A group of nine senators has warned the United Church of Canada that it could spark a rift with the Jewish community if it approves the boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in occupied lands.
The senators, all United Church members and from both the Conservative and Liberal parties, have waded publicly into a controversial issue before it comes to a vote in mid-August.
It's a debate in which the lines between church and state have already been crossed several times as the United Church considers a new foray into the electrified world of Mideast politics.
A working group established by the church has issued a report that proposes a boycott of all products from Jewish settlements in occupied lands, arguing the settlements are illegally eating away Palestinian lands and the hope for a two-state solution. But it also rejects a wholesale boycott of all Israeli goods.
The nine senators have warned in a letter to United Church moderator Mardi Tindal that the distinction drawn with the narrower boycott will "be lost upon" Israelis and Canada's Jewish community.
"What will be made clear to them is that the United Church has chosen sides, declaring Israel guilty and the Palestinians the only injured party," the senators wrote.
Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth noted that she has no objection to the church wading into weighty international politics, but fears that members of the Jewish community will see itself as being singled out by an anti-Israel-sentiment.
"I'd say it's a matter of diplomacy," she said. "I don't think it will be helpful for Jewish-Christian relations.
The church's working group said it struggled with that issue. But its report maintained that arguments about the complexity of affairs in the Middle East are not an excuse for silence.
"It is long past the point where claims of complexity can remove responsibility for making judgments about the situation," it said. "Simply put, Israel is maintaining a harsh occupation that must end so peace can emerge."
The report concluded that the key target must be Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. It noted that those settlements are considered a violation of international law under both United Nations resolutions and official Canadian policy. The settlements are eroding Palestinians' land and rapidly removing the basis for any two-state solution, it said.
But it did not assign blame for the failure of peace negotiations to either side and rejected a wider boycott of Israel.
"The working group intentionally chose not to target Israel, but rather the settlements, because we don't in any way want to be confused with seeking to weaken or contribute to something that would harm Israel," said Bruce Gregersen, the senior program officer at the United Church, who worked on the report.
But that argument was rejected by Shimon Fogel, chief executive officer of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Boycotting settlements alone is technically impractical, and it's really no different than that of a larger boycott aimed at delegitimizing Israel, Mr. Fogel said. "There's an effort to disguise what the real intent is," he said.
He said the United Church should explain why it has focused on Israel when Christian communities around the region are under threat.
The United Church of Canada is one of the country's big Protestant denominations. It counts 650,000 members, but more than 2.5-million – 8 per cent of Canada's population – identify themselves as followers of the church, according to Statistics Canada.
Its highest body, the General Council, will decide in a vote expected Aug. 14 whether to endorse the boycott. It's a powerful symbol of church guidance, but council-approved policy is not considered a dictate to the church's followers.