Robust Debate

12.10.13

Why Zionists Should Be Surprised—Even Heartened—By the United Church of Canada's Boycott

The United Church of Canada has been on the radar of Jewish groups for some time now over its declaration of a boycott of Israeli-made products from the West Bank. Titled  “Unsettling Goods: Choose Peace in Palestine and Israel,” the August 2012 initiative has gained new media coverage over the last week, as the initiative, and its related publicity campaign, has begun to solidify.

It’s not surprising that Jewish organizations recoiled when they learned about the United Church initiative. Back in the summer of 2012, a CIJA spokesperson called the Church’s policy a “morally reckless path,” and ARZA-Canada, The Reform movement’s Zionist wing, called it “biased” and “unfair.” ARZA in particular also took issue with the United Church’s opposition to Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish State.”

There is something heartening about a robust policy debate being carried out in an interfaith context, even if the conversation is contentious. CIJA’s reaction report, for example, urges Canadian Jews to seek out representatives of the United Church with whom to meet.

There does, however, seem to be a lack of awareness on the part of Jewish organizations of just how significant it is that the United Church’s actions are so circumscribed. Most of the vocal Palestine solidarity these days—think Israel Apartheid week, student government boycott motions across North American campuses, and news and commentary outlets like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada—have situated themselves squarely within the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. These groups tend to push for a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian morass. But by focusing on the settlements—rather than on the entire political project of the State of Israel—the United Church’s position is actually much friendlier to Zionist interests than the organized Jewish community seems to think.

I spoke with Patti Talbot, Team Leader Partnerships / Asia Partnerships, who works out of the Toronto headquarters of the United Church of Canada. She was quick to emphasize that they have not joined forces with the BDS movement. “The focus is on the settlement project, not on Israel.” Accordingly, Talbot added, “We stand in support of the ongoing international consensus and that is to work toward two states.”

On the question of why the United Church has been reticent to join the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state, Talbot said that “We want to recognize the importance of a Jewish and democratic state, holding those two ideals in creative tension...That creative tension would mean that it would provide a clear homeland to Jewish people, while recognizing the full rights and dignity of those who live within its borders, not as second-class citizens.” This certainly doesn’t sound anti-Zionist to me.

I did ask her about those who would view the United Church’s action as one-sided, given that it focuses on Israel’s wrongs, rather than on the crimes of each side. Talbot responded by pointing to the asymmetric nature of the conflict, and the systematized nature of the occupation.

And what of SodaStream, one of the targeted products of their economic action strategy, I asked? Specifically, while the company operates a large plant in the West Bank (and employs hundreds of Palestinians in it), one could imagine that, under the terms of a two-state solution, the plant would remain across the incipient border, as an example of foreign direct investment. Talbot replied that for her, the question is “who benefits and who controls? I think Palestinian partners have been clear that right now, they have not had much to do either with the questions of control or benefit.”

Looking to the future, she adds, “Our ultimate vision of course is that the occupation would end, and that Israelis and Palestinians....would be able to discuss how that would happen, in a non-violent, negotiated, just manner.”

This is a very different vision from the one Israel’s supporters must contend with almost daily on the activist scene. But it’s not simply a matter of the United Church being a lesser evil. Like the actions of many liberal Zionists who eschew West Bank products to underscore their opposition to the occupation and their commitment to a Jewish and democratic state, United Church’s economic action may be bad for those who prefer that their friends remain silent in the face of human rights abuses, but it might ultimately be good for those who prefer to see a fair and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—one which respects the needs and desires of each side, and pushes Israel to fulfill its self-proclaimed ideals of being both Jewish and democratic, unencumbered by the moral drain of being an occupier.