Q & A on the “Rabbinical Statement on the UCC’s Proposed Resolutions on Antisemitism & Israel”

On January 11, several groups of Canadian rabbis issued a statement regarding the United Church 2022 General Council discussions on the church’s policy positions on antisemitism, Israel and Palestine. Those rabbis urge General Council commissioners to forego any further criticism of Israel.

Is this the first time institutional Jewish organizations have tried to intervene in the UCC’s discussion of Israel and Palestine?

The UCC has been speaking out on Israel and Palestine for many years. Jewish institutional organizations have repeatedly tried to deter the UCC from this task. The United Church, while listening respectfully as it would do for anyone, has not allowed these interventions to stop it from doing the right thing. Over the course of several General Councils, the UCC has spoken out more and more forcefully in criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. The rabbis who issued the statement argue that the UCC should value its friendship with the Jewish community. But friendship does not imply ignoring the responsibility to stand up against injustice if a friend asks you to do that. Refraining from sharp criticism of Israel by the international community will do nothing to advance the cause of peace and justice. In fact, it will set the cause back.

The rabbis insist that they speak for the entire Canadian Jewish community. Is that true?

Jewish institutional organizations like the rabbinical councils behind the statement would have us believe that they alone speak for Canadian Jews. They also contend that only Jews can define antisemitism and to this end they have appropriated the phrase “nothing about us without us” from the disability rights movement. But the question is “which Jews do they represent?”

The Canadian Jewish community, like many other Jewish communities around the world, including Israel, is seriously divided on questions of Israel and Palestine. A 2018 EKOS poll of Jewish Canadians suggests just how divided we are. For example, the percentage of Canadian Jews in the survey who:

  • Say Israel is not making sincere efforts at peace with the Palestinians was 44%
  • Have a negative opinion of the Israeli government was 37%
  • Think Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel are reasonable responses to Israeli intransigeance was 30%
  • Agree that “Accusations of antisemitism are often used to silence legitimate criticisms of Israel” was 48%

So, between 1/3 and ½ of Canadian Jews appear to be at odds with the “official position ” being promoted by these rabbis in their criticism of the UCCs. Those figures are reinforced by an Environics poll in 2018, which suggests that half of Canadian Jews do not feel “very attached” to Israel, 44% feel that Israel is not making a serious enough effort for peace with the Palestinians and 39% feel that continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts the security of Israel.

In a 2021 survey commissioned by the Jewish Electorate Institute, 34 percent of American Jews polled agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” and 25 percent agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state,” with results even more dramatic for younger cohorts. We suspect that Canadian Jews share these views.

The Association for Jewish Studies, the largest academic group in the area, warns: “No single group or institution speaks on behalf of all Jews on any issue, including antisemitism…a university or department should refrain from issuing statements that even by implication purport to speak for ‘the Jewish community’ or Jews as a collective.”

Is the so-called “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance” definition the best or universally accepted definition of antisemitism?

The rabbis would have us believe that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA) is the one we should all adopt. But the IHRA-WDA is fatally flawed in that it was designed to suppress honest discussion of Israel and Palestine. Seven of the eleven examples it uses refer not to hatred of Jews but to critical scrutiny of Israel. 

Moreover, consider the following:

  • Several other,  better definitions of antisemitism exist, including the Jerusalem Declaration, endorsed by over 350 of the world’s top scholars of Judaism, the Holocaust and antisemitism.
  • The Progressive Israel Movement has come out in opposition to  the IHRA-WDA. The International Jewish Collective for Justice in Palestine (IJCJP), representing Jewish organizations from fifteen different countries has done so as well.. 
  • Citing threats to academic freedom, the National Council of Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), representing more than 70,000 academic faculty and staff around the country, unanimously rejected the use of the IHRA definition at Canadian universities and colleges. 
  • Over 35 Canadian faculty associations and academic unions have similarly denounced the IHRA-WDA. 
  • Over 180 Canadian Jewish faculty members (www.jewishfaculty.ca) have refused to accept the IHRA-WDA.
  • Over 650 Canadian academic faculty have done the same.

