Israeli settlements and the United Church boycott: Responding to three common distortions

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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.

Third, Israel is many things, but a democracy is not one of them. There are currently 10 to 11 million people living under its sovereignty, and 3 to 4 million of them (Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) do not have the right to vote in Israeli elections. It may seem ridiculous to have to explain this, but a country without universal suffrage is not a democracy. If Israel wishes to gain this status, it must either give the vote to Palestinians under occupation or relinquish all control over Palestinian land, airspace, and coastal waters so that Palestinians may form a state of their own.

Distortion #2: Why not Palestine? Isn't it unbalanced to concentrate blame solely on one side in this longstanding conflict?

I wonder where the people making this objection were when Canada put Hamas on its list of terrorist groups and applied sanctions to the elected government that it led. Could it be that balance is not the priority after all?

I won't discuss the merits of pro-Israel one-sidedness in its many unquestioned manifestations. The topic at hand is the United Church proposal on Israeli settlements. Is it true that the resolution (notwithstanding the explicit demand that both sides abandon violence) asks more of Israelis than of Palestinians? To some extent, yes. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and forced notions of neutrality (that are never applied consistently anyway) ought not to enter into the equation. Israeli settlements contravene international law and sabotage any reasonable shot at ending the conflict. Whoever defends them in the name of even-handedness clearly does not take such concerns seriously.

Distortion #3: In passing a resolution that singles out Israel for condemnation, the United Church is jeopardizing its ties to Canada's Jewish community.

Most people are not slaves to their ethnic or religious affiliations, and Canada’s Jews are no exception. Despite attempts to sway us with infuriatingly inappropriate Nazi analogies, the caricature of Jews as monolithically supportive of Israeli military policy is false. Many of us are perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves without being blinded by oversimplified tribal loyalties. To claim otherwise is akin to labelling all criticism of Iran as Islamophobic, or all protest against China's occupation of Tibet as anti-Chinese. Surely we must be beyond that.

And what of the clause in the United Church resolution expressing regret for a previous demand that Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state? Here we must try to imagine the points of view of Arab Israelis. In Israel (not including the Occupied Territories), 20 to 25 percent of the population is non-Jewish. How must it feel to members of this large minority, knowing that the state in which they live is not meant for them -- that they are somehow lesser citizens than the Jewish majority? This would be like Canada officially identifying itself as a "Christian" or "European" or "white" state.

The real question is this: should Israel be held to the same standards as the rest of the world or not? Its backers claim that Israel is held to unrealistically high standards -- that it is unfairly singled out for blame -- and I do not want to see that any more than they do. But is equality really enough for them? Or do they want Israel to escape critical attention altogether -- deserved or otherwise?

In passing a resolution calling on its members to boycott Israeli settlements today, the United Church is refusing to play this disingenuous game. And for that, in my opinion, they are to be commended.

David Taub Bancroft is a writer and blogger. Having studied political science and philosophy, he lives in Vancouver, and is currently working very, very slowly on his first novel. Writing is hard. You can find his work in backofthebook.ca, The Montreal Review, and Zouch Magazine & Miscellany. You can read his writing on his blog, Song of the Watermelon.

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