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United Church mission officer Rev. Bruce Gregersen speaks with reporters after a vote that moved the church closer to a boycott of items produced in Israeli settlements. Photo by David Wilson

Day Five

United Church moves closer to boycott of products from Israeli settlements

By Mike Milne

The United Church of Canada’s General Council has taken a giant step toward backing a boycott of products from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

A final motion must be adopted to make the move official, but a strong majority of 350 commissioners, gathered at Ottawa’s Carleton University, voted in favour of a wide-ranging motion that includes a call for church members to avoid products produced in the settlements and names Israel’s 45-year occupation of the West Bank a primary cause of “the injustice that underlies the violence of the region.”

The General Council agenda did not allow for more discussion after the vote. Rev. Bruce Gregersen, the United Church’s top program staffperson, said further sessions could bring more debate, but added, “I think if we’d had another half-hour we would have moved to completion.”

Commissioners had earlier discussed a working group report on Israel-Palestine and heard from its authors, as well as representatives of Palestinian and Canadian Jewish organizations. Lengthy last-minute additions to the proposed motion addressed some of the concerns that were raised during the initial debate. One amendment denounced “the ongoing aggression and incitement to violence toward the state of Israel and its people” as an injustice that also contributes to violence in the area. Another pointed to Israeli settlers’ violence against Palestinians living in the West Bank.

The amendments likely tipped the scales in the motion’s favour; there was little further debate before the final vote.    Future deliberations are unlikely to alter the move toward a boycott. “I don’t think the overall intention and direction of the campaign against settlement products will change,” said Gregersen.

That’s good news for activists in the church who have been campaigning against Israeli settlements for many years and whose proposals for more sweeping economic sanctions were turned down at the last two General Council meetings in 2006 and 2009. It’s bad news for Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which spearheaded a high-pressure campaign against the church’s Middle East report and its proposed boycott.

“It’s impossible for us to react to the developments today without a sense of outrage,” said CIJA’s CEO Shimon Fogel in an interview after the vote. He called the amendments condemning violence and incitement aimed at Israel a “salve” for the commissioners’ consciences.

As for CIJA’s future relations with the United Church, said Fogel, “we will go back to our leadership and consult with our community.” He admitted Jewish and Israeli opinion on the settlements is not unified, but “for both Israelis and Jews, boycott resonates in a particular way. For Jews generally, it heralds back to just less than 70 years ago when the beginning of the process of the Holocaust included a boycott of Jewish enterprises. For Israelis and supporters of Israel worldwide, boycott is part of that BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] formula . . . that has its anchor in the delegitimization and isolation of Israel in the international community.”

In media interviews after the vote, Gregersen went to great lengths to emphasize that the United Church stands firm against any attempts to delegitimize or demonize Israel. Fogel, however, says any boycott is “anathema to anybody who is supporting Israel and to anybody who is contributing to the peace process.”

If and when the boycott is finalized, United Church congregations can expect more detailed information on the products that would be affected by the decision. Items produced in the settlements make up less than one percent of Israel’s exports. They include cosmetics, wine and food products. The General Council motion calls on the Canadian government to ensure that settlement products are labelled differently than those made in Israel.

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