United Church stands fast on support for Palestinian human rights

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Several hundred delegates of the United Church of Canada, representing congregations from Newfoundland to British Columbia, gathered in Corner Brook, Newfoundland last week at the church’s 42nd General Council, have voted to take steps to strengthen the Church’s support for Palestinian human rights. see more

The United Church of Canada has a reputation for tackling unpopular moral issues. In 2003, the church braved a backlash by making civil rights for gays and lesbians an issue. Some congregations even threatened to leave the institution. Today however, gay rights are not only accepted in the UCC but have been widely (though not universally) accepted by mainstream Canada.

Similarly, when the Church’s “General Council” (a kind of church “parliament”) adopted a resolution three years ago calling to take steps to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank,it was strongly criticized by many. Israel lobby groups claimed the move was motivated by anti-Semitism. Some voices inside the church felt that it was not appropriate for the UCC to “choose sides’. Since then there has been a steady campaign inside the church trying to get the decision reversed. Many were looking to see how this would play out this year at the 42nd General Council.

But the reversal didn’t happen.

Instead, this year’s General Council, held in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, reaffirmed its previous position by adopting three significant motions, the overall effect of which is to strengthen the Church’s support for Palestinian human rights.

The first motion affirmed “the right of self-determination for Palestinians and Israelis so that any choice regarding statehood be made by the people living in Palestine/Israel;”

The second motion directed the General Secretary “to encourage divestment from and economic sanctions against any corporation or institution benefiting from “the illegal occupation” of Palestinian territory”

The third motion, directed the General Secretary to take steps to “foster the development of relationships of trust with various Jewish, Palestinian and other organizations in Canada”.

Taken together, these resolutions show that instead of retreating, the UCC General Council, made up of hundreds of “commissioners” from congregations across Canada, is remaining solid in its support for Palestinian human rights, and wants to pursue a discussion on those issues with other Canadian organizations..

The stand is significant and even attracted the worried attention of the Israeli press.

Support for BDS?? Not yet

However, the General Council was still unable or unwilling, to come out in favour of the BDS call to boycott Israel.

Patti Talbot, a general council staff member told the Canadian Jewish News that “the church is focused on the occupation, but doesn’t align itself with the goals of the overall boycott, divestment and sanction movement”. (i.e. “BDS” ed. note).

The reluctance to embrace BDS may result from a lack of clarity within the church over two of the main demands of the BDS movement: the right of the Palestinian refugees to return and whether Israel should be defended “as a Jewish state”. In 2012, the Church decided to sidestep both these issues. It did so again this year, preferring to focus only on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory taken over in 1967, leaving aside what happened in 1948.

Anti Semitism card again raised

Not surprisingly, the defenders of Israel are already claiming that the stand shows that the UCC is rife with anti-Semitism.

Reverend Andrew Love, who strongly opposed the motions, told the Canadian Jewish News that this year’s proposals signified an “ominous and discouraging” rise of traditional Christian anti-Semitism inside the church.

But Bernie Farber, a former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress had a different opinion. In his own interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Farber said, “it’s important to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism… (…) I wouldn’t wave the anti-Semitism flag [here], because I think when the Jewish community does that all the time, it confuses people and turns them off. It confuses true Jew-hatred from anti-Zionism, and we must see the two as separate battles.”

The arguments over whether the church should take a stand on one of the most difficult moral issues of our times, seems likely to continue. However, the UCC does not seem to be intimidated by threats that it has become anti-Semitic. The trend seems to be toward emphasizing human rights for both Palestinians AND Jews in the holy land.


  1. In my loud voice, I’m against the lesbians and gays rights
    As a religious person, I see that the normal relation is between two different sexes and not the same sex.

    There’s no comparison between standing fast for the People’s Human Rights, which I support and stand up for, and the gays and lesbians rights which are against all religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Any way, thanks for the United Church, and its support for the Palestinians Human Rights

    1. Dear Anonymous, Of course you have the right to disapprove of gays and lesbians. And many people would disapprove of your rather conservative religious beliefs. However, my view is that mutual respect and tolerance of those who have different views is a cornerstone of Canadian democracy. It is one of the things that makes Canada a great place to live. I hope you agree.

    1. Hi Peter,
      I’m late to this post mainly because of being overwhelmed with work at General Council and at home. In response I would offer two alternative perspectives.

      First, the UCC took a stand in favour of the ordination of Gays and lesbians in 1988. At that time, we lost a large number of people. With the same sex marriage debate in 2003 when my congregation of about 500 families dealt with the question we voted over 85% in favour of our ministers being able to perform same sex weddings. We lost one family that we know of over the issue.

      Second, the motion that was passed included divestment from any company that benefits significantly from the occupation. I have spoken with the two main people who handle our investments nationally and they will divest from any large cap holdings from the usual suspects: Caterpillar, Motorola, etc.Also, we will encourage all other church bodies and members to take similar action.

      There is an old adage, If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be selective economic action. As a denomination, our leading national administrators, are cautious in how they frame certain issues that could impact our relationships with other faith communities.

      Looking forward to seeing you next weekend in Halifax!

      Steve Berube

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