After its General Council meeting in 2012, the United Church of Canada launched a campaign against the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Two years later a group of UCC activists came together to review progress and plan for the future
At its annual meeting held near Hamilton on September 12-14, a group of 42 United Church activists from across Canada decided to continue and strengthen their push to defend the human rights of Palestinians. I was an outside observer. Here are some of my observations on their very successful and productive meeting.
The group, which goes under the name of the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI), consists of dozens of United Church members from across Canada. It makes its influence further felt in the church through presentations, letters, its website and a mailing list of several hundred, including both clergy and lay members of the Church.
The UNJPPI group played a key role in lobbying for the historic 2012 decision by the United Church to openly criticize Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied West Bank. UNJPPI has strongly supported the UCC’s “Unsettling Goods” campaign which aimed at making Church members more aware of Israel’s continued confiscation of Palestinian land. As a result of this principled stand, the UCC has been the object of severe criticism by the Israel lobby, especially the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
The objective of the UNJPPI weekend meeting was to sum up the work that has been done over the last year, and plan for the future.
Topics addressed included:
- A review of the activities of the UNJPPI group across Canada over the last year
- A review of the “Unsettling Goods” campaign by official representatives of the Church
- Presentations by other organizations including Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Canadian Friends of Sabeel, and the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations
- Reports from activists from other Canadian churches including the Anglican Church of Canada and the Unitarian Church, as well as from several American Christian organizations like the Kairos Methodist Response and the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the U.S. Presbyterian Church
Participants also heard very powerful (and emotional) stories from 7 former overseas personnel of the United Church of Canada. They had served as Educational Accompaniers. Each had spent 3 months in the West Bank – supporting Palestinian families, documenting human rights abuses and home demolitions, accompanying children and witnessing to the rest of the world.
Looking toward, the participants discussed how to advance on 4 important themes:
Strengthen the Unsettling Goods campaign
- Join the Canadian Boycott Coalition
- Keep the focus on ending the occupation, but without forgetting the other 2 demands of the BDS movement (equality and right to return)
- Continue fundraising efforts
- Work with a part-time staff person
- Find ways to build the Network regionally and to connect with more people in the United Church.
Improve public education on the issue of Israel Palestine
- More use of a personal approach to key people
- Continue to get credible speakers
Prepare for next general council meeting to be held in August 2014.
- Better understand why there is still reluctance among some inside the church to take up the issue of Palestinian human rights
The group also agreed to support a campaign initiated by Independent Jewish Voices against the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
Evenings were busy with many presentations on different topics including the issue of Israel as a Jewish State, the situation of the Palestinian refugees, and discussions about how to broaden the understanding of the Palestinian issue within the United Church.
The UNJPPI group has played and continues to play a very important educational role in one of Canada’s most important civil society organizations.
The United Church of Canada has been at the leading edge on many important Canadian social issues, including gay and lesbian rights, aboriginal rights and peace and justice. Over many years, the UCC has shown considerable courage in tackling these issues, frequently in the face of considerable opposition.
The church membership and hierarchy has also shown courage and leadership on the Palestinian issue.
However, it is hampered by a lack of broad understanding of the issues by the Church membership at large, including many clergy. Many church members are concerned that by criticizing Israel the Church is not showing “balance” (and are afraid that to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic).
The main challenge facing the UNJPPI group, in my view, is finding tools and approaches which are effective in dealing with these hesitations and concerns of the church membership. The “unsettling goods” campaign has had some success in this regard, but many church members are either indifferent or actively opposed to the campaign which seems to them to be “unfair”.
While maintaining the “unsettling goods” campaign, UNJPPI will be challenged to find other approaches to carrying out broad education among church members.