The United Church of Canada's Israel Boycott

But a conspicuous silence on real human rights atrocities around the world.

At its general council meeting in Ottawa last Wednesday, the left-wing United Church of Canada demonstrated once again why predictions of its eventual disappearance are not to be dismissed. Instead of focusing on spiritual issues, as one would expect a church body to do, the council used its national assembly as a platform to engage in the decidedly less friendly religious activity of Israel bashing.

A report commissioned by the church leadership and presented at the week-long meeting that ended August 18 declared that Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian territory is a main reason for the conflict there and calls for a boycott by church members of goods produced by Israeli settlements on the West Bank. This report, a product of the United Church’s Working Group on Israel and Palestine Policy, also wants Israel to dismantle the security barrier it has built to prevent terrorist attacks.

“Simply put, Israel is maintaining a harsh occupation that must end so peace can emerge,” the report stated. “The occupation is damaging both Palestinians and Israelis. The occupation is being implemented by a democratic country and sustained and supported by Western governments, including Canada’s.”

The statements regarding Israel were part of thirteen recommendations that were passed by the council’s 350 delegates in a first vote on Wednesday. Other recommendations, all non-religious, concerned topics like climate change, Canadian mining operations in Third World countries and opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline that would bring Alberta crude to Canada’s west coast for shipment to China.

This is the fourth time the council has called for a boycott, but the first time it has passed in a vote. The anti-Israeli recommendations will receive a second vote on Friday, in which the church will have a chance to redeem itself by rejecting them. But don’t hold your breath.

Once among Canada’s largest churches, numbering more than a million adherents only fifty years ago, the United Church is estimated today to consist of about 500,000 members. The Church was wracked by a crisis in the late 1980s when it adopted a resolution to allow the ordination of gay ministers, causing many members at that time to leave and seek a place in more accommodating, conservative Christian denominations. The United Church was to become so “progressive” that even an atheist became a minister in a Toronto parish.

And like most secular, left-wing political entities, the United Church is very selective about what social and world issues it champions. While it rails against the alleged Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian territory, there is no outrage expressed over Arab occupation and colonization of black African lands in Darfur or southern Mauritania. In both cases, the African populations were violently driven off their patrimonies, which Arabs then settled.

“It was … clear from the start that this military campaign (in Darfur) was going to be much more than just a ‘surgical’ action against specific rebel targets,” writes author Richard Crockett in his book Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State. “The non-Arab Darfuri tribes were to be forced to make way for Arab resettlement.”

In the case of Darfur, three million Darfuris are still living in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad after having experienced an attempted genocide, in which 300,000 of their number perished during the brutal racial cleansing. And Arab colonization of Darfuri lands has been so extensive, Crockett states: “Demographically, Darfur has already been transformed, probably forever.” It would also be “extremely difficult to turf them (the Arab settlers) out of their new domains. If anyone tried, it would certainly lead to new violence.” For the black African Darfuri refugees then, there is probably no going home.

While there are other world issues besides the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio that the United Church, and other left-wing churches, can be cited for treating unequally, such as the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, it is the Church's hypocritical silence on Arab racism against black Africans that really stands out. It was churches like the United Church who led the commendable struggle against apartheid in South Africa, singling it out for condemnation and helping impose an official boycott. But their efforts to combat the much crueler and deadlier Arab racism, that has enslaved tens of thousands of black Africans in places like Sudan and Mauritania, have been negligible in comparison. The Africans in those countries would be happy if such “progressive” churches bestowed attention upon them equal to that given to the Palestinians.

A recent study on the United Church, however, helps explain why its humanitarianism appears to have boundaries, stopping at non-left-wing issues. Kevin Flatt, a history professor and study co-author, says that the church’s views are “being set by trends in secular thinking” and its contribution to issues is simply “an echo of the NDP (Canada’s socialist party) or [secular] environmental groups.” In other words, if it isn’t a fashionable, left-wing political cause, the Church is simply not interested. And the same can probably be said about many other "progressive" churches.

But this focus on left-wing causes may form the root of the United Church’s eventual downfall. The study maintains “its take on social issues” has put the Church “in serious danger of losing its identity as a Christian denomination…” And since people generally go to church for spiritual sustenance and not to pursue or promote social causes, this, in turn, will lead to a further crippling decline in attendance. One professor estimates church membership will drop to 250,000 in 15 years, while Flatt believes attendance will be almost zero by 2040. So if the United Church intends to boycott Israeli goods it should do so now, because soon there won’t even be enough members around to vote on such a woolly-headed motion.

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