Opinion

The United Church of Canada’s accord with B’nai B’rith prevents it from supporting justice in Palestine

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Last year, Trinity St. Paul, a downtown Toronto United Church caved to pressure from B’nai B’rith to cancel an event booked by the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM). 

This should not have been surprising given the United Church of Canada 47-year-old cooperation agreement with B’nai B’rith. 

Last week, a United Church group that supports peace for Palestine and Israel outlined the situation that led to the congregation denying the Palestinian group rental, and provided an apologetic resource called managing opposition. No statement was made by the congregation. 

There is of course no indication from the United Church that it plans to publicly denounce its almost half-century agreement with the pro-Israel lobby. 

Following the Naksa, which means “setback” in Arabic and is used to refer to the 1967 war, the Israel lobby in Canada worked to silence those who continued to speak of the “right of return.” This was the case when in 1973, the United Church of Canada signed an agreement with B’nai B’rith. This agreement was put in place to attempt to silence Rev. Dr. A.C. Forrest, the then editor of the United Church of Canada on right of return, and his publication of the The Unholy Land. It was meant to squash the support for Palestine by the grassroots of the United Church.

In 1971, the United Church’s committee on international affairs had asked the Canadian secretary of state for external affairs to report on Israeli bonds, including the amount, the mechanism used to transfer them from the country, tax exceptions and charitable status. This along with several other Palestine items were passed at the United Church General Council meeting in 1972. Based on information in the United Church archives, there was immediate external pressure from Israel lobby groups into permanently stalling implementation of these grassroots approved motions.

Records between pro-Israel groups show that they were surprised the United Church would not just reverse these decisions, but that they were not worried as they had been given assurance by the United Church moderator and general secretary that while the decisions from general council could not be reversed, they could make sure resolutions would not be implemented.

Over the decades to follow, church staff would mention that they had to get an agreement from the Canadian Jewish Congress or other pro-Israel lobby groups before they could proceed with Palestine-related work. Not surprisingly, an analysis of the implementation of the resolutions passed at general council meetings shows that essentially none of the resolutions passed over the last six decades have been implemented, or if they have it has been in a very minor way that was not sustained. 

If the resolutions approved over the years by the United Church of Canada had been put in place there would be support for both the right of return and for equal rights for those in historic Palestine, and acceptance that Zionism is racism.  However, this is not the case. The church opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). The church also refuses to name apartheid or genocide, saying such terms are unhelpful.

In 2012 at its General Council, the United Church passed a resolution indicating that it would divest from companies involved in the illegal military occupation of Palestine. However, that same motion said that actions should not compromise Jewish demographic integrity. It is not surprising that the Israel lobby is not too concerned about the United Church taking action on the motions approved.

In 2009, the Palestinian Christian community issued a call to support the Kairos Palestine Document to the worldwide Christian community.  No church in Canada took up that call. In 2017, Palestinian Christians made another call to the World Council of Churches including support for BDS. The United Church of Canada moderator, Jordan Cantwell was in Bethlehem and responded that it was “complicated” and would take much discussion.  

In response to the 2017 call, a consultation by the United Church of Canada finally began in 2019. This included a policy paper that does not reflect the motions passed by the church over the years, nor does it reflect a response to the actual calls from the Christians in Palestine. Just Peace Advocates and the Canadian BDS Coalition have responded urging the church to denounce their agreement with the pro-Israel lobby and to embrace the requests from Christians in Palestine.

The challenge is that even as organizations like the United Church once supported the right of return, they quickly succumbed to the Israel lobby.

What would be a real surprise, would be if the United Church of Canada responded to requests to denounce their agreement with B’nai B’rith and ended any other implicit or explicit agreements with the pro-Israel lobby. Even more surprising would be if the United Church implemented the policy approved by their grassroots over the last half century and took their lead from the requests from Christians in Palestine.

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