United Church activists discuss BDS at Halifax meeting

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At its 42nd General Council meeting in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, United Church delegates decided to withdraw investments from companies involved in the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In a follow up meeting in Halifax, a smaller group of activists agreed they would like the church to go a step further. Read more

The growing movement to boycott Israel for its abuse of Palestinian human rights, known as BDS, (boycott, divest & sanctions) was one of the main topics of discussion for about 40 United Church activists gathered in Halifax last weekend.

The organizing group, known as the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI), is made up of United Church members from Newfoundland to British Columbia. It has about 250 members on its mailing list, according to its leaders.

The UNJPPI meeting was held only a few days after a major United Church conference (called a General Council) where 350 delegates, representing the over 1 million members, considered and debated policy on issues ranging from oil sands to church structure.

The General Council approved a number of motions supportive of human rights for Palestinians, including a decision to divest financially from companies that benefit from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

However, the United Church’s position is that while it supports the demand to end the occupation, it stops short of endorsing the BDS movement itself.

Does UNJPPI support BDS?

A key question facing the UNJPPI activists was whether UNJPPI itself was prepared to endorse the BDS movement. The discussion was aided by presentations from several outside experts. Hind Awwad, a Palestinian resident in Canada who is closely involved with the BDS national committee in Ramallah. Awwad carefully and clearly outlined the 3 demands of the BDS movement, namely:

  • The end of the occupation
  • Equality for Palestinians living inside Israel, and
  • The right of return for the Palestinian refugees

She also gave a brief overview of the rapid growth of the BDS movement since the call was first sent out from Palestinian civil society in 2005.

Another helpful presentation was made by David Wildman, who discussed how the call for BDS is progressing inside the United Methodist Church in the USA.

After lengthy discussion and debate, UNJPPI decided that all 3 demands of the BDS movement were justified and should be supported. It appointed a committee to discuss what steps should be taken to implement the decision.

How to relate to the “parent body” – the United Church of Canada?

A second issue facing UNJPPI was how to relate to the UCC itself – the parent body – given that the UCC supports one of the 3 demands of the BDS movement (ending the occupation) but is hesitant to declare itself on the other two (equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of the refugees to return.)

The United Church is still struggling to find a comfortable position on the Israel/Palestine question. It was strongly criticized by the Council for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) when it took a first step toward supporting Palestinian human rights in 2012. Since then, many church members, including clergy, wonder whether  the church should take a position at all, or are concerned about appearing to be “anti-Semitic”.

It is clear that divisions continue to exist in the church, and more discussion is necessary. In an attempt to further that discussion, church staff have prepared a series of documents and videos called “Let’s keep talking”. The documents explain the current church position, invite local congregations to discuss the issues, and invites members to send in comments.

“UNJPPI sees itself as an activist, ginger group inside the United Church”, says Rev. Steve Berube, one of UNJPPI’s two co-chairs. “Our church has made great strides on this issue over the last several years. Many of the concerns that came up at the last General Council have diminished and a sea change seems to be underway. I am confident the denomination will continue to broaden and deepen our support for Palestinian human rights and the rule of international law. UNJPPI will continue our work in moving this issue forward.”

4 comments

    1. Hey M/Ms Shaw, you are right. The large General Council (pictured) met in Corner Brook, NL, and the smaller UNJPPI meeting was in Halifax a few days later. I am sorry if that was not clear.

  1. At our North American conference in Vancouver recently, we had a US church divestment wizard as a speaker, resulting from the surprising dearth of divestment initiatives in the Canadian churches. We had heard previously Palestinian church calls specifically to Canadian churches on divestment, as the most obvious ethical option.

    The UCC, spurred on by UNJPPI’s work, is moving that forward, and hopefully it will spread here as it did in the US churches.

    Yet the question remains of why a tactic that should on its face seem so obviously consistent with the faith and church history be so resisted. The reasons in the church are similar to secular society.

    However, when one looks at the last two BDS demands, it differs. On hand, ethnic equality should be a no-brainer. Yet the Israel Lobby, which until recently had an open door in the Canadian church, has done a thorough job of selling the idea of a Jewish (only) state while effectively glossing over the ugly implications for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. At the same time this plays to the religious side of Christians (as if Israel were exclusively a religious state) , it captures the sympathies of Euro-Canadians who emphasize with eternal atonement for the Holocaust while accepting the withholding of forgiveness.

    The right of return has been reacted to with the same Zionist card. It would dilute the Jewishness of the state — the old ‘demographic bomb’ canard.

    Divestment, and BDS is an uphill battle, because Christians are no different than others in that we don’t take the time to turn our minds to the real issues which seem to be no-brainers to those who have thought about them for a minimum of 15 minutes.

    Yet with groups like UNJPPI, BDS and divestment particularly will continue to shine a spotlight on these deeper issues, giving them at least their 15 minutes of fame, and educating more and more of the Christian flock to the point where Israeli apartheid becomes as unacceptable as the original

  2. Thanks Peter. As someone who served the UCC as a human rights observer in East Jerusalem this past year, I am excited that the conversation is both deepening and broadening with our faith community. I agree with Robert that the other two principles seem like a no-brainer. Sumud-steadfast persistence-is what we need to hang on to as we continue to move forward

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