After months of controversy and negative media attention, the United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination, finally made it official. The church's General Council voted today to call on its members to avoid buying products coming from Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the United States have made similar calls.
Despite the tameness of such proposals, we may expect a continuation of the widespread and exaggerated complaints that have saturated the Canadian press for the last few months. In the interests of honesty and clarity, I would like to address three common distortions.
Distortion #1: Why Israel? The world is full of tyranny and injustice. Of all the places and issues, why focus just on boycotting the Middle East’s only democracy?
Three assumptions are packed into this distortion: that the United Church is boycotting Israel, that Israel's critics routinely let others off the hook, and that Israel is a democracy. All three assumptions are false.
First, while it may be true that the United Church never previously boycotted any country other than apartheid South Africa, it is not boycotting Israel either. Its economic action is restricted only to Israeli settlements, not the country as a whole. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, the settlements are illegal. To quote the Convention's text : "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." If international law means anything to us, then what else are we going to do? As far as proposals to pressure Israel go, the Church's action is limited, moderate, and entirely non-violent.
Second, I am not sure who is responsible for the myth that the Palestinian solidarity movement is fine with atrocities not committed by Israel, but it has proven to be very persistent. Contrary to common right-wing talking points, the movement was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring revolutionaries trying to topple their authoritarian leaders, while the Israeli government has been consistently hostile to democratization in the region. The Canadian contingent of the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza even named its ship the Tahrir.
As for the United Church itself, its General Council passed resolutions on numerous issues ranging from the Northern Gateway Pipeline to aboriginal rights. And within the last month alone, the Church condemned recent acts of violence around the world committed against other Christians, Sikhs, and yes, even Israelis.
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