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My struggle against United Church’s pro-Israel bias that undermines Christians in Palestine

Crescent International

By Karen Rodman (Rev)

As heads of churches in Palestine called for support from Christians around the world this past week, it seems unlikely that much solidarity will be coming from Christians in Canada.

The United Church of Canada, the second largest denomination after the Catholic Church, is seen as being perhaps the most supportive of Palestinian rights.

However, the United Church’s long relationship with the pro-Israel lobby continues to trump calls from fellow Christians in Palestine.

Following the Naksa, 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 a cooperation 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 quash support for Palestine by the grassroots of United Church, and indeed that is exactly what it has done.

Over the decades that followed, church staff would often 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 grassroots resolutions passed at the church’s general council meetings shows that essentially none of the resolutions passed over the last half-century have been implemented.

A particularly low point was in 2009 when the United Church insisted Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In June 2017, after 50 years under military occupation, the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine (NCCOP) issued an open letter to the World Council of Churches.

The call was urgent saying “this is no time for shallow diplomacy Christians,” and asked for immediate decisive action among other things to recognize Israel as an apartheid state and support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Three years later, the United Church has finally suggested a response, but hardly the one that the Christians in Palestine were looking for.

In regard to apartheid, the United Church Taskforce has indicated:

“The charge of apartheid 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 working group therefore recommends that use of the language of apartheid be avoided.”

Regarding BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), the taskforce said it is “counterproductive” and that the BDS movement includes “too broad a spectrum of participants with significantly varied and sometimes unacceptable goals.”

The United Church that prides itself on strong interfaith relations used very different language in the taskforce report to describe its Jewish relations than its relationship with the Muslim community.

It suggested its association with the Jewish community is based on dialogue, care, respect, gentleness, neighbourliness, and seeking forgiveness.

With the Muslim community it is based on resisting evil to seek justice.

This has left some questioning in what sense would it be necessary for resistance to evil to be noted in the Islamic context, and not in the Christian or Jewish ones?

The taskforce also insists that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.

This is not surprising, as the general council of the church passed a resolution in 2012 supporting the right of return for Palestinian refugees as long as the Jewish demographic integrity for Israel is maintained.

Just Peace Advocates, a Canadian human rights group, in responding to the taskforce indicated that to be concerned about a state’s right to exist is counter to the church’s own stated de-colonization and liberation theology, and that people (not states) have a right to exist.

The full United Church of Canada position can be seen here.

Just Peace Advocates, the Canadian BDS Coalition and Sabeel Palestine have responded urging the church to denounce their agreement with the pro-Israel lobby, and to embrace the requests from Christians in Palestine.

On another note, the church has continued for almost five years to use its parishioners’ tithes to hire lawyers to defend to the Human Right Tribunal of Ontario that antizionism is not an acceptable worldview.

Ironically, the church still has an approved resolution on its books from 1977 supporting that zionism is racism.

In April 2018, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) indicated in an interim ruling that consideration be given to why my antizionist world view is a “creed as opposed to a political view.”

Dr. Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian Christian and a recognized international human rights lawyer was my agent. Immediately following the interim ruling, the United Church launched an intervention to have the HRTO remove Dr. Kuttab from the case.

In August 2019, the HRTO indicated that since Dr. Kuttab is a lawyer in other jurisdictions but not Canada, he cannot act as an agent even though one can use a non-lawyer or self-represent at the HRTO.

This case came about in 2015, when several members of a Sault Ste. Marie congregation I had served, asked a higher church court to look into bullying that had taken place against me.

Among other things I had been called a terrorist for having been a human rights observer in Palestine.

Several congregation members were concerned since such harassment was a decades long systemic internal issue, and they wanted this resolved within the congregation before they would call another minister.

Instead of addressing the issue brought to them, the higher church court ignored its own policy and refocused the complaint against me.

The church had no authority to review as there was no complaint against me as a clergy, and also I was no longer serving that congregation.

Nonetheless, the review quickly became about Palestine, and even though I had not once preached about Palestine, examples such as my mention that a “fig” tree in Palestine is like an “apple” tree in Ontario in introducing a scripture became labeled as an inappropriate pro-Palestinian bias.

Perhaps the use of the word Palestine was the concern?

To correct me of my zionist views, the higher church court ruled in 2016 that I should be supervised by a fellow-clergy who takes hasbara tours for church members to the Holy Land with a career military tour guide who lives in an illegal settlement.

I refused, and when the top court of the church rejected hearing my appeal, I filed a case of discrimination with the HRTO in 2016 based on the grounds of my anti-zionist creed and association.

The church continues to fight the case saying that Palestine is just a political issue, not a theological concept or worldview. I self-represent my case against the church.

Join in asking the United Church of Canada to publicly renounce its relations with B’nai Brith, and any other implicit or explicit relations with the pro-Israel lobby.

That is the least we can do for our brothers and sisters in Palestine.

Karen Rodman was ordained by the United Church of Canada, and is the Executive Director of Just Peace Advocates.

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