Whether it was over a tray of goodies at a party, in a restaurant or during a chance meeting on the street, my Jewish friends had pretty much the same message for me last fall: “I’m not very happy with the United Church.”
As they saw it, the United Church had flirted with something approaching anti-Semitism when it considered a proposal for a boycott of academic, cultural and economic ties with Israel at its General Council meeting in Kelowna, B.C., during the summer. Their chagrin was amplified by news stories reporting the church had given a small grant to the founding meeting of the Canadian chapter of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), which supports the Palestinian call for boycott, disvestment and sanctions against Israel. Chagrin turned to outrage when a newspaper columnist charged that one of IJV Canada’s founders had cited anti-Semitic 9/11 conspiracy theorists in a 2006 essay.
I did my best to explain what had actually happened at General Council: a regional court of the church had sent the boycott proposal up the food chain, and under the church’s rules, commissioners in Kelowna were obliged to consider it. They had turned it down and repudiated inflammatory language in the material that accompanied it. Officially, the church had also begun to distance itself from IJV.
My friends remained suspicious. Echoing public statements by Canada’s main Jewish organization, the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), they felt this was mostly damage control. As far as they were concerned, the United Church had shown its true colours: it was anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian — perhaps even anti-Semitic.
It’s not my position to defend the United Church, but I found myself defending it a lot last fall, particularly on the question of anti-Semitism. I would trot out an analogy. It’s perfectly possible to criticize, say, the government of India without being anti-South Asian. Surely it’s possible to criticize the actions of Israel’s government without being anti-Semitic. Some of my friends saw the point, others didn’t.
In a story that appears this month ("Back from the brink"), Toronto freelancer Caley Moore describes the rift that opened between the CJC and the United Church in the wake of General Council. As Moore reports, a summit earlier this year appeared to lay a bridge across the divide. The church affirmed the CJC as its counterpart, and the CJC acknowledged the diversity of views within the United Church on the Middle East.
Make no mistake — that diversity includes many reasonable people at the grassroots who feel that a church with a long tradition of advocating for justice must not pull up lame when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They believe that the church needs to hear different voices from the Jewish community as well as the voices of Palestinians, and they take offence to suggestions that inviting those voices into the conversation belies undercurrents of anti-Semitism.
It was good to hear that church officials and CJC leaders had agreed to talk some more. But I think it’s clear that the dialogue can’t be confined to the boardroom. It needs to take place at street level, too, and focus on rebuilding trust between communities. An agreement to encourage better lines of communication at the grassroots would be a symbolic gesture of reconciliation for both organizations. Bridges that are supported from below are always the strongest.
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