This past August, the General Council of the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, adopted a motion urging its members to boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements.
The proposal was part of a larger, rather one-sided report prepared by the church’s Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy. It aimed to put pressure on Israel to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which the working group considers to be the primary obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Ironically, the ill-timed boycott motion, which isn’t binding on United Church members, was adopted the same day that Iran “celebrated” International Al-Quds Day, an annual end-of-Ramadan event started by the late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to protest Israeli control of Jerusalem.
As part of this year’s festivities, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his threats to destroy Israel, saying, among other things, that “in the new Middle East…. there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists,” and that Israel is a “cancerous tumour” and an “insult to all humanity.”
The move by the left-leaning church also came amid reports that Egypt’s experiment with democracy is drifting toward full-blown theocracy, as its newly elected Islamist president consolidates his control by installing his own army chiefs and by deploying tanks to the Sinai Peninsula. The latter move was ostensibly made in order to fight terror groups operating in the territory, but it wasn’t co-ordinated with Israel, in an apparent violation of the 1979 peace treaty.
It was also a bit jarring that the boycott was adopted the same day the church chose Gary Paterson as its first openly gay moderator, given that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that grants full rights to gays and lesbians.
Yet the boycott decision wasn’t a surprise. It had been building for a long time.
This past June, a group of nine Canadian Senators – all United Church members – wrote a letter to outgoing moderator Mardi Tindal urging the church not to adopt the recommendations of its Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy, which included the boycott recommendation.
And in the run-up to the church’s 2009 General Council meeting, representatives of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress were able to work with United Church members to tone down the church’s rhetoric on Israel, as well as prevent a vote at the assembly on a motion to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions.
Not surprisingly, Canada’s major Jewish advocacy groups practically fell over one another last week in their rush to condemn the church’s settlement boycott.
Yet in focusing on the boycott, they underplayed some of the more troubling aspects of the church’s overall report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As well, their statements made no distinction between a settlements boycott and a wider one of Israel proper. An outside observer would be forgiven for thinking mainstream Jewish groups consider the West Bank to be part of Israel, despite their support for a two-state solution.
The Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC) was first off the mark in slamming the motion.
“We are beyond a doubt saddened by this distressing decision and fear a relationship of trust and friendship is irreparably broken,” FSWC president and CEO Avi Benlolo said in an Aug. 15 statement about half an hour after the church adopted a preliminary boycott recommendation. “I don’t know if church members truly understand how utterly offensive and imbalanced this proposal is, or whether a latent antisemitism within the church is slowly coming back to life. What is certain is that… the supporters of antisemitic hatred have found a new friend.”
B’nai Brith Canada, the most right-wing of Canada’s mainstream Jewish groups, with close ties to evangelical Christians, chimed in next with an unsolicited theology lesson for United Church members.
“At a time when thousands of Syrian citizens are being slaughtered [in the country’s civil war], we find this obsession with the Jewish state highly suspect. The subtext of these recommendations is that Jews cannot legitimately establish working communities in biblical Israel – this is a first step towards calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from these areas,” said CEO Frank Diamant.
“These recommendations have no place at a Christian forum. Christians should be welcoming the fulfilment of the prophecy, not negating the word of God,” he added, referring to the evangelical Christian view that the return of Jews to the Holy Land and the creation of the State of Israel are foretold in the Bible and are necessary steps on the road to redemption.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of Congress’s successor organization, the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which claims to speak for the majority of Canadian Jews, told the Toronto Star on Aug. 15 that the “reaction of the Jewish community is one of unbridled outrage.” He added that it’s “beyond comprehension that [the United Church] would choose to so skew a commentary on the conflict and come out with so one-sided an approach.”
Referring to to another part of the working group report that was adopted by the General Council, CIJA said that it was “equally offended by the church’s expression of regret for previously calling for Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character. This decision represents a radical shift in the United Church’s policies, betrays the views of the vast majority of its members, and flies in the face of decades of constructive interfaith dialogue.”
CIJA noted that a poll of church members commissioned by CIJA and a grassroots United Church group, headed by Rev. Andrew Love, called Faithful Witness – the results of which were provided to all United Church clergy as well as commissioners at this month’s General Council – “dramatically demonstrated the extent to which the new policy is at odds with the views of the Church’s congregants… The Church’s decision to support boycott in full knowledge of these survey results confirms the extent to which this decision was driven by narrow ideology rather than by a desire to faithfully represent the views of the membership.”
The online survey of 501 active church members found that 65 per cent blame both sides equally for the failure to achieve peace, while 78 per cent believe the church should stay neutral on the issue, and 64 per cent thought it should stay out of Mideast politics. As well, only five per cent believe settlements are the primary obstacle to peace.
Less helpfully, the survey didn’t ask specifically about a boycott of products from the settlements, but it did find that 59 per cent opposed endorsing a boycott of products from Israel, while 73 per cent thought a church boycott would have no impact on the cause of peace in the Middle East.
If not for statements by CIJA’s lay chair, David Koschitzky, one might have thought the organization had inadvertently neglected to make a distinction between a boycott of products from Israel and a more narrow boycott of products from the settlements. After all, one could oppose the former while favouring the latter and still support a two-state solution. As well, a boycott of goods from the settlements has been tolerated, and even favoured, by a number of progressive Jewish groups.
But Koschitzky said the following:
“No mainstream Jewish organization, including Canadian Friends of Peace Now, endorses boycott. Even the leadership of the [Jewish] American left-wing group J-Street has publicly condemned boycotts as counterproductive,” he said.
