General Council), much of it somewhat confusing – what happened, what resolutions passed, what resolutions were defeated, is it good for the Jews, for the United Church, etc.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka [Frances Kraft file photo]
In this article, I will make an effort to provide some measure of clarity. I was there, and since the convention was recent enough, I still remember the events as they unfolded pretty well.
Bernie Farber, CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), and I left for Kelowna, B.C., on Aug. 10, to be joined there by Michael Elterman, a British Columbia CJC stalwart. I was invited as a clergy resource person, as were clergy from other faiths. Bernie and Michael came on their own. As an invited guest, I had speaking privileges, but no voting privileges. Bernie and Michael had neither. But they were allowed to be present, and they interacted very effectively with United Church delegates.
The full sessions were held in the gym of the University of British Columbia in Kelowna. As an invited guest, I sat at a table with other delegates from the United Church. Bernie and Michael could attend, but had to sit in the grandstand, or bleachers. The view from those seats was quite satisfactory.
United Church conventions handle many issues. There are so many that the delegates are divided into commissions, with different commissions tasked with dealing with specific sets of resolutions. The Atlantic commission dealt with the Israel resolutions, and I was, thankfully, assigned to the Atlantic commission.
Each commission, although representing only one-third of the delegates, decides for the entire church. Otherwise, delegates could not tackle their considerable agenda. The cynic would say that if they dropped their anti-Israel items, they would have more time.
The four Israel-related resolutions came up for discussion at the afternoon session of the Atlantic commission on Aug. 11. Right at the outset, a resolution was proposed that repudiated and regretted the provocative, unbalanced and hurtful background material that was circulated to the delegates as the basis for the resolutions. There were four Israel-related resolutions, three of which recommended a boycott of Israel. It was in the background material to these resolutions that the most disgusting anti-Semitic accusations were made. These accusations included that taking MPs to visit Israel amounted to bribery (these MPs visit Palestinian leaders during those visits), and that some Jewish MPs had “dual” loyalties, which is code for being disloyal to Canada.
These are vicious allegations, and they aroused the anger not only of the Jewish community, but also many United Church leaders. The offensive material was brought to public attention by Canadian Jewish Congress, so that by the time the commission got to work at the convention, this matter had caused much anguish. The motion to repudiate and reject these slanders was passed almost unanimously.
Then it was on to the resolutions themselves. As an invited guest, I was given three minutes to address the commission from the podium, as were two others, both of whom urged that the commission approve the boycott resolutions. In my remarks, I told the delegates that the resolutions were born in hate. They had repudiated the hate, and they should likewise reject the product of that hate, the resolutions themselves. What is conceived in hate can amount to no good. I also told them that it’s inconceivable that the Jewish community will continue any dialogue with the United Church should it decide to boycott Israel. To single out and vilify Israel would signal a breaking point in the relationship.
A resolution to refer all the resolutions to the General Council in some way or another was the subject of the ensuing debate. A motion to defer the decision meant that the matter was moved to the next session, set for Thursday morning, Aug. 13.
At the beginning of that session, a motion was placed on the floor to reject the three resolutions (Toronto 9, Toronto 10 and Toronto 13) calling for boycott. That resolution passed, but not unanimously, maybe by a two-to-one margin. This meant that the United Church rejected the boycott of Israel as an official policy of the church. This was the main purpose of our going to Kelowna.
We have no illusions. We know that the United Church of Canada is anything but united when it comes to Israel. There are some who are passionately supportive of Israel, who recognize that Israel is surrounded by implacable enemies bent on its destruction, enemies who place more importance on destroying Israel than on building bridges for peace and opportunity for themselves.
And there are some who just don’t get it. They see the suffering and jump to the conclusion that this suffering is imposed by Israel, when it is in the main self-imposed suffering. I will give them all the benefit of their being sincere, though the hateful language in the background materials that was repudiated suggests something short of love for Israel.
The debate on the motion to accept the fourth resolution, called Montreal & Ottawa 7, which was essentially a strengthening of the United Church’s already stated position on the Middle East, became quite complicated. I argued from the floor that the United Church should reject negative approaches, and concentrate only on encouraging and supporting positive, bridge-building initiatives. Many delegates shared that view, but many others did not.
So, wording that recommended directing the General Secretary, General Council and the conferences, presbyteries, congregations and community ministries to consult, dialogue and study, and take appropriate action toward ending the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and enter into conversation as to how to move the two peoples toward reconciliation (including but not limited to economic boycott) was placed before the commission.
There were so many amendments made that by the time it came to vote, delegates at my table, at least, didn’t realize they were voting for the entire article of the motion. They thought they were just voting on an amendment. In my frustration at what was a rushed and unclear process, I ran up to the microphone and protested, saying in effect as follows: “Do you realize that you just voted for boycotting Israel? This will have grave repercussions.”
This was due to the confusing array of amendments upon amendments that were in the resolution. It turned out that the resolution didn’t embrace a boycott, but it also didn’t reject it for the future. In effect, the United Church went back to where it had been. I will not hide my disappointment that the United Church failed to reject the idea of a boycott. At the same time, and without defending the church, a resolution to talk about a boycott is nothing more than a resolution to talk about a boycott. That freedom to contemplate was there before the convention and remains after the convention.
The bottom line is as follows: the United Church rejected an anti-Israel boycott as church policy and left open a wide range of initiatives for autonomous local churches. We achieved what we set out to achieve. This was not the place to enter into debate on some of the basic formulations and statements that comprise United Church policy on Israel. Had we done so, we would have achieved nothing.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Someone made an amendment to a motion that they delete the word “Jewish” from the policy statement of the United Church, which is clear in affirming that a just peace in the Middle East will require the “recognition by the emergent State of Palestine of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within safe and secure borders.” That motion was rejected, as it would have interfered with a stated United Church position, and could not be changed.
Had we focussed on the objectionable parts of United Church policy, we would have gotten nowhere.
It’s worth noting that although there has been no shortage of negatives hurled at the United Church, it needs to be stressed that the official Church position is clear in affirming the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state within safe and secure borders, and that for peace to ensue, this must be affirmed by Israel’s adversary. It would be unfair to ignore this and its significance.
Let me conclude with a few observations:
• Some of the most hateful literature disseminated at the United Church convention, and some of the most hurtful anti-Israel sentiments, came from groups claiming to speak for Jews.
• Israel has some very good friends in the United Church who voted against boycott, because they value and appreciate Israel.
• The church’s connection to the Jewish community and working with the Jewish community is very important to a large percentage of United Church members.
• There is a significant and growing (specially among the younger generation) sentiment that is less than positive toward Israel.
• The boycott issue won’t go away on its own. The approved resolution calls for “continuing guidance” on this matter, and also calls for a report on it to the 41st General Council in three years.
• The Jewish community is blessed with dedicated public servants who have worked diligently and productively with the United Church over the years. It’s thanks to them that a boycott was rejected – people such as Victor Goldbloom, Rabbi Howard Joseph, Marsha Levy, Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, and Eric Vernon have devoted a lifetime of work to this. This is all Canadian Jewish Congress work. And the work to build a better understanding in a church that allows for the free expression of all views is a daunting task. We all need to applaud the work of CJC, and to support its efforts with the United Church and other groups that don’t appreciate Israel in its true greatness.
Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is rabbinic emissary for Canadian Jewish Congress and an immediate past CJC co-president.