Despite a plea by an activist from the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, the General Council of United Church of Canada has voted down two proposals to boycott Israel, and denied approval to a third that was originally accompanied by background material that obliquely accused un-named Jewish members of the Canadian Parliament of being disloyal to Canada because of their support for Israel. The vote took place on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2009, shortly after the commission voted to repudiate the background material associated with these resolutions.
The Council's decision does not prohibit local churches from boycotting Israel and leaves open possibility that the denomination will re-consider the issue at its next meeting in 2012. United Church of Canada Spokesman Rev. Bruce Gregersen reported that the commission dealing with the issue took the following action:
What the commission did finally is say that the United Church has not begun or approved a boycott at a national level. However, it has stated its encouragement and recommendation to its member bodies, to conferences and presbyteries and congregations across the church that they are free to study, to discern, and to pray on how to undertake their own initiatives which may include an economic boycott as a means of ending the occupation.
The General Council has also instructed the General Secretary of the General Council to begin a process of study discernment and prayer around the use of a number of means to end the occupation which may include also further consideration of an economy boycott and come back to the 41st council for a recommendation, Gregersen said.
Before the council rejected the boycott proposals they heard testimony from Rabbi Reuven Bulka, immediate past co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and Nora Carmi from Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Carmi began her testimony with the following exhortation:
Sisters and brothers, do not fear little flock and bravely follow our Savior Jesus Christ who came to proclaim the release to the captives, good news to the poor and let the oppressed be free.
Discipleship means risk and risk is costly. But stand firm.
Carmi then called on delegates to approve the two boycott resolutions and a third which invoked the Fourth Geneva Convention and notions of anti-racism in an effort to portray Israel as an apartheid state, while remaining silent about the war crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated by Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The resolutions, Carmi said, would not only contribute to ending the suffering of and the injustice against my people the Palestinians, but will honestly help the rulers of Israel to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with God as the teachings and morality of Judaism dictate.
The boycott proposals, Carmi said, might be harsh, but they are necessary for Israel to meet its obligation to recognize us as a people, the Palestinians [and] our inalienable right to self-determination and statehood. Carmi continued: We too are children of God. We belong to the land and we deserve to live in dignity.
With its one-sided condemnation of Israel and the failure to acknowledge that Israel has already recognized the Palestinian people by negotiating with their leaders at Camp David in 2000, Carmi's speech was typical fare from Sabeel activists appearing before churches in North America. For example, Carmi's exhortation to the gathered assembly to not be afraid, and to stand firm was a clear attempt to portray the proponents of the anti-Israel boycott as beleaguered activists standing firm in the face of hostile opposition from Jewish groups in North America. In reality, the background materials provided by these activists were written in such a manner as to guarantee outrage from the Jewish community.
In any event, the call to stand firm and tell the truth despite the costs is an ironic message coming from a Sabeel activist given the group's failure to address the Muslim mistreatment of Christians in Palestinian society and the role Islamic theology plays in fomenting hostility toward Israel in the Middle East.
To be sure, Israeli policies have an impact on Palestinian Christians, but Sabeel fails to address numerous and well-documented acts of intimidation against Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, just as the Middle East Council of Churches condemns Israel while remaining relatively silent about the mistreatment of Christians in the remainder of the Middle East.
Carmi's invocation of the teachings and morality Judaism is also a common Sabeel trope. Sabeel activists, most notably Anglican Priest Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, condemn Israeli Jews for not living up to the higher principles of Judaism, but offer, little if any criticism of the failure of Palestinian leaders to live up to the higher principles of their religion.
Sabeel's International Patron, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, engaged in exactly this type of behavior at the Sabeel conference held at Old South Church in Boston in 2007. During his talk Tutu invoked Hebrew Scripture against Israel in a patently discriminatory manner,directing his theological and scriptural cri de coeur exclusively at Jews, and not the Palestinians.
Despite their obvious unwillingness to address the moral and strategic failings of Palestinian leaders over the past several decades, Sabeel activists have proven particularly adept at convincing churches in the U.S. to pass one-sided resolutions condemning Israel. Denominational leaders invite Sabeel activists to speak at their national assemblies in hopes of lending credibility of the one-sided narratives written into the peacemaking resolutions offered for approval at these events.
For example, at the United Church of Christ's General Synod in 2005, a last ditch plea by Sabeel activist Jonathan Kuttab played a major role in convincing the denomination's legislative body to pass a resolution calling on the church's institutions to divest from Israel.
After a committee dealing with the issue submitted a resolution to the entire assembly that did not include divestment language, Kuttab, who had voice without vote status, approached the microphone and called on the body to defeat the resolution because, in effect, it did not offer a strong enough rebuke to Israel. A few moments later, another resolution was introduced one that included divestment language and approved by the General Synod, over the objections of the committee that had vetted the original resolution.
It worked in 2005 with the United Church of Christ, but apparently, the strategy failed at the United Church of Canada in 2009.
It should be noted that, as of this writing, there is one day left to the General Council's meeting and while its unlikely the decision will be reversed, anything can happen between now and its adjournment on Saturday, Aug. 15.
Moreover, regardless of what happens between now and the end of the assembly, the anti-Israel activists who seem so obsessed with Israel's failings, and blind to the misdeeds of its enemies, will appear at the 41st General Council in 2012 with a new batch of resolutions targeting Israel.