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Rev. Bruce Gregersen, the United Church of Canada's senior staffperson for mission and ministry, fields reporters' questions Thursday during a break in the debate over a controversial proposal to boycott academic and cultural links with Israel. Photo by Mike Milne

Church backs away from Israel boycott (Thursday, Aug.13, 2009)

By Mike Milne

Faced with fierce opposition from Jewish organizations and strongly divided opinions in its own ranks, the United Church’s General Council backed away from using a boycott to express its displeasure with Israel’s actions against Palestinians in the long-running Middle East conflict.

A Council commission in Kelowna. B.C., considering the issue Thursday, dropped proposals that would have supported academic, cultural and economic boycotts against Israel. Instead, church decision-makers voted to denounce human rights abuses and violence on both sides of the conflict and ask congregations, church partners and other church groups to study and discuss “past and future actions to end the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory (including but not limited to economic boycott.)”

Local or regional United Church groups could decide to support boycotts against Israel, but rejection of such an action by the national church was good enough for Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, past co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and a guest at the week-long Council meeting.

“Our concern was that it not become church policy to vilify Israel and single it out and call for a boycott,” he said after the decision. “So in that sense I am pleased.”  In media reports in the days leading up to General Council, a CJC spokesperson had equated voting for a boycott with anti-Semitism.

Support for the boycott came from Nora Carmi, a guest at General Council from the Sabeel theology centre in Jerusalem. Letters backing church solidarity with Palestinians came from the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem. The United Church of Christ (U.S.A.) said it was “painfully aware that for many in the Jewish community, any criticism of the policies of the State of Israel is cause for deep concern.”

Background material for pro-boycott proposals originating in the church’s Toronto Conference was also criticized in the weeks leading up to General Council’s consideration of the Middle East proposals. The Simon Wiesenthal Center expressed “strong outrage” at information that cited Israeli-sponsored trips to the Middle East by Canadian members of Parliament and the “sensitive roles” held by MPs with dual Israeli and Canadian citizenship. The Wiesenthal Center said the proposals and supporting materials “are better suited to propagandists of Hitler’s Germany in the ’30s than the largest Protestant Church group in Canada.”

Commissioners considering the proposals had earlier distanced the church from that background material, calling it “provocative, unbalanced and hateful.” Thursday’s decision to reject an immediate boycott means church relations with Canadian Jewish groups will continue, says Bulka, but will be “strained,” adding that “there’s a lot more dialogue that needs to go on in terms of understanding the complexities of the Middle East.”

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