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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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United Church position on Israel is unbalanced

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In the past few days, the United Church has drawn widespread condemnation from the Jewish community for its position on Israel and Palestine.

Those of us who define ourselves as progressive Zionists agree that there is much that is difficult and troubling in the church’s position. But there is also much that we can approve of in the church’s stand, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

For example, we agree with the Church’s Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a Jewish, democratic Israel is the means whereby the people of the region can look forward to a peaceful and productive future together. We further agree that this two-state future must be achieved through legitimate, good-faith negotiations and based on a foundation of justice, human dignity, human rights and international law.

It’s gratifying to see a clear statement from the church that to question Israel’s legitimacy or its right to exist is unacceptable. It’s also heartening to see the church denounce the “ongoing aggression and incitement to violence” aimed at the State of Israel and its people from parties, individuals and governments in the region and around the world.

And on the difficult issue of the right of return for Palestinians, the church now supports a negotiated settlement that maintains the demographic integrity of Israel.

Nevertheless, when we look at the result of the debate and the final vote at the church’s General Council this month, there are important points on which we disagree.

Here are a couple.

The church has voted to make a lot of demands on Israel. It calls on the Israelis to end all settlement construction as a necessary step toward entering into good faith negotiation, to dismantle the separation barrier where it crosses over the Green Line and to ensure there is equitable access to water resources. We can agree with all of that. But the council ultimately makes no demands whatsoever on the Palestinians. There is one all-too-brief mention in the Working Group report of the need for Palestinians (and Israelis) to reject violence, and there is barely any mention at all of the rejectionist factions such as Hamas that are so strong among the Palestinians. This is a gaping void in the church’s position.

 And then there are the proposals for economic boycott. My organization, JSpaceCanada, has from its very beginning opposed any form of boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) when it comes to Israel. The international BDS movement is simply too saturated with anti-Israel bias and rhetoric, and many of its participants reject the entire notion of a Jewish state.

The United Church, to its credit, acknowledges the problems with the BDS movement. Instead the church, first in its Working Group report and now at its General Council, advocates a more targeted economic boycott aimed at settlement products. This is a more nuanced and defensible position, but it’s one that we respectfully reject. In practical terms, it is difficult if not impossible to enforce without also hurting Israelis outside the settlements. Most significantly, it serves only to isolate and harden Israel and its supporters when what is most urgently needed is close contact and diplomacy.

Many in the Jewish community have called for cutting off ties with the United Church. Our disagreements with the United Church are serious, but not talking will resolve nothing. Rather, this is a time when it’s most important to maintain ties and to keep a dialogue going. That’s the only way that we’ll be able to work through our disagreements and build on those areas where we can surely make common cause.

Harry Schachter is on the co-ordinating committee of JSpaceCanada and a former television news producer.

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