By Yves Engler
Toronto church Trinity-St. Paul’s shameful suppression of a Palestinian youth cultural event highlights anti-Palestinian rot festering in the United Church of Canada. It ought to also shine a light on a little discussed anti-Palestinian accord UCC leaders signed with Israel lobby groups five decades ago.
Under pressure from B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Defence League the Trinity-St. Paul Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts recently canceled a room booking “to celebrate the artistic and cultural contributions of Palestinians in the diaspora.” The Palestinian Youth Movement’s spoken word event was to “showcase the winners of the Ghassan Kanafani Resistance Arts Scholarship”, which the JDL and B’nai B’rith chose to target on the grounds the famous novelist was a spokesperson for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the early 1970s. After Kanafani and his 17-year old niece were assassinated by the Mossad in Beirut, Lebanon’s Daily Star labeled the novelist “a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”
As I detailed in this article Trinity-St. Paul’s spiritual leader is anti-Palestinian leftist Cheri DiNovo. Since publishing that piece the former NDP MPP admitted — to vicious anti-Palestinian/Islamophobe Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, of all people — that she forwarded B’nai B’rith’s concerns to the church’s board, which then cancelled the event. Dropping her progressive standing further, DiNovo unfriended a number of individuals on Facebook who politely questioned her role in suppressing the Palestinian cultural event.
To be fair to DiNovo she isn’t the only Progressive Except for Palestine voice in the UCC. “What happened at Trinity St. Paul’s is not isolated”, wrote Karen Rodman, an ordained UCC minister and prominent Palestine solidarity activist. Last year the UCC seminary at the University of Toronto’s Victoria University withdrew from a Palestinian Liberation Theology program with Reverend Naim Ateek. According to Rodman, work had been underway on Emmanuel College’s continuous learning initiative with Ateek for a year when pressure was brought to bear by Israeli nationalist groups.
Resolutions endorsed at UCC conventions in the 2000s called on Palestinians to recognize Israel as an ethnic/religious supremacist state. The 2009 motion called for “the emergent State of Palestine” to recognize “Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within safe and secure borders.” In an interview after the 2009 convention Palestinian Canadian journalist Hanna Kawas complained the UCC was asking the victims of a European colonial movement to endorse the supremacist ideology that dispossessed them. In 2012 the UCC “advised against the use of ‘the language of apartheid’ when applied to Israel” and called for a solution to the Palestinian refugees’ right of return so long as it “maintains the demographic integrity of Israel.”
In another sign of the church hierarchy’s encouragement of a colonial ideology, Rodman was harassed and bullied for supporting Palestinian rights. Church officials purportedly called her a “terrorist” for traveling to the West Bank. In response to attacks and biased review process, Rodman filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) against the UCC for discriminating against her anti-Zionist worldview. Last year the HRTO granted Rodman a hearing, which awaits scheduling, to show her anti-Zionist worldview/creed is not just a political view.
(The UCC has supported labelling settlement goods and condemned other aspect of Israel’s occupation. But these resolutions have not been implemented. As an example, no congregation or UCC body implemented a 2012 resolution calling for divestment from companies profiting or supporting the occupation even though a resolution was passed at the subsequent General Council requesting implementation of the 2012 resolution.)
An anti-Palestinian deal UCC leaders brokered decades ago has influenced the church’s indifference to the plight of Palestinians. In the 1950s and 60s the UCC passed a number of resolutions upholding the rights of Palestinians, including those of the refugees to return to their homes. More significantly, the UCC’s influential magazine championed the Palestinian cause. With a circulation of 350,000 in the early 1970s, The Observer criticized Israeli human rights violations. But editor Rev. A.C. Forrest’s support for Palestinians prompted vicious attacks. Emboldened by the blow Israel delivered against pan-Arabism in the 1967 war, B’nai B’rith dubbed Forrest a “Haman”, “Pharaoh” and “anti-Semitic”.
In response, Forrest threatened to sue for libel. B’nai B’rith countersued. A high-profile battle between B’nai B’rith and the UCC ensued. But, new UCC leaders didn’t care much about Palestinians and opposed Forrest, as well as a pro-Palestinian resolution passed at the 1972 UCC convention. Moderator Bruce McLeod and General Secretary George Morris soon sought a “gentleman’s agreement” in which both the UCC and B’nai B’rith would drop the lawsuits. Couched in the language of interfaith sensitivity, the 1973 “peace pact” was about deterring criticism of Israel. As then Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) President Sol Kanee wrote in a private letter, “it would appear the United Church is determined to chart a more positive course with regard to Israel and the Jewish people, which we hope will be reflected in the ‘Observer.’”
Dozens of pages detail the B’nai B’rith-UCC battle at the Canadian Jewish Archives in Montréal. In one internal file CJC officials say only part of the B’nai B’rith-UCC agreement was published (a similar agreement is thought to have been made between the UCC and CJC and/or Canadian Council of Churches). Part of the “peace pact” published noted, “we recognize and appreciate the interests of Jews everywhere and of the United Church for the events in the Middle East and in the survival of Israel.”
As part of the agreement, the UCC seems to have committed to inform B’nai B’rith/CJC about Israel related affairs or even seek their consent before implementing policy approved by the grassroots. A 2009 Globe and Mail article reported that UCC general council officer Bruce Gregersen indicated that CJC president Bernie Farber “gave his blessing to the UCC resolution” on Israel.
Rodman and others have pushed the church hierarchy to reveal whether the anti-Palestinian agreement is still respected. But UCC leaders have failed to release the full agreement or say it is no longer being followed.
The agreement with B’nai B’rith/CJC has undercut grassroots initiatives within the church that challenge Canada’s complicity in Palestinian dispossession. But, the decision to succumb to B’nai B’rith’s disingenuous attacks 45 years ago has had another equally damaging impact on Palestinians. It has emboldened the anti-Palestinian group to make evermore outrageous demands.
After a half-century more of Israeli land theft and violence, B’nai B’rith demanded a Toronto church suppress an event because it included the name of a famous novelist driven from his home as a child and then blown up by Israel (a quintessential victim of terrorism). If Kanafani’s name “glorifies terrorists and murderers”, as B’nai B’rith claims, then what should we say of a group that defends every act of Israeli violence, including the assassination of a novelist and his niece?
If the UCC won’t have anything to do with a Palestinian youth group that mentions Kanafani’s name they sure better sever all ties to groups promoting Israeli “terrorists and murderers”.
– Yves Engler is the author of Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid and a number of other books. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle. Visit his website: yvesengler.com.