“Support for the boycott tactic is limited to a small fringe. Tragically, the [United Church] chose to join that fringe, rather than listen to the nearly 100,000 families who are members of Jewish federations across Canada, and on whose behalf the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs speaks,” he added
“In adopting this position, the United Church has rejected the path of balance, and has chosen to explicitly ally itself with those who formally reject the two-state solution and who deny the historical right of the Jewish people to a homeland.”
Koschitzky was being disingenuous and presumptuous when it comes to Peace Now and J-Street, which oppose general boycotts of Israel but view boycotts of the settlements as legitimate.
This led Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN) to denounce CIJA for mischaracterizing the positions of the church, J Street and the CFPN.
“CIJA outrageously distorts the [United Church]’s position when it claims that the church has ‘chosen to explicitly ally itself with those who formally reject the two-state solution and who deny the historical right of the Jewish people to a homeland.’ In reality, the church explicitly supports a two-state solution and recognizes Israel as a Jewish state,” CFPN said in a statement.
“CIJA also misrepresented CFPN’s position on the issue of a settlements boycott. CFPN did not endorse or oppose the Church’s resolution, in part because of a lack of balance underlying it. However, our parent organization, Peace Now in Israel, has endorsed, in principle, a boycott of the settlements (while also being aware that they are not the only impediments to peace).”
Indeed, as CFPN co-chair Stephen Scheinberg noted in a letter to the Canadian Jewish News, referring to a CJN piece written by Fogel against the church’s then-proposed settlement boycott, “Fogel acknowledges the Jewish community has a healthy diversity of opinion, presumably extending to the settlements, but then proceeds to argue that CIJA must react when the church aims to target Israelis for boycott. Fogel has thereby extended CIJA’s legitimate defence of Israel to the defence of settlements, which is still a hotly debated issue… Fogel and CIJA are out of line in extending their protection to the settlement enterprise.”
Oddly, CIJA’s approach to settlements finds it sharing common ground with anti-Zionist groups that advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) when it comes to Israel.
BDS activists talk about using such measures as a way to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war. But they’re often vague about what they mean by occupation, allowing people to think they’re referring to territory captured by Israel in 1967 when really they view all of Israel as occupied territory and want to see it dismantled. That’s because while they may view Israel as illegitimate (an apartheid or colonialist state, etc.), they know that taking a straightforward stand that calls for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means the end of Israel as the world’s lone Jewish state, something even most progressives won’t support.
With its statements on the settlements boycott – although coming from the other side of the debate, and perhaps because it feels it has to reflect the sentiments of as wide as possible a swath of Canada’s quite religiously conservative, and increasingly politically conservative, Jewish community – CIJA, too, has chosen to elide the distinction between the West Bank and Israel.
Another progressive view on the whole United Church debacle came earlier this week from Harry Schachter, a member of the co-ordinating committee of JSpaceCanada, which models itself on J-Street in the U.S.
Schachter lauded the United Church for endorsing a negotiated two-state solution that “maintains the demographic integrity of Israel” and for clearly stating that questioning Israel’s right to exist is wrong, but he took issue with crucial aspects of the United Church position.
“The church has voted to make a lot of demands on Israel,” such as ending settlement construction and dismantling the West Bank security barrier where it crosses the Green Line, he wrote, noting that JSpaceCanada agrees with these positions.
“But the [church] council ultimately makes no demands whatsoever on the Palestinians. There is one all-too-brief mention in the working group report of the need for Palestinians (and Israelis) to reject violence, and there is barely any mention at all of the rejectionist factions such as Hamas that are so strong among the Palestinians. This is a gaping void in the church’s position.”
On the question of boycotts, Schachter said that “JSpaceCanada has from its very beginning opposed any form of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) when it comes to Israel. The international BDS movement is simply too saturated with anti-Israel bias and rhetoric, and many of its participants reject the entire notion of a Jewish state.”
Yet while Schachter commended the church for acknowledging problems in the BDS movement and opting instead for a more “nuanced and defensible position” in the form of a settlements boycott, he argued that “in practical terms, it is difficult if not impossible to enforce without also hurting Israelis outside the settlements. Most significantly, it serves only to isolate and harden Israel and its supporters when what is most urgently needed is close contact and diplomacy.”
This is the nuanced explanatory approach that CIJA should have taken in its PR blitz last week.
Unfortunately, in trying to square a circle and represent all views in the Jewish community while simultaneously out-doing its advocacy competitors, CIJA – to put it charitably – twisted itself in knots. In doing so, it unnecessarily provoked a bun fight with the CFPN and made itself look hypocritical.
It’s worth noting that this kind of interfaith (and internecine) train wreck rarely happened during the 90-year-history of Canadian Jewish Congress. And it’s particularly hard to recall it ever happening under the watch of Bernie Farber, Congress’ former CEO, who usually managed to head off this kind of conflict well before it became a crisis. His contacts were strong, and as someone on the centre-left of the political spectrum with a long history in interfaith relations and working with anti-racist groups, he knew how to engage the left and speak its language. This allowed him and his team to present Israel’s case in ways that progressives could understand and relate to.
Congress was folded into CIJA a few years back as part of a reorganization of advocacy groups aligned with Canada’s local Jewish federations, and, unfortunately, Farber was left out in the cold when the top job at CIJA went to Fogel, a former head of the now-defunct Canada-Israel Committee.
Lately, he’s been writing opinion pieces for Canadian newspapers and websites, after losing his bid to represent the Toronto-area riding of Thornhill as a Liberal candidate in the last provincial election.
Could this whole mess been avoided with him in the mix?
This wasn’t the United Church’s finest hour, but neither was it so for Canada’s Jewish advocacy groups.
It appears that Farber’s contacts, outlook and skill set are sorely missed.