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Boycott bid defeated amid fierce lobbying

By Mike Milne

For the third time in less than a decade, The United Church of Canada’s General Council backed away from sanctions against Israel to protest its occupation of Palestinian territories and treatment of Palestinians. The motion it did adopt, however, asks 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.)”

The possibility that other courts of the church could call for sanctions was “very interesting,” said pro-Palestinian activist Karin Brothers of Toronto.

For Canadian Jewish groups that lobbied fiercely against the proposed academic and cultural boycott and threatened to cut off relations with the United Church if it was adopted, Council’s carefully worded motion was a partial victory. Rabbi Reuven Bulka, former co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) and an official guest at Council, said the decision means “maybe there’s a lot more dialogue that needs to go on in terms of understanding the complexities of the Middle East.”

Reaching middle ground and a Canadian-style compromise should keep the church talking to all sides of the Israel-Palestine struggle. During several hours of debate and discussion spread over two days, commissioners heard clear calls for a boycott from a Palestinian representative of one of its Mideast partners and United Church young adults who visited Israel and Palestine last May as part of the church-backed Youth for Peace program.

Nora Carmi, an official guest from the Sabeel theology centre in Jerusalem, reminded commissioners that the aim of the proposed boycott was “not to bring down the state of Israel,” but to nudge it toward peace with Palestinians. “We are already dying in the occupied territories because we are totally under the control of Israel,” she said.

In the weeks leading up to General Council, as debate raged in the media, the United Church received letters of support from the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem and the United Church of Christ (U.S.A.).

But the CJC labelled the church’s proposals anti-Semitic in the media, and opposition also came from church-related institutions. The president of United Church-affiliated Victoria University and the principal of Emmanuel College said that “the principles of academic freedom” were “incompatible with academic boycotts,” and they would oppose such action.

In a letter forwarded to commissioners, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles expressed “strong outrage” at background information attached to one of the proposals that characterized Israeli-sponsored trips to the Middle East by Canadian members of Parliament as “bribes” and pointed out “sensitive roles” held by MPs with dual Israeli and Canadian citizenship. The centre 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 quickly distanced the church from that material, calling it “provocative, unbalanced and hateful.” Brothers, a member of the Toronto Southwest Presbytery Holy Land Action and Awareness Task Group, defended the background material as “factual,” but admitted some of the words in it may have been “poorly chosen.”

While commissioners spent a great deal of time discussing the matter in table groups, the framework of the compromise motion was drafted during a day-long break in business. The motion calls for full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, withdrawal of Israeli forces to pre-1967 borders, an end to violence on both sides and Palestinian recognition of “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within safe and secure borders.” It supports the WCC’s two-year-old Amman Call for Mideast peace, which asks for removal of the Israeli-built separation wall in occupied territories and construction of “bridges for an enduring peace among the peoples of this tortured and beautiful place — Palestine and Israel.”

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