The United Church of Canada came out of its recent General Council meeting with much-improved relations with Canada’s largest pro-Israel organization and commitments to create an anti-Semitism education program — but it made no promises to protest Palestine’s occupation by calling the Israeli government’s actions “apartheid” or encouraging divestment from Israel.
Commissioners considered six proposals (already adopted by five of the United Church’s 16 Regions) that supported one or both of those pro-Palestinian actions. They also considered a proposal to adopt 14 principles to guide their decision-making on Palestine-Israel issues. But Council never had the opportunity to vote directly on any of those proposals, and none were adopted.
Church people who want justice for Palestinians were disappointed, and most blamed Council’s business committee and senior leaders for controlling the process. After a motion to “take no action” on the proposals — suggested by Council’s facilitation and business teams — was defeated, a commissioner asked that votes be taken separately on the six proposals, even on one of them. The moderator ruled against it.
The business committee then moved to postpone consideration of the proposals until a motion laying out principles for all of the church’s justice work is implemented, likely no sooner than the next General Council meeting in 2025. That motion passed.
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“That particular process impeded any progress we might have made,” says Rev. Marianna Harris, a retired minister who has worked on Palestine-Israel issues for many years. Though not a commissioner, she followed Council closely. “Clearly ‘Daring Justice’ [part of the church’s new mission statement] was not shaping the debate or the process at GC44.”
Barbara Lloyd, a commissioner and longtime volunteer with Toronto church groups working on Middle East issues, says that postponement was not even a partial victory. “The proposals were about urgent action.…Palestinians are suffering from the extermination of their villages, house demolitions, illegal occupation, settler violence, child imprisonment, a 15-year blockade on Gaza, living in an apartheid state where their human rights are continually violated.”
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In the end, Council’s clearest action was to create an anti-Semitism education program. It was likely in reaction to an obscene outburst from an attendee at an earlier learning session — seemingly aimed at Richard Marceau, a Jewish guest from Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a national pro-Israel advocacy group.
In the decade leading up to General Council 44, there has been little contact between the United Church and CIJA. In 2012, the church launched a boycott on goods produced in Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. CIJA responded with a moratorium on dialogue and partnerships with the church.
“Moving forward, I would like the church and the Jewish community to work together in a constructive manner,” Marceau said in an interview, “to make sure that we have those discussions that may not be easy, but there are ways to do it that would cement the relationship.”
In the meantime, Palestinian partners like Omar Haramy of Jerusalem’s Sabeel theological centre are waiting for the United Church to take further action on their behalf. Late in the meeting, an obviously frustrated Haramy pleaded with commissioners not to postpone action on Palestine-Israel, but to “just echo what human rights organizations are saying. There is injustice. You need to call it by name.…What kind of church are you if you will not take this stand?…What is wrong with you as a church?”
Mike Milne is a writer in Owen Sound, Ont.
This story also appears in Broadview’s October/November 2022 issue with the title “General Council delays action on Palestine.”
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