Written by Kristine Greenaway*
The United Church of Canada intends to pursue its policy of pressing for a peaceful solution to tensions between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories by continuing its economic action against businesses operating in illegal settlements.
Proposals adopted by the church’s highest decision-making body, the General Council, earlier this month affirm the church’s decision in 2012 to put economic pressure on Israel in an effort to end its occupation of Palestinian land.
The United Church of Canada is one of several member churches of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to engage in economic action to support peace initiatives. These include the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, British Methodist Church and the Church of Sweden.
Patti Talbot, the United Church of Canada spokesperson on the Middle East, responded to questions about the church’s decision in an interview this week with the WCC News.
WCC News: What were the proposals adopted by the General Council?
Patti Talbot (PT): A number of proposals were considered; three became resolutions. The first proposal requested the Council to drop its long-standing support for the two-state solution. Instead, delegates reaffirmed the principle of the right to self-determination for Palestinians and Israelis, guided by international law and United Nations resolutions. The resolution that was adopted underlines the right of the people involved to decide upon which of several options to take to statehood.
A second resolution directed that the church’s education and advocacy work about the occupation be expanded to include encouraging the national church, parishes and individuals to divest from companies and institutions that benefit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The third resolution reaffirmed The United Church of Canada’s 2012 commitment to "relationship-building towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians" by developing a resource listing organizations that foster trust-building between the United Church and Canadian Jewish and Palestinian groups, as well as between Palestinian and Jewish groups both in Canada and in the Middle East.
I should note too that the church's education and action program called “Unsettling Goods” that came out of General Council 2012, the campaign invites United Church people to "Pray, Choose, and Speak" for peace in Palestine and Israel and specifically encourages people not to buy goods produced in illegal settlements.
WCC News: How do these proposals affect existing church policy?
PT: The General Council did not create new policy. These three resolutions are consistent with United Church policy, as it has developed since the 1970s. They reflect our on-going commitment not only to education but also to advocacy and action about the terrible cost of the occupation to Palestinians and Israelis. It is only with the end of the occupation that there is any possibility for reconciliation, co-existence, peace and justice.
WCC News: What then is the intent of the proposals?
PT: The purpose is to continue to press for an end to the occupation through non-violent means. The commitment to education and economic action means asking church members to reflect on how our purchasing and investment decisions support illegal settlements built on land taken from Palestinians and to consider making other choices.
The Council action may reflect the growing sense among many that since 2012 (when the church first voted on economic action) the Israeli military occupation has gotten much worse. Partners tell us of the hardening of the Israeli government’s policy and practices, continuing land theft, destruction of Palestinian property, and demolition of Palestinian homes and communities. The 2014 war on Gaza heightened awareness globally that the situation continues to deteriorate. This urgently deserves our attention as people of faith.
WCC News: What has the reaction been to news of these proposals?
PT: The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada) expressed its deep disappointment with the resolution related to economic action and said this meant there was no possibility for continued dialogue. We are disappointed that they perceive our actions that way. We don’t want these resolutions to be a barrier to interreligious dialogue. Given the challenges today, dialogue is even more important.
At the same time, there are Israelis speaking out about the impact of their government’s policies and practices related to the military occupation. They name the moral, spiritual and ethical cost to their own people, and say, "If you care for the soul of Israel, work for the end of the occupation".
*Kristine Greenaway is a former WCC communication director with extensive experience in covering stories about global and local ecumenism.