In short, the IHRA-WDA has become a controversial and divisive document, one that does more harm than good in fighting antisemitism in particular and racism in general.

The rabbis say they “believe in peace in the Holy Land.” Just how committed to peace are they?

Von Clausewitz famously observed that “A conqueror is always a lover of peace.” To wish for peace without justice is merely to preserve the status quo. 

For many years, a  succession of Israeli governments has rejected any significant progress toward a two-state solution. Statements made by Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett indicate that the idea has become a dead letter. Meanwhile, the greatest obstacle to peace, Israeli Jewish settlements, illegal under international law, continue to proliferate and expand. Many settlement inhabitants mistreat and abuse their Palestinian neighbours horribly, with the full cooperation of the Israeli police and military. 

The 2018 Israeli “Nation State” law codifies  Jewish supremacy in the country and relegates the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who aren’t Jewish to second class status under  the country’s legal system.

If peace in the Holy Land were a true priority of the Canadian rabbis who are writing to the UCC, they would use their power of moral suasion to denounce, both publicly and privately, the settlements, the criminal acts of the settlers, and the Nation State law and work to change them. Instead, their silence has been deafening, casting doubt on just how much a priority this really is.

Are there groups of rabbis who think differently than those who made the statement to the UCC?

The group who wrote the statement to the United Church comprises very establishment-oriented rabbis. There are other  gatherings of rabbis who are much more in tune with the United Church’s views on Israel/Palestine. For instance, Truah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights, is an organization of over 2,300 rabbis and cantors in the US and Canada “…grounded in Torah and our Jewish historical experience and guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights..[who] call upon Jews to assert Jewish values by raising our voices and taking concrete steps to protect and expand human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Last May, 2021, a group of 90 rabbinical students in the US [some of whom will soon lead congregations in Canada] issued a public letter condemning Israeli actions against the Palestinians and pronounced, “As American Jews, our institutions tell stories of Israel rooted in hope for what could be, but oblivious to what is. Our tzedakah [philanthropy] money funds a story we wish were true, but perpetuates a reality that is untenable and dangerous. Our political advocacy too often puts forth a narrative of victimization, but supports violent suppression of human rights and enables apartheid in the Palestinian territories, and the threat of annexation.”

“It’s far past time that we confront this head on. We can no longer shy away or claim ignorance.”

The rabbis who wrote to the UCC contend that antisemitism is on the rise in Canada and use this to argue the case for supporting Israel. What of that?

Unfortunately, there is an alarming rise of nativism, white supremacy and bigotry in the world today. Antisemitism is growing commensurate with that trend. But the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish group, lists Canada second lowest on its worldwide survey of antisemitic attitudes, next to Sweden. Surveys suggest that Jews are among the most respected and admired groups in Canada.

B’nai Brith Canada, whose annual audit focuses on antisemitic incidents, insists that the frequency of incidents is on the rise. A recent IJV study suggests that B’nai Brith’s methodology is fundamentally unsound. For example, B’nai Brith counts as antisemitic many incidents of people simply asserting Palestinians’ fundamental human rights. Multiple complaints of the same incident can count as many incidents.  If B’nai Brith is to be believed, antisemitic incidents in Canada (improbably) occur 15 times more frequently than they do in the United States! 

Each kind of bigotry has its own particular characteristics, but antisemitism is not an exceptional form of hatred. Privileging efforts to combat discrimination against a single vulnerable group risks further marginalizing other targeted groups, and undermines the solidarity and cooperation among them that is necessary to combat their common enemies. Fighting and educating against antisemitism must be part of the  larger struggle against all forms of  hatred and discrimination. The proper and effective response to all forms of hate is for all vulnerable groups to unite in solidarity.

The rabbis say that Jews are the “indigenous inhabitants” of the Holy Land. Is this an accurate or appropriate analogy?

