More cracks in the wall

The forces arrayed against Palestinians are overwhelming.  Often they seem, as they are meant to seem, invincible.

History suggests that they are not.

For people in other countries who seek a just peace in Palestine-Israel, one of very few effective levers we have is BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Last week the United Church of Canada took a huge step forward in this vital arena.  The following op-ed by Peter Larson details how momentous it is.  Larson is Vice-President of the National Council on Canada-Arab Relations and chair of its Education committee on Israel/Palestine.  The op-ed was published August 21 in Embassy Magazine, an influential Canadian foreign policy publication.  Peter Larson:

The recent decision by an overwhelming majority of the nearly 400 delegates of the United Church of Canada to support a boycott of goods from the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank was significant in four important ways.  [MR: Boycott is one of several initiatives to be launched decided in the final resolution.  The document, not long, is well worth reading in detail.]

First, it’s remarkable that the Church has dared to approach this issue at all.  For too long, the Israel-Palestine issue has been stuck in what seems like a shouting match between those who support Israel unconditionally and those who are principally concerned about the fate of the Palestinians. Even trying to raise the subject in public often evokes reflexive cries of “anti-Semitism”.  But the United Church has shown that it is possible for Canadians to take a thoughtful, respectful, and fact-based approach to what is one of the thorniest and perhaps emotion-laden public policy issues for Canada and most other western countries.

Second, the decision was so overwhelming. Many had feared that the debate would split the 600,000 member church, causing irreparable damage to one of Canada’s most respected institutions.  Delegates were painfully aware that some groups were already painting the report as “unfair” and “unbalanced”.  They also knew that many of their own members were still very uncomfortable voicing public criticism of Israel.  Yet in the end, the vote was not even close.  A large majority supported the resolution.

Third, the Church’s deliberate and thoughtful process was respectful of all and every opinion. In fact, a similar motion was rejected by the Church’s General Council three years ago, in the face of strident opposition from various outside groups and concern among its members.  Faced with doubt, the delegates decided to set up a Working Group to give detailed study to the issue, which was instructed to report back to this General Council.

That working group travelled across Canada consulting church members and various outside partners including Muslim and Jewish organizations.  In addition, it made a two-week trip to the Israel and the Palestinian territories to see the situation on the ground first hand and meet with both Palestinians and Israelis.  (The working group was denied access to Gaza by the Israeli authorities, so the report’s coverage of Gaza is limited.)

After much research and investigation, the working group submitted its report and proposal for consideration to this year’s week-long General Council in Ottawa.

In essence, the report concluded that it was a moral duty for the Church to take a stand against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, and against the expansion of settlements as key obstacles to finding peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  These policies, it was pointed out on several occasions, are fully consistent with what is Canada’s official policy, though it is mostly ignored by senior government ministers.

The discussion on the report took place over several days, with many pauses for prayer and reflection.  Countless corrections and amendments were suggested – some were approved, some not.  United Church Moderator Mardi Tindal was unfailingly polite, respectful and thoughtful as she steered the discussion to a near unanimous conclusion.

The discussion on Israel/Palestine now moves back to hundreds of United Church congregations across Canada.  The report of the working group and the hours of intense discussion during the General Council have been a valuable educational process for the 400 or so UCC “commissioners”.  They return home with a much deeper understanding of the complicated Israel-Palestine issue and strengthened in their conviction that supporting the boycott of settlement products is neither unfair nor an act of anti-Semitism.

In short, the United Church of Canada has succeeded in bringing discussion about Israel/Palestine into the mainstream of Canadian moral and political conversation.

Consideration of what Canadians should do in the face of a 45-year old occupation, the illegal destruction of Palestinian homes, the suffering of over 4 million Palestinian refugees, or even what Canadians think about Israel as ‘a Jewish State’ in which Jews have many rights not shared by its non-Jewish citizens, has begun to expand from protest demonstrations to serious public discussion and policy change.

How long will it be before such an informed discussion reaches the ultimate public policy forum: Parliament itself?

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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