On Tuesday, the United Church of Canada (UCC) will vote on the Report of the Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy, which includes a church-wide boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. That report, sadly, has failed to grasp what's really at stake in this decision. A boycott of Israel launched in any form would put the United Church outside the genuine peace movement and the Canadian consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As hurtful as this would be to the Jewish community, it pales in comparison to the long-term damage it would cause to the reputation of one of Canada's foremost voices in civil society: the United Church itself.
Granted, the church has removed a disturbing statement from the original report that the deepest meaning of the Holocaust was the denial of human dignity (and posits a moral equivalence with the challenges faced by Palestinians). Yet the report still calls on the UCC to "acknowledge with deep regret" its past policy of asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. What this move would achieve is anyone's guess. But the notion that the Palestinians can continue to deny Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state (as it was explicitly affirmed by the UN's 1947 partition resolution) only relieves the Palestinian leadership of the duty to reconcile with its neighbour – and with reality.
No less disturbing is the report's thesis that the occupation is "the primary contributor to the injustice that underlies the violence in the region," that settlements are the chief obstacle to peace, and that Israel alone must be pressed to resolve the conflict. Put aside that the Arab-Israeli conflict began in 1948 (decades before settlements existed) and that the violent repression in Syria and throughout the region has nothing to do with Israel. On the issue of settlements, we have history as our guide.
In 1982, Israel withdrew every last settler from the Sinai after securing a peace agreement with Egypt. Both countries have since benefited from peace. In 2005, Israel withdrew every settler from Gaza as a unilateral gesture without a peace agreement. Civilians in southern Israel have since been targeted by some 10,000 missiles and mortars from Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza.
History is clear. Israeli withdrawals must include peace and security guarantees signed by Israel's neighbours, as per international law under UNSC Resolution 242.
It's astonishing that Israel's removal of thousands of settlers from the Sinai and Gaza is not mentioned once in the UCC's report – despite "settlements" appearing no fewer than 54 times. That "terrorism" is mentioned once and "Hamas" and "Hezbollah" receive no mention at all speaks volumes to the report's lack of balance. Indeed, it reflects a minimization of key obstacles to peace (including anti-Jewish incitement, continuing terrorism, and yes, Hamas – the archetype of Arab rejection of the Jewish state).
Peace will come only through negotiations and painful concessions by both Israelis and Palestinians. This is the consensus among most Canadians and across the political spectrum (the NDP, under both Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair, firmly rejected boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts). No doubt this reflects the majority of UCC members, who would hope to play a constructive role in supporting the legitimate aspirations of both sides. Should a small minority of boycott advocates succeed, the greatest resulting injury would not be to the relationship between the UCC and the Jewish community, but rather between the UCC and its own congregants.
The framework for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict described above is also upheld by the mainstream peace movement, which is engaged in a myriad of projects to bring both sides together. To contribute to this movement, one need not refrain from criticizing particular Israeli policies (as Israeli peace activists can attest). One must simply commit to advancing peace through balance, mutual obligations and reconciliation – rather than coercion and the singling out of one side for blame.
Unfortunately, were the UCC to launch a church-wide boycott, it would alienate one of Canada's most prominent churches from this important cause. In so doing, the church would not only be turning away from Canada's Jewish community, but ultimately from the UCC's own tradition as a leading voice in civil society for fairness, moderation and peace.
Shimon Fogel is CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada.