The United Church and Israel: what happened at GC41?

Those of us for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, going on in one form or another since 1947, is a major concern, have followed the debates on that issue leading up to the UCC’s 41st General Council, recently concluded in Ottawa, and the decisions made there.

Some background. Concern about the situation in the United Church goes back decades. Al Forrest, editor of the United Church Observer in the seventies, got into a lot of trouble when he highlighted the miseries of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. In 2009, at the 40th General Council, in Kelowna, the issue was raised very strongly. But between a lack of coherence in the proposals put forward there and massive criticism and opposition from the Canadian Jewish Congress (as it then was: now CIJA—Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs), no substantial decisions were reached as far as direct action was concerned. What was decided was that the issue was commended to congregations for study, and it was agreed to commission a working group of senior United Church leaders to produce a report which would be presented to the 41st GC.

Last spring, the Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy produced its report. (The whole report is accessible at gc41.ca.) Some of its highlights:

  • expression of concern for all the peoples of the region, not just the Palestinians;
  • concern for the shrinking of the Palestinian Christian population (from 18% during the British Mandate [1918-48] to 2% today;
  • a denial that criticism of policies of the government of Israel is anti-semitic
  • that the settlements (some say “colonies”) built in the West Bank since 1967 are illegal under international law, which Israel ignores;
  • that the theology of Christian Zionism, which supports the settlements financially and politically is false theology (a very strong, flat statement);
  • that it is time to mandate “economic action” in regard to products of the settlements misleadingly marked as “Product of Israel”;
  • that the first step to peace is the ending of the occupation;
  • that peace is possible, as evidenced by the work of Israelis and Palestinians “who are willing to risk much for peace”;
  • that the Church should support the creation of a viable Palestinian state (although it also notes that “the window for a two-state option is drawing to a close” because of the settlements);
  • that the very limited access for Palestinians to water must be addressed;
  • that it is unacceptable to insist that Palestinians accept Israel as “a Jewish state” in advance of a final peace agreement; and
  • that other churches be invited to join with the United Church in its ongoing campaign of working for resolution of the conflict.

All of these points were affirmed by the time of the final vote on August 17. The resolutions were strengthened by the addition of paragraphs

  • acknowledging that incitement to violence against the State of Israel and its people is an important contributor to the violence that afflicts the region;
  • denouncing all questioning of Israel’s right to exist;
  • calling on members of the Church to deepen and strengthen relationships with the Jewish community, and with the Islamic community; and
  • denouncing the violence toward and promotion of hatred for residents of the occupied territories by some settlers and others.

There was active media attention to the upcoming vote in the week preceding, and in the hours following. In those television, radio and newspaper treatments, a clear division was observable between those who emphasized the well-being of Israel alone—those representing mainstream and conservative Jewish organizations or conservative elements within the Church, and those who embraced the well-being of all the peoples of the region. This is clearly seen in the paragraphs added during the Council to the original resolutions.

I want to acknowledge how difficult it is for Jews who have no first-hand knowledge of the occupation to affirm what the United Church is affirming. The Holocaust remains as a psycho-spiritual wound in the worldwide Jewish community, whether individual Jews have ever suffered from anti-semitism or not; and this leads to resistance, paranoia and an over-emphasis on the security of Israel—something which we see also in the United States since 9/11. (I taught a course on the Holocaust at Simon Fraser University between 1995 and 2004; and it was only in my last offering of the course that I became aware of the Palestinian narrative as an alternative to the Israeli narrative.)

So what’s ahead?  These are my hunches/expectations.

The “economic action” (the word “boycott” was avoided because there are some elements in the BDS—Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—Campaign with which the United Church disagrees) will gradually come into play and be interpreted to the grassroots of the church. Sooner or later, the other churches will take their own steps in the same direction that the United Church has gone. The right wing of Israeli public opinion will continue to assert that the West Bank is part of Israel, that the distinction between Israel proper and the occupied territories is meaningless, and that therefore the “economic action” is anti-Israeli and anti-semitic. Major Jewish organizations will continue to resist the increasing public awareness of the Palestinian narrative.  The general public, however, will increasingly tilt towards the Palestinian narrative, something which I have observed happening increasingly since 2006, when I first started working on this issue. The present federal government will continue to follow an Israel-right-or-wrong policy. The split in the Jewish community between uncritical supporters of the government of Israel and Jews of awakened conscience will widen, and the groups currently represented by such organizations as IJV (Independent Jewish Voices) will grow.

Sooner or later, peace will come to the Middle East, but only when the occupation has ended and justice has been done for the Palestinians. This is the absolute prerequisite for genuine security for Israel, and thereby peace in the Middle East as a whole. I salute the United Church of Canada for its hard work and thoughtfulness in preparing fo GC41, and for its courage and moral commitment in making the decisions that it did.

 

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*An excellent summary of the actions of GC41 appeared in the August 18 issue of The Ottawa Citizen, and is accessible at this link:

 

http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/national/United+Church+approves+boycott+some+Israeli+products/7107770/story.html

 

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