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July 19, 2012

United Church Boycott

Scott Stockdale

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A group of nine Canadian senators has warned the United Church of Canada that it could spark a rift with the Jewish community if it approves the boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in occupied lands. One has to wonder how much concern these same senators have shown about the potential rift with other communities in Canada that face the prospect of boycotts, notwithstanding the justifications put forward.

Nevertheless, the senators, all United Church members and from both the Conservative and Liberal parties, have taken a stand on a controversial issue before it comes to a vote in mid-August.

A working group established by the United Church has issued a report that proposes a boycott of all products from Jewish settlements in occupied lands, arguing the settlements are illegally eating away Palestinian lands and the hope for a two-state solution. But it also rejects a wholesale boycott of all Israeli goods.

In an email to the nine senators, Khaled Mouammar, former President of the Canadian Arab Federation, and a Palestinian Christian refugee from Nazareth, accuses the senators of ignoring the opinions of the majority of Canadians and, at the same time, ignoring Canada's official policy.

“What is most disconcerting is that your letter of June 27 to the United Church of Canada appears to be creating two tiers of citizenship in Canada by considering only the opinions and feelings of those Jewish Canadians who support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank while ignoring the opinions and feelings of most Canadians who uphold international law and Canada’s official policy of opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Amongst those Canadians are thousands of Palestinian Canadians, tens of thousands of Arab Canadians and hundreds of thousands of Christian, Muslim and Jewish Canadians and those of other faiths.”

However, the nine senators have warned in a letter to United Church moderator Mardi Tindal that the distinction between calling for a boycott of the occupied territories and Israel itself will "be lost upon" Israelis and Canada's Jewish community.

"What will be made clear to them is that the United Church has chosen sides, declaring Israel guilty and the Palestinians the only injured party," the senators wrote.

After explaining that she has no objection to the church weighing into the weighty issues of international politics, Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth expressed fear that members of the Jewish community will see themselves as being singled out by anti-Israeli sentiment.

"I'd say it's a matter of diplomacy," she said. "I don't think it will be helpful for Jewish-Christian relations.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly – depending on one's point of view – the senators' letter makes no mention of the facts on the ground, which make life miserable for Palestinians in the occupied territories.

In an interview, Mr. Mouammar said that when Israel was created in 1948, more than 100,000 Palestinian Christians were lost virtually overnight.

He said that most were ethnically cleansed from the coastal cities of Haifa, Jaffa and Acre and more have left to escape the difficulty of life under the occupation since 1967.

“The Christian population in the Holy Land has gone down from 20 percent in 1920 to 2 percent this year. The land of Christianity is being emptied of Christians.”

Meanwhile, the United Church's working group maintains that arguments about the complexity of these issues is not an excuse for silence.

"Simply put, Israel is maintaining a harsh occupation that must end so peace can emerge."

It noted that those settlements are considered a violation of international law under both United Nations resolutions and official Canadian policy. The settlements are eroding Palestinians' land and rapidly removing the basis for any two-state solution, it said.

However, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that ordered the government to take action against the existing outposts, the Netanyahu government commissioned a recently released report calling for it to “legalize” dozens of unsanctioned West Bank settlements.

More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. There are dozens of outposts in addition to about 120 full-fledged settlements.

The Jewish settlements are the cause of a three-year impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations until Israel freezes settlement construction.

In his email, Mr. Mouammar tells the nine Canadian senators that by boycotting Israeli products from the illegal colonies in the occupied West Bank, the United Church of Canada is standing in solidarity not only with the Palestinian people but also with people of conscience everywhere and with the many thousands of Israelis who, believing their government's discriminatory and repressive policies to be wrong, are increasingly making their courageous voices heard.

In 2009, 13 Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued the Kairos Palestine document which reads, in part:

This document is the Christian Palestinians' word to the world about what is happening in Palestine. It is written at this time when we wanted to see the Glory of the grace of God in this land and in the sufferings of its people. In this spirit the document requests the international community to stand by the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering and clear apartheid for more than six decades. The suffering continues while the international community silently looks on at the occupying State, Israel. Our word is a cry of hope, with love, prayer and faith in God.

Bruce Gregersen, the senior program officer at the United Church, who worked on the church's report, said the working group intentionally chose not to target Israel, but rather the settlements, because they don't in any way want to be confused with seeking to weaken or contribute to something that would harm Israel.

But that argument was rejected by Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. “Boycotting settlements alone is technically impractical, and it's really no different than that of a larger boycott aimed at delegitimizing Israel, Mr. Fogel said.” There's an effort to disguise what the real intent is," he said.

Mr. Mouammar said that if they believe that by following international law, they're creating a threat to the state, “What does that say about the character of the state?”

Mr. Fogel said the United Church should explain why it has focused on Israel when Christian communities around the region are under threat.

Mr. Mouammar said that in every other place in the world, when there are violations of human rights, the mainstream media cover it; but the international community and governments of the world – including Arab governments – have done nothing to force Israel to abide by international law.

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