The United Church of Canada, its General Council Executive and the National Indigenous Council have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to call for a ceasefire and the return of all hostages and referring, for the first time, to the Israel-Hamas war as a genocide.
Rev. Michael Blair, United Church of Canada General Secretary, said the reference is only to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
“The humanitarian crisis that is happening in Gaza at the moment is the focus, not the historic trajectories,” Blair said.
“Israeli government, the Israeli military is perpetuating genocide,” he said. “We are referring to other bodies’ definitions [of genocide].” A General Council communications staff person later clarified that Blair was referencing the United Nations’ definition of genocide, as the General Council was reinforcing the language their partners were using.
The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
To date, the United Nations has not called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza a genocide. In a Nov. 16 press release, its legal experts urged the international community to step up to avoid a genocide in Gaza. “Grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making.”
“Many of us already raised the alarm about the risk of genocide in Gaza,” the experts said. “We are deeply disturbed by the failure of governments to heed our call and to achieve an immediate ceasefire.”
The United Church’s General Council recently approved seven principles to guide its justice work. They include anti-oppression, truth-telling, holistic scope, respect for human dignity, full participation and decolonization, equity, mutuality, respect and reparations, plus costly and prophetic solidarity. Blair said the General Council Executive “didn’t specifically sit down and say Principle A, Principle B. But we are aware of what the principles said, and this gave us latitude to be able to respond in this particular way.”
The decision to send the letter was made in less than an hour, Blair said. It is signed by Rt. Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, United Church moderator, and Leeann Shimoda, chair of the National Indigenous Council, and 47 others representing the executive of the 44th General Council, the National Indigenous Council and The United Church of Canada.
Richard Marceau, vice-president of external affairs and general counsel for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said Israel is not committing genocide. The word has “a very precise meaning in international humanitarian law. And the very important part is: there needs to be intent.”
“It’s just further proof of the United Church’s loss of moral compass and amateur-ness in terms of legal concepts… but also irrelevance,” says Marceau. “If Israel wanted to do a genocide, it would not have told people to leave northern Gaza to not be bombed. It would not have created those humanitarian corridors to have people leave. It shows how ridiculous the accusation is.”
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Marceau points to the leaflets warning of where the rockets would be aimed that Israel dropped on Gaza as well as what he says were thousands of texts and phone calls telling people to move away from certain areas.
“The goal of Hamas is the eradication of the Jewish people both in Israel and around the world. And that is where the United Church should look in terms of genocide.”
Marceau noted Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas leader, appeared on Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 24 to reiterate his message that Hamas intends to annihilate Israel. He threatened many more massacres to achieve that.
And at least one United Church member agrees that using the term “genocide” is inappropriate, and doing so is not “the church’s business.”
“Our business is peace and love and forgiveness and compassion and empathy. And there’s no way this issue in the Middle East will ever solve itself without some empathy between the two sides,” says John Ryerson, social justice activist and a member of the United Church in Toronto.
He believes genocide is a trigger word “used by propagandists… and if you want to de-escalate the emotion so we can talk about a future where people can live together, then you have to take the emotional trigger words out of the conversation.”
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Others believe the United Church is justified and courageous for using the word genocide.
United Church minister Rev. Marianna Harris is pleased the church wrote this letter and named the war as a genocide committed by the Israeli military.
“This has been a long time coming to have such a strong statement,” said Harris, who has visited Israel and Palestine many times and sometimes as the leader of church groups. “It feels more to me like I want the United Church to be, that we’ve made a statement like this.”
Harris, who divides her time between Vancouver and Toronto, believes it will have a positive effect on the church’s partners in Palestine. “That’s one of the most important parts of this… the effect on our partners.”
Harris, a member of the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI), said she is thinking specifically of Rev. Dr. Muther Isaac, academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College, who has been discouraged over the lack of support from Western churches and the unwillingness to speak about genocide.
“The use of genocide will tell him that our church is listening to the pleas of Palestinian churches to speak out and to offer spiritual support in a very dark time,” said Harris.
Julie Carl is Broadview’s United Church in Focus Editor.
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