Rev. Andrew Love of Grace St. Andrews United Church in Arnprior Ottawa led the opposition to the United Church of Canada proposal to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria as a way of forcing Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory.
On Aug. 17 2012, however, the General Council of The United Church of Canada at their 41st General Council in Ottawa, enshrined a boycott of goods made in Israeli settlements in its official church policy. The resolutions singled out Israeli settlements as a principal obstacle to peace in the region and called on Israel to suspend settlement expansion.
The Council also expressed regret for its previous policy, adopted in 2006, of calling on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. "It is unacceptable to insist that Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of continuing negotiations."
The United Church of Canada is a Protestant Christian denomination in Canada. It is the largest Protestant church and, after the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian church, in Canada. The United Church was founded in 1925 as a merger of four Protestant denominations: Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians
Andrew Love said that while the council’s decision is Church policy, individual churches can still choose whether they want to follow it. Love said he would be working on a local level to build relationships and try to repair damage done. “As for the national level. That’s broken now,” he said.
The vote in favour of a boycott, Love said, will not “have any impact on the ground: we simply don’t have the economic muscle; we’re not buying a lot of wine from the Golan Heights. What it will do is add to the feeling of isolation that many in Israel are feeling and [lead] to further division and resentment. It will do nothing to aid in our understanding and dialogue or our ability to work out solutions.”
During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, Rev. Andrew Love met an Israeli family whose home had been hit by a Katyusha rocket fired from Gaza. Over dinner, the mother asked him why liberal churches in the West are so critical of Israel. Love had no answer. But he promised to do whatever he could to raise the Israeli woman’s voice in church discussions.
In 2009, the executive appointed a three-member working group, headed by former church moderator David Guiliano, to make recommendations on the Israel-Arab conflict. The 26-page report was released in May of 2012 urging church members to boycott all goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Love felt obliged to speak out. “That was a promise I made [to the Israeli family],” he says, “and I just felt compelled to say something.”
Giuliano who headed the working group stated that Israel can and should be held to a higher standard than surrounding non-democratic countries or authoritarian regimes. He said the working group believed, "It is precisely because of Israel's commitment to democratic ideals that Israel needs to be challenged on its policies around the occupation."
The working group was also deeply concerned that the occupation, particularly the building of settlements, is supported financially and politically by Christian Zionist movements throughout North America. These organizations and churches operate out of a theology that the working group believes to be false. "The impact of Christian Zionism must be countered by those in the Christian community who reject these false beliefs," said Giuliano.
In the three months after the report’s release, Love emerged as an outspoken internal opponent of the report. He launched a website, FaithfulWitness.ca, and received an “overwhelmingly positive” response from church members who’ve asked, “Where’s our sense of priority in terms of our justice initiatives and why is the issue of Israel/Palestine occupying so much of our time?”
For too long, he said, he has felt like “a lone voice crying in the wilderness; that’s why I’ve done this. I have had a feeling of isolation insofar as trying to lift up a call to balance, a call to truly hearing both [Israeli and Palestinian] perspectives.”
Andrew Love is Pastor of St. Andrews United Church in Arnprior Ottawa. The original church was built in about 1890 as St. Andrew's Presbyterian. The church amalgamated with The Wesleyan Methodists into the United Church in 1925. The town, with a population of 7,158, and a metro population of 9,076, is a namesake of Arnprior, Scotland. It is known for lumber, hydro power generation, aerospace, farming and its proximity (69.4km) to Ottawa, the national capital.
Love was not completely alone in his opposition to the boycott since nine Canadian senators in July, 2012, all members of the United Church, and a mix of Conservatives and Liberals, released a letter condemning the proposed boycott as one-sided because of its focus on the plight of the Palestinians and said the church “cannot maintain credibility in criticizing Israeli policies … while relieving the Palestinian leadership of its own duty to advance peace.”
However, the proposal won the backing of fringe Jewish groups such as the Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN). “It’s a positive step toward a resolution in the Middle East,” said Sid Shniad, co-chair of Independent Jewish Voices. It also received the support of outgoing moderator Mardi Tindal who was quoted as saying: “We are very political, as was Jesus; that’s why he was crucified.”
Love said the report lacked “sophistication in terms of our understanding of the settlements” and minimized the impact of terrorism on Israelis. The report assigned “100 per cent of the blame” to Israel for the ongoing conflict. He said he was baffled by the report’s disputation of Biblical passages concerning Israel and its questioning of the country’s “Jewish character.”
It’s natural for Christians to be interested in Israel “from a faith perspective,” he said; however, “I’m concerned that there are groups within our church who are coming to it with more of a political motive and that’s troubling.... There are activist groups within the church, spread out across the country, who have a radical agenda, a mission to use the platform of the church to advance their particular political agenda.”
