Saturday, August 19, 2006

United Church Avoids the D Word

Keywords: United Church; divestment; Palestinians; Occupied Territories; ethical investment; boycott; corporations; CUPE, Seymour Hersch; Karin Brothers; nonviolence.

There is no mention of “divestment” in the resolution adopted by the United Church of Canada at the climax of its week-long yesterday. Nevertheless, the motion that was adopted has to be considered radical — and it was greatly toned-down from the intentions of the participants.

Karin Brothers phoned me in an elated mood today. She cautioned me not to believe the modestly positive accounts being reported by the Canadian Jewish Congress, for the real event was far more dramatic. Karen is a church member who identifies strongly with the Palestinian cause, follows its news closely, and visits the as often as possible. She is more radical than I am, but also more knowledgeable on the subject. By her account, the leaders of the church were embarrassed because about three-quarters of the 400 participants voted to endorse a policy of . The chairpersons evidently refrained from calling on the best-informed members who wanted to speak, and after the pro-divestment vote was taken, recessed in order to allow the pro-Israeli-government faction to find ways of reversing the move toward divestment. This tactic evidently succeeded in part, for the word “divestment” was not mentioned in the final document, though its basic intent remained unchanged.

The church body was confronted at its Thunder Bay conference with the recommendations of a Toronto-based initiative, The Task Group for Ethical Investment in the Middle East. This committee had already decided to support a strongly worded resolution adopted at the end of June by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (). The Task Group explicitly recognized “the right of Israel to exist in peace and security within internationally-recognized borders and the right of the Palestinians to exist in peace and freedom in an internationally-recognized homeland and state.” At the same time, it called for an ending of the occupation and the withdrawal of Israeli settlements. It also called on the church to “divest and boycott goods and corporations related to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.” In Toronto, the United Church had already endorsed this CUPE policy and now had taken it to the national church to expand the economic pressure.

This initiative had support from other influential groups that also commended CUPE for its bold resolution: the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians, the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation, the Canadian Arab Federation, the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, and the Canadian Islamic Congress. Nevertheless, it was far too radical to gain support from the mainstream such as the Canadian Jewish Congress. And, in the end, the United Church leaders watered it down, introducing alternatives to divestment.

Still, the final resolution was a great victory for those who had wanted a policy of divestment. It urges the promotion of peace by encouraging investment in companies that denounce violence and help build a “secure and economically viable Palestinian state alongside a secure and economically viable state of Israel.”

The final resolution calls for investment only in “companies and corporations that support peace and justice in the Middle East.” The Council said that "non-peaceful pursuits" would include Canadian and international corporations and companies that:

• provide products, services, or financial support to groups that engage in violence against Palestinian or Israeli persons
• provide products, services, or technology to any government or organization that refuses to recognize the legitimate rights of the State of Israel including the right to exist as a Jewish State
• provide products, services, or technology that sustain, support, or maintain the occupation
• have established facilities or operations on occupied land
• provide products, services, or financial support for the establishment, expansion, and/or maintenance of settlements on occupied land or settlement-related infrastructure
• provide finances or assist in the construction and/or maintenance of the separation barrier within occupied territories

The dilution of the initial proposal was sufficient to mollify the Canadian Jewish Congress, which was represented by a worried delegation. Yet in the past, the has taken similar positions calling for divestment in other countries, including Guatemala, Nigeria, South Africa, and Sudan. In fact, the Church itself has no investments in any companies that would be affected. The resolution constitutes a moral call of mainly importance — though symbolism can be as powerful as any other force in this world.

Why should anyone be shocked by this kind of action? Compared to bombing raids on a country’s enemies, or even compared to acts that deprive inhabitants of an occupied territory of food and water (actions that the Israeli government has been carrying out without apparent compunction), such nonviolent actions as and divestment decisions are moderate indeed. It surprises me that supporters of the Israeli government act as if the “D word” were tantamount to the advocacy of warfare against their country.

I will always support actions in defence of human rights, but I will never support violent attacks for a similar cause. As has revealed recently, the Israeli government had been planning its recent attack on far in advance. It was not merely acting in response to the capture of a few Israeli soldiers. And certainly its cruel actions against the in , which are continuing even now, are deliberate and unnecessary. Compared to such crimes against humanity, the policy of economic divestment is a gentle reproach — one that can be accepted by anyone who wishes to promote peace with justice.


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