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General Council in focus

A report on the Middle East has been generating controversy ahead of the church’s national gathering

By Mike Milne

Organizers of General Council’s 41st meeting, happening Aug. 11 to 18 at Carleton University in Ottawa, are quietly doing their best to keep peace in the Middle East from dominating the gathering. But the only agenda item attracting media attention is a report on Israel-Palestine calling for an end to Israel’s military occupation and a boycott targeted against products of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Rev. Stéphane Vermette, who chairs the meeting’s agenda and planning committee, hopes the document and proposals can be considered without restaging a wider debate. “For those challenging reports, those hot potatoes, we’ll try to focus on the report,” he says. Like other matters that aren’t denomination-shaping, the Israel-Palestine report will be considered by one of three commissions meeting mid-week to make decisions that are later confirmed by the whole council.

Unlike proposals advocating church boycotts at earlier councils, the current report does not originate with Conference-based activists but a three-person General Council working group on Israel-Palestine policy, chaired by a past moderator, Very Rev. David Giuliano, and with close collaboration from two top General Council staff. It denounces references to Israel as an apartheid state and affirms Israel as a Jewish state, defined “as a homeland for the Jewish people and a democratic state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.” The report also calls for a negotiated settlement to Palestinian refugees’ right of return and condemns fundamentalist Christians’ support for settlement expansion.

The working group spent 12 days in Israel and the West Bank last year, including three days organized and hosted by the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress. One of the working group’s members, Rev. Thom Davies, later served for three months in the West Bank village of Yanoun, as part of the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. There, he took first-hand testimonies of human rights abuses and saw evidence of Jewish settlers’ attacks and harassment of Palestinians.

The situation in the West Bank is complicated, says Davies. Ordinary Palestinians told him that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is no problem, but issues of land and justice — as settlements cut off Palestinians from their land and water supplies or simply take them over — have to be resolved.

Rev. Barbara White says the working group “definitely heard conflicting versions of the same story.” In her view, “both sides have suffered. And to move toward peace is to stop lifting up that suffering as reasons you can’t move to the table.”

Released in early May, the Israel-Palestine report was criticized by mainstream Canadian Jewish groups, who took issue with the statement that “the deepest meaning of the Holocaust was the denial of human dignity to Jews.” They also questioned the call for a boycott of settlement goods. 

Giuliano responded quickly by writing an article for the National Post clarifying the report’s analysis of human dignity as the root of the Israel-Palestine situation. The working group’s report, he wrote, will be reworded so the reference won’t be seen “as a diminishment of the profound atrocity of the Holocaust.” He says the report’s proposals could also face criticism from church activists advocating stronger condemnations and wider boycotts of Israel. 

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which replaces the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee, disagrees with the report’s definition of a Jewish state and calls the boycott proposal “terribly destructive.” If the report’s recommendations were to be adopted, connections between CIJA and the United Church might be strained to the breaking point, says Fogel. “There’s no doubt that it would represent a very significant challenge to the relationship.” 

Rev. Andrew Love, minister of Grace-St. Andrew’s United in Arnprior, Ont., has also voiced his displeasure with the report’s proposals. Love visited Israel and the West Bank after being ordained three years ago and says the report unfairly singles out Israel as the main obstacle to peace. “I’m quite concerned we are eroding the commitment we made in 2003 to strengthen relationships with the Jewish community, in the Bearing Faithful Witness report,” he says. About 60 supporters have signed on at a website he created about the issue.

For his part, Giuliano says the report is “faithful to two years of meeting with countless people with every possible perspective and our own understanding of where we are called to come from as Christians.” He hopes the church will be able to maintain friendships with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian groups in the area. “But if the cost of friendship is selling someone out, then that isn’t really a friendship.”

CIJA representatives are not invited as official guests to General Council. But because the organization has offices in Ottawa, its staff will likely keep a close watch on the meeting. Victor Goldbloom, the Jewish chair of the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation will attend, along with Hanny Hassan, Muslim co-chair of the National Muslim Christian Liaison Committee.

Beyond the Middle East debate, General Council commissioners will have a full agenda in Ottawa. The meeting’s theme is “Seeking, Loving, Walking,” based on Micah 6:8. In a video message posted on the event’s website, Moderator Mardi Tindal says, “We stand at a significant point in our history, so the meeting will focus on the task of uncovering our identity as The United Church of Canada, who God is calling us to be in this time, and how we can best build strong connections.”

A state-of-the-church report prepared by church staff and volunteer leaders will provide background information for all decisions, and especially for open discussions devoted to discerning the church’s future. The report encourages commissioners to “look deeper, and dream larger, to plant the seeds for the church we need to be in the 21st century.” Grim financial information shows expected budget deficits.

Addressing financial concerns begins with the eight-day meeting itself — a day shorter than the last General Council and, at $1.1 million, two-thirds of the budget. Volunteer stewards now pay their own travel costs, and commissioners within a five-hour drive are travelling to Ottawa on chartered buses. 

In addition to the items mentioned above, commissioners will consider the following:

A new church crest that incorporates Aboriginal symbolism

Plans for becoming an intercultural church

A proposal to test a simplified pastoral relations policy and changes in oversight

Remit 6, a church-wide vote that could confirm or reject the addition of three modern expressions of faith to the Basis of Union

A report on the nature and mission (ecclesiology) of the United Church, from the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee

A proposal from the Executive of General Council for a small task group to review the vision, circumstances, organization and operation of all courts of the United Church; it would be a comprehensive review of organizational changes needed for the future

Proposals from Conferences, including a call for the church pension fund to divest its shares in Goldcorp Inc. and for the church to speak out against human rights abuses and environmental destruction caused by mining operations in the Philippines

Vermette says some commissioners want to get right to work, voting early in the meeting, but he advocates patience. “General Council is more than voting. We will pray and worship because we are the church. And that will not be shortchanged.”  

Election of a new moderator will take place early in the week, but with 15 nominees at press time, council organizers will be limiting speeches to five minutes.  

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