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Day One

All eyes on Israel-Palestine report as commissioners descend on Ottawa

By Mike Milne

Commissioners to The United Church of Canada’s 41st General Council have begun to converge on Ottawa’s Carleton University. For the next seven days, 350 commissioners will debate church doctrine and beliefs, choose a new moderator from among 15 candidates, discuss the denomination’s future and vote on an Israel-Palestine position paper that could shape the future of the United Church’s official relationship with the Canadian Jewish community.

Although it’s one of more than 125 proposals up for discussion, the debate over the Mideast position paper and its call for a boycott of products produced in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank will dominate the meeting. Canada’s main Jewish advocacy organization, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) has lobbied against the proposal for the past two months. The organization has repeatedly stated that any form of boycott will likely mean an end to amiable official United Church-Jewish dialogue. That view has been echoed by a handful of vocal United Church ministers, laypeople and politicians with United Church ties.

If General Council organizers had any hope of dealing quietly with the church’s Israel-Palestine report and its controversial proposals, they probably chose the wrong city — Ottawa is home to a small army of journalists — and the wrong time: Parliament is in summer recess, and the reporters are hungry for stories. Past General Councils have considered the Israel-Palestine issue in smaller decision-making commissions, but this week’s meeting in Ottawa will make its decision in a full plenary session being fed live to an Internet video link.

The current boycott proposal is the third to be considered by General Council since 2006. It is the least sweeping and most carefully researched proposal to date. Previous boycott proposals have originated with grassroots activists. The current proposal comes from an officially appointed General Council working group on Israel-Palestine policy, chaired by a past moderator, with input from two top General Council staff.

The report denounces references to Israel as an apartheid state and affirms Israel as a Jewish state. It also supports a negotiated settlement to Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

The working group spent 12 days in Israel and the occupied territories last year. One of its members 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.

Commissioners are likely to hear from Palestinian and Jewish guests. Along with the Israel-Palestine report itself, they can consider input from 17 non-United Church groups posted on the General Council 41 website, ranging from CIJA’s 18-page rebuttal to an Internet commentary by Concordia University history professor Stephen Scheinberg, co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now and a member of CIJA’s Montreal regional board. He urges the United Church to “stand firm” against what he sees as attempts by CIJA to equate a targeted boycott with a full boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) strategy, and squash any future criticism of Israeli settlements.

There’s also pressure from within the church. Nine senators who are United Church members wrote to call the boycott proposal “strange” and said adopting it would be tantamount to choosing sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Rev. Andrew Love of Arnprior, Ont., has also spoken out against the working group report and boycott proposal, launching a website and online petition in opposition. He will be staffing an information table at General Council.

Love has joined forces with CIJA in commissioning a survey of 500 United Church members on the boycott issue, conducted by Ottawa-based pollsters the Gandalf Group. Promising to release the full survey results early next week, Love says it shows that “an overwhelming majority” of those polled are opposed to a boycott of any kind against Israel and want the church to “stay neutral” in the matter.

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