Press: United Church to reassess Mideast policies

By Jenny Hazan, Canadian Jewish News, March 1, 2011

JERUSALEM — Senior leaders of the United Church of Canada spent two weeks touring Israel and the Palestinian territories late last month to reassess the church’s official stance on the region and update its policy positions.

Congress CEO Bernie Farber (kneeling front) poses with members the United Church of Canada while in Israel last month. From left are church members Loraine Shepherd, Jordan Cantwell Kunda; UCC’s Immediate Past Moderator David Guiliano; UCC General Secretary Nora Sanders; Tom Davies, UCC Moderator Mardi Tindal, Chris Fergusson, Barbara Jean White and Bruce Gregerson.

The objective of the Feb. 17 to 28 mission, participant Bruce Gregersen said, was “to listen and try to understand the reality of the situation with a central concern about what we might offer as a Canadian church to contribute toward reconciliation.

“A key part of this exploration will include the effectiveness of our past policies and actions and exploration of future policies as a contribution toward ending the occupation of Palestinian territories begun in 1967,” according to Rev. Gregersen, lead staff of the church’s theology and inter-church interfaith committee and former interfaith officer specializing in Jewish and Muslim relations.

The church’s current policy on “Israel-Palestine,” instituted at the its 40th General Council meeting in Kelowna, B.C., in August 2009, weighs heavily on the pro-Palestinian side.

Policy items include: “[Support for] the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza…; the withdrawal of Israeli military forces to pre-1967 borders and ending all forms of violence by the Israeli government upon the Palestinian people…; recognition that east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip constitute an integral part of the territory occupied in 1967 and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem must be dismantled…; and an end to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.”

According to mission leader Rev. David Giuliano, a past church moderator, the United Church of Canada’s alignment with the Palestinian cause is attributable, at least in part, to the fact that it’s natural for the church to partner with Christians abroad.

“Most of the people we’ve partnered with on projects have been Palestinian, by virtue of their Christianity,” said Rev. Giuliano, who is from Windsor, Ont. “A lot of people feel we’re critical of Israel, and sometimes we’re accused of not visiting the people we should.”

The mission’s aim was to bring balance to the church’s relations in the region, and the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) planned three days of the group’s 12-day itinerary in Israel.

“Until now, [church members] have heard literally one story,” said Bernie Farber, Congress CEO, who went on the mission. “Their trips were planned by Palestinian Christians. We wanted them to see Israel both through Israeli eyes and through Canadian Jewish eyes.”

Congress took the mission on tours of the Supreme Court, the Knesset, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Jerusalem’s Old City and Maale Adumim in the West Bank. It also arranged briefings with officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and meetings with Likud MK Yudi Edelstein, Palestinian Jerusalem Post journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, McGill University history professor Gil Troy, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s department for interreligious affairs, David Rosen, Ha’aretz editor Aluf Benn and former senior Arab Affairs adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem, Avi Melamed.

“We challenged their notions and gave them another way to look at the [Israeli-Palestinian] narrative,” Farber said. “And in the end, I think we succeeded in getting them to understand that not one narrative necessarily rules. This is not a country of black and white. It’s full of grey, and I think they got that. We’re thankful to have had the opportunity to show them a side that I believe they would not have been able to see if we didn’t provide it.”

Farber said the church’s policies are reflective of the information its members have received. “I believe that these are honest folks who want to do the right thing, but really require information. This is exactly the kind of work we [at the CJC] should be doing… making a difference where it matters most.”

The CJC’s efforts seemed to have had an impact. “The opportunity to hear more specifically from the Israeli perspective has been a good one,” Rev. Giuliano said. “The CJC has done a tremendous job getting us access to the [right] people and to the perspective that Israelis want us to hear. At times I feel they think we didn’t get that, and so we are grateful to them for assisting with that.”

This new information stands to play a role in the adjustment of the church’s policies, the assignment that was given the mission at the General Council meeting last August.

“We were asked to prepare a new policy paper on the [church’s] relationship with this area and how we might shift the direction of that,” Rev. Giuliano said.

He pointed to a few different areas where the mission may recommend policy adjustments.

The first is settlements: “We are quite concerned about issues related to the occupation and settlements, and what a barrier that is to peace in the region, but after visiting Maale Adumim, we see what a challenge [the dismantling of settlements] would present for the return to pre-’67 borders.”

The visit to the Knesset also proved revealing, he said. “We met someone from the Palestinian government and someone from the Knesset, and it’s just amazing to us how radically the narratives differ. It’s hard to believe they’re talking about the same place and events.”

Seeing the Supreme Court brought another revision in their thinking, Farber said. “I think seeing how the Israeli justice system works is quite impressive to people. Any citizen of Israel can petition the Supreme Court, and I think that’s a real eye-opener.”

After seeing Yad Vashem, Rev. Giuliano said he realized that “it is profoundly important for Israel to have security and a sense of safety. That’s a dominant theme we have experienced with our Israeli hosts and friends.”

Established in 1925 through the union of Congregational, Methodist  and Presbyterian churches, the United Church is the largest Protestant congregation in Canada, claiming almost 600,000 official members among three million who identified themselves on the 2001 Canadian census as affiliated with the church.

The church is involved in social justice projects throughout the world, from supporting international peace movements to combating poverty and hunger. Their support of the Palestinians is one such project.

“We have an interest in what little we can do to support the peace process and human rights issues that are arising in Israel and Palestine,” Rev. Giuliano said. “We feel compelled to be a part of it. Our faith is lived in real time in the real world, and this is a part of that.”

Farber said he admires the church’s global involvement.

“They believe they have a responsibility to their fellow Christians, to understand what’s going on here and help where they can. These are good things, as long as they approach with a sense of honesty, morality and justice,” he said. “I think they have done that. I believe they are trying to understand the issues from both sides and make an honest attempt to see what goes on here.

“They have a moral and ethical responsibility to report back to their church what they see, and they are going to be hard-pressed to just tell one story now.”

Farber added that CJC played an instrumental role in convincing the church to vote down the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) bill against Israel at the General Council meeting in 2009.

Rev. Giuliano noted, however, that the church’s decision on a boycott of Israel may not be final. “We have not arrived at any final conclusions about that. We need to give it some thought,” he said. “There are groups, both here and in Canada, that are pushing the United Church to support that work.”

The church’s task force’s recommendation on this and other issues of church policy pertaining to Israel and the Palestinians will appear in a report to be released in September, ahead of the United Church’s 41st General Council meeting in August 2012, in Ottawa. The report will be available online at the church’s website.

Until then, the church hasn’t drawn any final conclusions. “We have a number of [Palestinian] partners in this part of the world who we’ve been supporting and working with for a long time. It’s not like we will suddenly stop doing that,” Rev. Giuliano said. “At this point, we’re in the information-gathering stage, so I can’t say a lot about where this might lead us. In general, we’re hoping for the best for this region. We believe there can’t be peace for anyone until there’s peace for everyone.”

Farber said he would like to get involved in more such trips to Israel in the future, perhaps with Canadian labour leaders, who he said have also demonstrated strongly biased pro-Palestinian beliefs. “This trip [with the United Church] may have opened up a whole new door for us,” he said.