Love fears “the church is eroding a commitment it made in 2003 to strengthen its ties with the Jewish community.” An anti-Israel boycott will also ruin the relationship between the UCC and the Jewish community, he warned.
“If we go that route, then we’ve lost our voice as a credible bridge-builder,” he says. “We’ve lost our voice as a faith tradition that can work to help bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together.”
“As a church that shares a common Abrahamic root with Jews and Muslims, the moment we create a policy, it has very real interfaith dimensions and implications. And the interfaith implication today will be the destruction of our relationship with the Jewish community in Canada at the national level.”
“I have wracked my brain trying to understand why Israel gets such a disproportionate measure of our moral criticism,” said Love. “I keep coming back to a very difficult conclusion, and that is that there remains an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in our church, and that disturbs me.
“Conversations I’ve been a part of and what I’ve observed have led me to the conclusion that, if you scratch the surface of our tolerant, liberal church, you find the reality of racism.” The infection – and I use that word deliberately – the infection of political radicalism in our church is going to take a lot of work to counterbalance.”
Radical elements within the Christian world focus on demonizing Israel while minimizing the Palestinians’ role in the conflict and ignoring human rights abuses against Christians throughout the world. “I’m speaking of the United Church but Anti-Semitism and racism are fuelling anti-Israel activism in a number of Christian denominations. This same debate has infected the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican communion, where Israel has received a disproportionate amount of attention.”
Love was referring to three American denominations that have recently dealt with anti-Zionist proposals at their national conferences.
The United Methodist Church (US) voted in May against divesting from three companies that do business with Israel. However, according to the JTA, the church passed motions “opposing Jewish settlements in the West Bank” and “recommending the boycott of products manufactured in settlements.”
In July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) also voted against divestment as well as against using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. However, according to the church’s website, it voted in favour of a boycott of “all products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on [occupied] Palestinian land.”
In a more positive move, the Episcopal Church (US) passed a resolution in July calling for “intense teaching, learning and advocacy around the conflict” and defeated a motion to endorse boycott and divestment. It also rejected an official study of two documents: A Moment of Truth, by Kairos Palestine and, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace, by Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish, Christian and Muslim Relations. Both documents were criticized by some”as theologically problematic in their portrayal of Judaism.”
He did not have voting privileges at the UCC General Council but he was given permission to set up an information table at the venue. He distributed the results of a recently completed national survey co-sponsored by Faithful Witness and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
“The survey revealed an overwhelming gap between what is recommended and what the ‘view of the pew’ is,” said Love. More than three-quarters (78%) of Church members surveyed believe the Church should remain neutral on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This shows overwhelming opposition to the Working Group’s proposal that Israel should be singled out for pressure and economic boycotts.
Only 5% of Church members believe Israeli settlements are the greatest obstacle to peace. By a vast margin, Church members cite a range of other problematic factors – such as negotiation breakdowns and terrorism – as being critical obstacles to peace. This broad understanding is in sharp contrast with the Working Group’s focus on Israeli settlements.
To see the results of the survey of United Church members, click here.
The Church’s decision to support boycott in full knowledge of these survey results confirms the extent to which this decision was driven by narrow ideology rather than by a desire to faithfully represent the views of the membership.
Tragically, the UCC chose to join that fringe, rather than listen to the nearly 100,000 families who are members of Jewish Federations across Canada, and on whose behalf the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs speaks. The Church equally ignored some 70 Canadian Rabbis of all streams and from every province, representing tens of thousands of Canadian Jewish families, who made their opposition known in writing.
Love believes that the delegates, weary of the endless debate on the issue, embraced the working group report in the hope that the church can finally move on. At each of its previous two general councils, in 2006 and 2009, activists pushed the church to endorse policies of boycott, divestment and sanction against Israel over its policies toward Palestinians. After divisive debates, general council delegates rejected those proposals but asked the church executive in 2009 to study the issue further.
“We need to review our priorities,” said Rev. Andrew Love. “I would much rather see us endorsing some of the more positive joint [Israeli-Palestinian] peace initiatives as our policy and then turn our attention to the horrific evidence – which is all around us – of what is happening to our Christian brothers and sisters in so many parts of the world today.”
Rev. Andrew Love of the United Church joins Michael Coren to talk about the most recent controversies surrounding the Church over their boycott of Israel. See video by hitting here.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), which speaks for the organized Canadian Jewish community, made a statement concerning the United Church resolutions on Israel. In calling for boycott against Israeli settlements, the United Church is taking the “reckless position” of shifting from dialogue to coercion and economic conflict. “This is not simply about ‘taking sides’ on a particular issue. This is about changing the relationship between the United Church, Israel and Jewish Canadians.”
There was no immediate response from the Harper government to the boycott’s approval. It has previously stripped federal funding from civil society groups that have or were suspected of advocating for a boycott on goods produced in the settlements and divestment from Israeli companies based there. They argue such advocates are seeking to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.