Rabbis decry Canadian church proposals on BDS, Israel 'apartheid' 

Reports and proposals to be considered at the United Church of Canada’s 44th General Council include supporting BDS and to cease referring to Israel as a Jewish state.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The United Church of Canada will consider adopting a proposal and a report that could lead to the institution identifying Israel as an apartheid state, refusing to recognize it as a Jewish state, and officially supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. Canadian rabbinical organizations issued a letter on January 11 condemning it. 

"As Canadian rabbis from across the country who span the denominational spectrum, we strongly condemn resolutions on Israel and antisemitism currently under consideration by the United Church of Canada preparatory to the 2022 General Council," reads the statement signed by the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, Montreal Board of Rabbis, the Ontario Region Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, Reform Rabbis of Canada and the Toronto Board of Rabbis.

"There's a long history of the Jewish community and representatives disagreeing with UCC on Israel-Palestinian relations," letter co-author Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl told The Jerusalem Post. "It was important to speak, motivated by the proposal by the Cambrian council, and the more developed resolution that is going before the General Council. Our concerns are theological. We feel that the UCC is ignoring that there is a biblical covenant," that ties the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

Frydman-Kohl said that UCC's direction "contributes to antisemitism because it supports or purports to support all means to achieve Palestinian statehood."

A proposal put forward by the Cambrian Shield Regional Council for the 6 month 44th General Council — the UCC's triannual leadership convention which starts February 13 — could see the UCC declare Israel to be an apartheid state, declare its support for the BDS movement, and begin advising church regions and communities in the process of divesting from companies affiliated with Israeli settlements or Israeli security forces. 

 The shield of the United Church of Canada, May 27, 2012. (credit: LOOZRBOY/FLICKR) The shield of the United Church of Canada, May 27, 2012. (credit: LOOZRBOY/FLICKR)

"The proposed Cambrian Shield Regional Council resolution refers to the Kairos Palestine document," warned the Canadian rabbinical statement. "The Kairos Palestine document justifies all means to achieving Palestinian statehood. It does not place any limits on violence."

During the same six month online proceedings, the church will follow up on a 2021 report by its Just Peace Task Group called “In Support of Just Peace in Palestine and Israel: A Call to Costly Solidarity,” which explored the potential of the church officially supporting BDS, whether to begin using the term 'apartheid' in relation to Israel, and whether to affirm Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. 

The report, which followed a 2015 resolution adopted by the Chuch to review its Israel and Palestinian policy and the formation of a team to do so in 2018, is hesitant to advise the church to wholely adopt BDS.

While the report viewed BDS positively through what the task force described as the lenses of decolonization and Christian theological imperatives for "just peace," it was hesitant to openly support BDS due to perceptions of the movement as antisemitic and that "some groups that support BDS and advocate for it may have other beliefs and activities that we do not support or with which we do not agree." The report instead advised engaging in boycotting Israeli products  "while not under the official BDS heading."

 Frydman-Kohl expressed concern about using "a particular lens of 'whiteness' and colonialism... to delegitimize Israel. We're also concerned with their terminology, such as apartheid. There is a failure to recognize Israel as Jewish despite," Palestinian national documents describing their aspirational state as Arab.

While the report heavily bases its position on Israel as an apartheid state on the Human Rights Watch's April 2021 report "A Threshold Crossed," it comes to the conclusions that it should avoid using the term, as “the working group believes that the charge of apartheid as applied to Israel shuts down conversation, disempowers those who desire and work for change in Israel, and does more to harm than to help the potential for successful peace negotiations."

The report also contends that "the church should not presume that we have the authority to dictate to Israelis or Palestinians what the religious, cultural, or even political character of their state(s) should be," but also argues that "it no longer makes sense for The United Church to affirm Israel as a Jewish state" according to the series of principles that the task force recommends that the UCC adopt. The conclusion was informed by the team's opposition to the Nation-State Law and that calling Israel a 'Jewish state' would support those who would want to establish a Palestinian state as 'Islamic.'

"We note with dismay the hesitation – if not the refusal – of the United Church to recognize Israel as a Jewish State," said the Rabbis' letter.

The principles recommended to the church will be reviewed for adoption starting in February. 

"The report will be well received by some and will cause discomfort for others. As part of the process, the 44th General Council will discern the proposals, discuss, and make decisions. The United Church of Canada is committed to remaining in dialogue, even when we disagree," wrote Rev. Dr. Richard Bott and Rev. Michael Blair, the UCC's moderator and general secretary, a statement to address the controversy. 

"We're concerned that it relies on [the] fringe or radical Jewish groups and not meeting with the Jewish community," said Frydman-Kohl.  The overtures by the UCC "do not grapple with the complexities on the ground. This lack of comprehension leads to the conclusions of the UCC and undermines interfaith relations."

Frydman-Kohl, who leads interfaith groups to the Levant, added: "We want to see more Jewish-Arab dialogue, we want to see more progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but at the same time we want to make it clear that the vast majority of Canadian Jews see Israel as a Jewish state while grappling with those complexities."

The UCC report and proposal are set to follow a February Amnesty International report labeling Israel as an apartheid state. The UCC proposals and AI report precede a June UN Human Rights Council report by the permanent commission of inquiry against Israel. Pro-Israel NGOs have argued that the AI report is part of an overarching rejection of Israel as a Jewish state.

The UCC describes itself as the "largest Protestant denomination" in Canada "with over 2 million Canadians" identifying with the church, and over 388,000 members.