Canada’s Jewish community are in outrage after Canada’s largest Protestant church voted to boycott all goods exported by Israeli settlements on the West Bank, at the church’s 41st General Council this past Friday.
“We’re disappointed,” said Shimon Foigel, CEO of The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “It took me aback that there was just an absolute refusal for them to apply any kind of critical thinking when the recommendations first came forward to discussion. There was absolutely no debate on the merits of them.”
He believes the resolution is too one-sided to actually aid the peace process.
“We have never adopted an approach that said support for Israel has to come at the expense for support for legitimate Palestinian aspirations,” said Fogel, “and until the anti-Israel forces do the same, we don’t have a whole lot to look forward to.”
In May, the United Church of Canada published the “Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy” which aimed to “contribute, even in a small way, to justice that leads to peace in Israel/Palestine.”
The 26-page report names a few factors that have infringed on the peace process: the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza; the construction of the security barrier; and inequitable access to water between Israeli settlers and the West Bank, but called settlements the primary obstacle to peace.
It briefly mentions that the Church “should uphold Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people” as well as condemned any violence from both sides.
But members of Canada’s Jewish community say the vote unfairly places the entire blame of the conflict onto Israel.
“One of the implications is that it frees the Palestinians from having to do anything to advance peace,” said Fogel. “The real casualty is the peace process itself. (This decision) liberates Palestinians from having to recognize Israel. It places all the onus on Israel.”
The report does not mention the effect terrorist groups like Hamaz and Hezbollah have on the conflict. It mentions the daily rocket attacks from Gaza once, compared to the 64 times that settlements are mentioned.
But the Church said it was time they commit to a firm stance on the conflict.
“We wanted to send a signal that the occupation has to end, that settlements are illegal and they need to ultimately stop constructing them and stop expanding them,” said Bruce Gregersen, General Council Officer and senior spokesperson for the church. “The overall commitment of the church is very clear: we want a two state solution and the expansion of the settlements is undermining the two state solution.”
This isn’t the first time an economic boycott has come up in the United Church. In 2009, the church contemplated a national boycott on all Israeli goods. It was never finalized. “We chose to advise against participating in the worldwide boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, and we’re specifically focused on settlement goods,” said Gregersen.
As the church focuses on settlement expansion as the main barrier to achieving lasting peace, Jewish leaders like Fogel believe the ties between the church and the Jewish community in Canada are completely severed. “There’s no way to go forward and dialogue until they reexamine and adjust their policies in a way that reflects balance and constructive commentary to issues,” he said.
He questions whether the resolution reflects the true views of United Church members.
More than three-quarters of Church members surveyed by CIJA in early July said the Church should remain neutral on the Israeli Palestinian issue and only 5% said Israeli settlements are the greatest obstacle to peace. All respondents said they were involved in the Church and attend church services at least once a month.
“I do think there is a core group within the United Church that has been determined for more than a decade to try and pull the Church in a direction that, in effect, distances itself from Israel and becomes much more closely aligned with the whole BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement,” said Fogel. “The elite leadership of the Church has strayed from where its constituencies are.”
He said the outpouring of criticism he’s seen from United Church members only solidifies this belief.
“We’ve seen messages in the hundreds coming into us and from comment fields in the media, of United Church members who are expressing the same kind of outrage and saying this doesn’t represent them nor is it something they feel they can be part of,” said Fogel.
It’s unclear what, if any, will be the practical implications of the boycott.
“I don’t think Israel will feel any effect economically,” said Fogel. “In every single case, (boycott movements) have resulted in huge spikes in consumption of Israeli products.”
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