While Jews have had a connection to the Holy Land for millennia, many other groups, including the Palestinians, have, as well. The relatively recent growth of the Jewish population in the region is largely a function of 19th-century European settler-colonialism, which undertook to  establish a state  in Palestine based on Jewish supremacy. The attempt to appropriate the language of indigeneity is designed to obfuscate this reality.  In this instance, the issue is who is being oppressed and who is playing the role of oppressor. It is therefore both inaccurate and disrespectful to compare the situation of Jews in Israel to that of Indigenous people in Canada. It would be more appropriate to compare the situation of Palestinians in Israel to that of the indigenous people in Canada.

The rabbis insist that the use of the word “apartheid” to describe the Israeli regime is offensive to Jews. Should the UCC shun use of the term?

Article 7 of the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, defines apartheid as “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Ex-US President Jimmy Carter was one of the first, over a decade and a half ago, with his book: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

In just the past year, no fewer than three major human rights organizations have decided officially to adopt the term “apartheid” in describing the situation facing Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

In January 2021, B’Tselem, the highly-respected Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, published the document “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid. No longer confining its criticism to the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, B’Tselem insists that “In the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the Israeli regime implements laws, practices and state violence designed to cement the supremacy of one group–Jews–over another–Palestinians.”

In April 2021 Human Rights Watch published “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” The report pronounces that:

“Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

On 1 February 2022, Amnesty International published “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity,” asserting “The report sets out how massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law.”

Michael Benyair, former Attorney General of Israel, agrees with Amnesty International. He recently published an article stating, “It is with great sadness that I must also conclude that my country has sunk to such political and moral depths that it is now an apartheid regime. It is time for the international community to recognise this reality as well.”

Predictably, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and several pro-Israel organizations have labeled Amnesty International’s analysis antisemitic. Is this the best they can do to counter such serious allegations? It is not antisemitic to decry oppressive and repressive acts of racial supremacy, regardless of who perpetrates them. Israel does not get a free pass on such issues because it is Israel.

Regardless of what the rabbis say, the UCC has the right – nay, the responsibility – to  use the term “apartheid” to characterize the situation faced by the Palestinians.

The Jewish people have suffered discrimination, bigotry, oppression and mass murder in the past. Does this entitle Israel to special treatment by the world community?

We need to distinguish Jews from Israel. While Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, it cannot claim to represent Jews the world over. No matter what vile treatment Jews have experienced over the centuries, and we have definitely experienced such treatment, Israel cannot use this to create the rationale for giving it  a free pass to oppress another people.

Canadians, and Canadian Christian churches, rightly feel guilt over the way Canada blocked Jewish refugees from German fascism and ignored their plight. But that is all the more reason none of us should ignore the plight of the Palestinians.

India, for example, used to be an indirect, then a direct, colony of Britain. The British visited terrible suffering upon the Indian people during the 400 years of colonial rule. The Indian diaspora has suffered from racial discrimination and bigotry around the world. But that doesn’t mean we should refrain from criticizing current Prime Minister Modi and his party’s abuse of non-Hindu minorities.

Nor should we give the Chinese government a carte blanche to deprive ethnic minorities of their human rights because China was ravaged by European colonialism and Chinese people have been subject to racial discrimination.

By the same token, not only can Israel be criticized for its treatment of the Palestinian people; it needs to be censured by the world community. Just as was the case with apartheid in South Africa, a non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions may be the only way that Israel will be encouraged to change its ways.

What does Jewish tradition teach us about how to respond to circumstances of injustice?

Jewish tradition is emphatic that we must act for justice. For many Jews, that is the core message of Judaism.  Jews who are apathetic about theology are often adamant about justice. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) and “Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14) are distinguished among the hundreds of divine commandments in our tradition as the only ones which we are enjoined to arise and take the initiative to seek after.  

The centrality of the pursuit of justice in the Jewish tradition is evidenced in the prophetic portion chosen to be read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year. It is from Isaiah 57-58 in which the prophet cries out that without justice, God finds ritual observance repulsive. In the view of the Torah, even God’s promise to Abraham of the Land of Canaan was conditioned on just behavior.  “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen. 18:19)  

Justice is for all, not only for ourselves. “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) In the Jewish religious tradition, the mandate to act for justice is fundamental.