Group of people having discussion
A group of commissioners at General Council 41 discusses the Palestine report. (Photo by David Wilson)

Topics: UCC in Focus | Activism

United Church General Council opts to boycott goods from Israeli settlements

The move was controversial among commissioners and some members of Canada's Jewish community


At August’s General Council, the United Church voted to speak out, once again, against Israel’s 45-year occupation of the West Bank. For the first time, it called for a boycott of products from Israeli settlements. But the question looms: will United Church people and congregations translate General Council’s words into action?

Dedicated social activists, who have been pushing the church for over a decade to do more than just talk about peace in the Middle East, say yes. Others aren’t so sure.

The newly minted United Network for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI) — planning an inaugural meeting in Toronto this month — will likely push for congregational education and study programs on the issue. The Holy Land Awareness and Action Task Group, based in Toronto Conference’s South West Presbytery, hopes the decision will reignite a Presbytery-based boycott campaign that fizzled shortly after its launch last year. General Council staff will provide information and resources across the church.

Nonetheless, as senior General Council program staffperson Rev. Bruce Gregersen told journalists after the final vote, General Council leads, but the rest of the church doesn’t always follow. “We don’t tell people what to do,” said Gregersen. “What we can do is invite consideration; we can encourage.” Commissioners made that point very clear, refusing to adopt the Mideast working group’s report as a whole to form the basis of policy, but instead voting to “recommend the report and its policies to its members for study, prayerful discernment and personal action.”

As with past contentious United Church stands, this one opened to mixed reviews. In Barrie, Ont., Rev. Susan Eagle of Grace United called Council’s decision “a cautious step forward” and said a study group in her congregation will likely grapple with the issue.

Rev. Brian McIntosh of Toronto, a longtime member of the Toronto Holy Land awareness group and interim chair of UNJPPI, hopes both groups “will help congregations have the confidence that what we’re doing is not strange or anti-Semitic.”

In Arnprior, Ont., Rev. Andrew Love of Grace St. Andrew’s United says some members of his congregation are “shaking their heads” over the church’s decision but remain more focused on local issues. Love took a high-profile public stand against a boycott of Israeli products, formed an anti-boycott group called Faithful Witness and was closely aligned with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), a national advocacy organization for the Canadian Jewish community, during the lead-up to General Council. He now hopes to prepare resources to offer churches “more balanced information.”

A strong majority of General Council commissioners voted for an end to the Israeli occupation and a boycott of settlement products. But Council’s decision-making process, which lets commissioners consider and alter proposals before they become official motions, using informal “warm or cool” polls, sometimes meant viewpoints were expressed through changes in wording or emphasis rather than being clearly articulated in debate.

In the first of three sessions on Israel-Palestine, General Council’s working group of three volunteers and a half-dozen staff presented their report and two pages of suggested actions and policy — the fruit of about two years of research, discussion and writing. As well as supporting Israel as a Jewish state, the report rejected “apartheid” as a description of the Israeli occupation and stated that criticism of Israeli policies was not anti-Semitic.

Council heard from the working group, including former moderator Very Rev. David Giuliano of Marathon, Ont., Toronto minister Rev. Barbara White and Hamilton chaplain Rev. Thom Davies. White said she was initially opposed to any boycott but decided it was the only way to “convey to Jewish and Israeli colleagues that something has to happen to allow justice for Palestinian people and the healthy unfolding of a Jewish state for Israelis.”

Ecumenical guests from the Canadian Jewish community and Palestinian Christian partners also had their say. Dr. Victor Goldbloom, chair of the Canadian Christian Jewish Consultation, admitted settlements are “a problem that needs to be resolved,” but said a boycott would not lead to a solution. Ramzi Zananiri, a Palestinian working for the Middle East Council of Churches, cited statistics on West Bank settlements to illustrate a “policy of humiliation and subjugation of Palestinians with total control of their resources.”

By the fifth day of the meeting, Council had voted to adopt 12 parts of a 13-part motion, including one “encouraging members of the United Church to avoid any and all products produced in the settlements.”

Lengthy additions asked the church to denounce “aggression and incitement to violence toward the state of Israel and its people” and “the ongoing violence toward and promotion of hatred for residents of the occupied territories by some settlers.” The action, however, could only be finalized when the rest of the motion was adopted.

By the second-last day of the meeting, all that remained was the question of how the working group’s report would be applied. But some commissioners felt the call for a boycott had not been properly aired. Past moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps spoke against the boycott and called on the church “to support . . . those people on the ground in Israel and Palestine who every day put their lives on the line to work together.”

For others, it was time for more direct action. “I think in a time when diplomacy and politics have failed to find a just peace, it is incumbent on the Christian church to engage in society and in political discourse and even take a side,” said Rev. Ralph Carl Wushke of Toronto.

A final vote recommended that church members study the report, pray over the policy and suggested actions, and then decide what to do.

Supporting a boycott against Israeli settlement products puts the United Church beside the U.S. Presbyterian Church and United Methodist Church and the British Methodist Church, all of whom have taken similar actions.

Adoption of the boycott brought supportive words from Jewish pro-peace groups such as Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and Canadian Friends of Peace Now. “Jews don’t speak with one voice” on settlements or boycott action, said IJV spokesperson Sid Shniad. He promised the group’s members will work with congregations studying the issue.

Giuliano said he got supportive messages from many in the Jewish community, and the United Church had to be true to its beliefs in spite of anti-boycott pressure. “The bottom line is, if the cost of friendship is abandoning other friends or selling out our convictions, we can’t do that in good faith.”

The immediate response from CIJA, which led a high-pressure campaign against the boycott, was “outrage.” Two weeks after the Council, it called on the Canadian Jewish community, including lay and rabbinic leaders, for a moratorium on dialogue or partnership with all levels of the United Church.

CIJA’s board of directors planned to meet in September and was likely to discuss how to stay connected with United Church people who worked against the boycott. CIJA may also launch an anti-boycott campaign encouraging Canadians to buy products of West Bank settlements and Israel.


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s October 2012 issue with the title For better or for worse, a boycott.”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.