Responding to the United Church position on Israeli settlements

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Speaking as a Jew, it feels good to be able to offer to relieve Christian guilt. It went the other way and with reverse traction for millennia, as Christians burdened Jews with guilt for "killing Christ." Real satisfaction comes from not doing to others what they did to you, when you finally get a chance.

I'm referring to the decision by Canada's largest religious organization, the United Church, to take a very mild position on Israeli settlements in occupied territories, as the main cause of Mideast conflict. You can disagree with this but it's hardly absurd and it's solidly grounded in international law. They don't say they'll cancel any investments they have in those settlements, as others have, though they think they'll "study" that. They breathe no hint of a "boycott" of Israel, like the one directed at apartheid-era South Africa. They merely "encourage" their members to "avoid" goods from settlements if they're sure of the source. They condemn any violent opposition to the occupiers and endorse non-violence. Most pertinently, their motion "denounces all questions of Israel's right to exist or that seek to undermine its legitimacy as a state."

They did all this with agonizing and reluctance because the United Church is so nice. They love everybody and want everybody to like them. Their greatest horror is the thought of being called mean, racist or, worst of all, anti-Semitic. They knew with certainty what would come if they did what they did -- and it came. "The only comments I've received so far are those advocating a complete severing of ties with the United Church," said the head of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Israel supporters had issued dark warnings long in advance.

So I'd like to congratulate members of the United Church and say I think they showed real courage, which consists in confronting your own deepest fears rather than fears abstractly or generally defined. This is especially true since there's a backstory here: In the 1960s, the United Church and its newspaper were early supporters of Palestinian rights and attacked by many Jews for undermining Jewish-Christian reconciliation. But that was long ago, well before Canada came to seen as a Judeo-Christian, and not merely a Christian, society.

Let me add that I think anti-Semitism still exists and could be having a resurgence. Some of it may even hide as criticism of Israel, though mostly it's content to exist as outright hatred of Jews and not bother with camouflage. But anti-Semitism has come (or descended) a long way since the 1930s. Then it could be found proudly in the upper classes, reputable intellectuals, political parties and high-level civil servants ("none is too many"). Anti-Semitism has moved way down-market since then. It exists in milieus that United Church members don't aspire to and would be horrified to find themselves lumped with.

I offer this support as a Jew without clearance from the Centre (for Israel and Jewish Affairs), which claims to be the main voice of Jewish Canadians. It took over a year ago from its predecessor, the Canadian Jewish Congress, which it smothered with a pillow. It dropped the "Canadian" part along with "Congress," which had at least implied concern with democratic representation; changed that to "Centre," implying centralized control, and indicated Israel was its priority.

So United churchpeople may find more encouragement in a National Post editorial that said they'd chosen "to put politics ahead of matters of faith. Indeed, it is getting harder to tell where the church ends and a budding left-wing political party begins." I'd take that as encouragement if I were them. Politics is part of religion. Like Jesus, who drove the money-changers and other banksters from the Temple; or the Biblical prophet Amos who said, Let justice well up as waters; or Jeremiah who rebuked the diplomats of his time for crying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace. Religion, when it's strong, is about politics not because it wants to be but because it can't not be if it takes its precepts seriously. That's also true of the vigorous religious right in the U.S., which is active from the Republican party to school boards. Right on, United churchers.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Scott Weinstein

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