TORONTO - A motion passed last week by the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada supporting an Ontario labour union’s recent decision to boycott Israel has been strongly denounced by mainstream Jewish organizations.
Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario region, described it as “unjust and misguided,” while B’nai Brith called it anti-Israel.
Rick McKinley, the newly elected president of the Toronto Conference, said he personally disagrees with the motion and feels the church should be supportive of Israel. “But the motion is not anti-Israel and was not intended to be,” he insisted.
Frances Combs, co-chair of a United Church task group that touched off the current controversy by endorsing a resolution passed by the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) backing economic sanctions against Israel until it recognizes “the Palestinian right to self-determination,” also denied the motion is anti-Israel.
Claiming that it was not aimed at Israel but at Israel’s “illegal” occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, she declared,“We’re not boycotting Israel. We’re boycotting the occupation.”
The church motion, which was passed as the Israeli army launched its first major raid into the Gaza Strip since Israel’s Gaza withdrawal last summer, was supported by the Canadian Arab Federation, the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians and the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation.
The motion revived a 2003 United Church resolution that endorsed a boycott of companies and goods connected with Israel’s occupation of the territories.
That resolution recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security within internationally accepted borders and the right of the Palestinians to statehood.
It also stated that “the path to peace is dependent on the ending of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, including the withdrawal of Israeli settlements there.”
The motion was justified on the grounds that boycotts and sanctions “are time-honoured non-violent ways of bringing an end to intolerable situations.”
David Katz, Congress’ secretary-treasurer, said the motion was “a blatant attempt” by the church to short-circuit a discussion next month by its national body on the Arab-Israeli dispute.
“We will continue to reach out vigorously to United Church members, both inside and outside the Toronto Conference, to reject divestment now and at the upcoming [national] General Council as an unjust and misguided attempt to punish Israel and as counterproductive to achieving peace,” Katz said.
“We call on leaders and members of the United Church of Canada to reject this position outright. Our community cannot help but view this motion as insensitive to Canadian Jewry’s inherent and unbreakable attachment to the State of Israel.”
Katz added that the Toronto Conference’s support for the “extreme and misinformed” resolution adopted by CUPE Ontario last month “speaks to the intentions of this group. This is a call for action without reflection.”
Steven Shulman, Congress’ Ontario regional director and national counsel, said the Toronto Conference motion would only embolden extremists.
“It’s really quite surprising that the Toronto Conference chose to link its motion with the CUPE resolution, which has received an overwhelmingly negative response.”
Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith, said the Toronto Conference has “a long history of looking at the [Arab-Israeli] conflict solely from the point of view of the Palestinians. The United Church cannot claim… to promote peace and understanding among Arabs and Jews and then work to the detriment of one party to the conflict, namely Israel.”
In addition, Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, expressed opposition to the Toronto Conference motion, saying it revealed “blind sightedness and hatred for Israel.”
Combs said the Toronto Conference will urge members, congregations and related church bodies “to refuse to buy any products produced in the illegal settlements and to divest from five multinational companies - Caterpillar, Boeing, Canadian Aviation Electronics, General Electric and Lockheed Martin - involved in the military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
She acknowledged that the church's Toronto chapter remains the only one in Canada to have adopted such a motion.
The motion passed last week appears to be the culmination of a visit by a United Church delegation to Israel and the Palestinian areas three years ago.
Upon completion of the trip, the church issued this statement: “The overall impression of the visit confirmed for us the need for an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
In the past few years, several churches in the United States, including the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church U.S.A., have used corporate divestment campaigns as a tactic to pressure Israel into ending its presence in the territories.