Large organizations change slowly. But when they do change, the impact is significant.
The United Church of Canada with 2 million adherents, is Canada’s largest protestant denomination. Over the last decades, the UCC has discussed and embraced many progressive causes including LGBT rights and more recently decolonisation and Truth and Reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples.
Unlike some churches, United Church positions are discussed, debated and adopted by a democratic vote of elected delegates from across Canada, at what is called the General Council.
“The debates are often difficult, emotional and heartfelt”, notes Reverend Dr. Bruce Gregersen who was a senior staff leader of The United Church of Canada responsible for the oversight of national and international programs for many years. Now retired, Reverend Gregersen is currently a member of the OFIP Council of Advisors.
In 2012, a General Council of several hundred delegates from across Canada studied a report on the Israel/Palestine issue prepared by a special task group. After many hours of discussion and debate, General Council 41 adopted several resolutions critical of Israel including:
- denouncing the occupation begun in 1967
- continuing support for a two-state solution to resolve the turmoil in the region.
- recommending church members avoid the purchase of settlement products produced in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
BUT AT THE SAME TIME, the General Council
- declined to support the “boycott” of Israel known as the BDS movement
- criticized the “ongoing incitement against the State of Israel”
- maintained the decade-long policy of the Church in “affirming Israel as a Jewish state”.
While the debate was vigorous, the vote was overwhelming – the motions were supported by over 3/4 of those in attendance.
Not surprisingly church activists, many of whom had spent time in the West Bank as “Ecumenical accompaniers” were very disappointed that the church did not endorse the BDS movement, and that it accepted the notion of a “Jewish State”, which many saw as inherently antidemocratic and discriminatory.
But a few dissatisfied church leaders spoke out in opposition to even these mild steps. “We believe that this decision of the General Council has damaged relationships that are vital to growing a just peace,” a group which called itself “United Against Boycott” wrote in an open letter on the group’s website. “We will work against the boycott campaign and the other policies including divestment and sanctions against Israel,” they continued, implying (somewhat disingenuously) that the UCC had endorsed the BDS boycott campaign.
Pro-Israel lobby groups were also quick to attack the positions adopted. CIJA talked about a “dark and damning cloud of Christian antisemitism”. CIJA abruptly cut off any relations with the United Church.
2018 – The church re-evaluates its position on three questions
As the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine continues to deteriorate for the Palestinians, and as the very notion of a “two state solution” seems to evaporate, the United Church decided to re-assess its position. In November 2018, the Church appointed a reference group of four persons to undertake a review and consider current United Church of Canada policies on Israel and Palestine in light of the current reality and partner requests.
The four person reference group was asked to address three challenging issues and make recommendations to the church on:
the position of the church regarding the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement;
the use of the word or term “apartheid” in relation to Israel; and,
the use of the term Jewish state to refer to Israel.
2022 – The report proposes more small steps
The reference group submitted its report to Church authorities in January 2022, in time for further debate at the next General Council which will be held virtually due to COVID over the summer.
Interesting, in the 10 years since General Council 41, the Church has been involved in a very significant Truth and Reconciliation exercise reflecting on its role with respect to Canadas indigenous population. Across the church, there is now a much broader understanding of “colonialism” and its unfair and harmful effects on colonised peoples. This awareness of the phenomenon of “colonialism’ has influenced the outcome of the report.
The report very carefully lays out the principles guiding its cautious recommendations, which propose a further tightening of the Church’s stance in criticism of Israel and in support of Palestinian human rights.
- ON BDS
- It supports the right of partners to endorse and engage BDS, as well as the rights of individuals and organizations to engage in and promote BDS
2. On the use of the word “apartheid”
- It affirms the accuracy and usefulness of the term apartheid to describe laws and legal procedures of the State of Israel that enshrine one people in a privileged legal position at the expense of another.
3. On the notion of a “Jewish State”
- It affirms the right of Israel to exist within internationally-recognized borders according to international law, but would no longer refer to the right of Israel to exist “as a Jewish State”.
For now, the report is only that – a report. It will be submitted to the General Council this summer for review, amendment and eventual adoption. And despite its cautious wording, it was immediately jumped on by The Toronto Board of Rabbis, again claiming “anti-semitism’ as was the case ten years ago.
The Church has moral authority but is not in a position to impose its views on Canada, or even on its own members. So these recommendations, even if enacted, will have no immediate economic or legal impact. However, the painstaking work of the reference group reflects another small step in an emerging church (and Canadian) consensus around Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. Canadian politicians will have to take notice.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.
Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org