Muddying the waters on Israeli divestment

June 14, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 13
Will Braun | Senior Writer

Only one person voted against the Mennonite Church Canada Resolution on Palestine and Israel, but we all know the matter is more complex than that. Some Mennonites and others argue that the resolution is predictably polarizing and strategically bereft. In a spirit of diversity and understanding, I suspended my own bias and sought their views. (See “Action seeks solution for Israelis and Palestinians.”)

Rooted in antiquity, touching the foundations of three major religions, playing against the backdrop of history’s most notorious genocide, and fuelled by superpower, it is no wonder the Israel-Palestine conflict has made the Holy Land a burial ground for countless international peace efforts.

From one perspective, Palestine is a terrorism-laced entity dedicated to wiping Israel off the map. Indeed, Hamas, which controls Gaza, is founded on “jihad” against the “Zionist enemy.” Palestinian violence is real. In this narrative, Israel is one of the most oppressed minorities in history, fighting for its very existence in a hostile corner of the world. A common refrain is that Palestinian school children are taught to hate Jews.

On the other side, people point to UN condemnation of Israeli settlements. They point to the fact that Israel kills many Palestinians for every Israeli Jew killed. In this narrative, Palestinians are the underdog, pummelled and routinely humiliated by the far-more powerful, western-backed Israelis.

Of course, there is infinitely more to both perspectives.

While the MC Canada resolution leans toward the Palestinian view, Steve McDonald of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) told me in a phone interview that Christians are in a good position to serve as bridge-builders since we are neither Jewish nor Muslim. Presumably that means we should primarily locate ourselves somewhere other than in one narrative.

I contacted three Mennonites who feel the resolution fails to do this. I will not use their names, based on the request of two.

Their main critiques are that the resolution does not adequately acknowledge the Israeli reality, does not grapple honestly with violence perpetrated by Palestinians, and is not a prudent strategy for peace. None of them made their case using biblical arguments in favour of Zionism.

They said, in part:

  • The resolution represents “an expression of unreflective allegiance to a particular polarizing narrative sealed with the metaphorical spilling of some economic blood.”
  • Boycotts are like “chasing the wind.”
  • What exactly is the envisioned path to change?
  • “North Americans are not going to solve this issue.”
  • “We should help people on both sides.”
  • While most Palestinians want to get on with life, their leaders are invested in ongoing strife.
  • “The triumph of Pauline Christianity was an unmitigated disaster for Judaism . . . [and for indigenous peoples].”
  • “Progressive Mennonites seem confused by my unapologetic support of Zionism [the right to a Jewish state]. They seem to slot Mennos who are pro-Israel into two derogatory camps: You must be a right-wing fanatic or you must be a Messianic Christian. I am neither. . . . If I lived in Israel, I would be voting Labour and supporting left-wing policies.”

In what would be for some a comparable blurring of categories, CIJA—the group that condemned the MC Canada resolution as an act that “speaks to the moral blindness and increasing marginalization of a denomination in decline”—is an unrestrained advocate of LGBTQ rights.

McDonald told me that boycotts of Israel, which have a history—and connotation—going back to the Nazis, simply do not work. Merchandise exports to the European Union nearly doubled since 2005 when the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign first coalesced in Europe.

“The only pressure Israel can’t resist,” he said, “is an embrace,” noting that in the 1970s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Israel and recognized Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s right-wing government responded by pulling its military and all settlers out of the Sinai Peninsula.

He said Mennonites should not see the situation as “a zero sum game.” Israeli and Palestinian aspirations are interconnected. And he says Christians can help bring sides together.

He said that CIJA supports a solution that would include “statehood and prosperity” for Palestinians, adding that polls have consistently shown a majority of Israelis support peace, a two-state solution and even territorial concessions within the context of a peace agreement that ensures their safety and security. He noted that Israel has put forward three such proposals.

But Israel cannot act alone, he said. After Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the vacuum was filled by the openly jihadist Hamas group.

One of the Mennonites I spoke with suggested we should “be trying to muddy the waters a little.” Although not an expert in the region, he suggested we support Palestinians who push their leaders toward nonviolence and work with any Israelis opposing military conscription in Israel. He said that “neither of these suggestions represents a fix,” but they “[raise] the possibility that love of enemy might supersede considerations of both justice and self-defence.

For more of Will Braun’s interview with Steve McDonald, visit

For more on this subject see:
Broadening our prayers
The view through a prison keyhole
What would you risk for peace?

Don’t interrupt me
Three stories of throwing
Palestinian children face harsh realities
Working group tackles tasks of advocacy on Palestine and Israel

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There is much to be refuted in McDonald's comments on behalf of CIJA. Suffice to say that CIJA does not represent all Jewish voices in Canada as it seems to purport, and it is largely a well-funded lobby group in Ottawa, on behalf of the state of Israel. Their claims and their messages must be put alongside the claims and messages of Palestinian groups. And for us, the main questions that should be front and centre for both sides are: What makes for a peace based on justice? What's being done to address root causes of the conflict and violence? What are the moral foundations of what we are promoting? In my opinion, CIJA skirts around those questions far too much.

Byron: I would agree that Steve McDonald's comments deserve to be challenged (everyone should read the full interview report. See the link at the end of the article above). I would be interested in hearing your points of disagreement and agreement with Steve's actual comments. The arguments you do make, are that CIJA is not representative of all Jewish voices in Canada (I am sure you are right), and that "it is largely a well-funded lobby group in Ottawa, on behalf of the state of Israel." That last point may also be correct. Unfortunately, there are hundreds (thousands?) of years of history of Jews being accused of shaping the politics of non-Jewish societies by using their money and behind the scenes influence. Even if you are correct, can we all agree not to use that particular argument? It rubs salt in an open wound, and even if articulated with complete integrity, is a narrative easily co-opted by those acting in bad faith to demonize the other.

First, on the last point you make: It's a good one, and I'll concede that it can be turned around "in bad faith to demonize the other"--so maybe it's not helpful. And yet, how much discussion is shut down for fear of rubbing salt in wounds, and where do you draw the line on that? The thing about this conflict is that both communities have been horribly traumatized and victimized, and each wants the world to know its narrative of suffering and not to give attention to the other's narrative of suffering. Behind my critique of CIJA is a concern that the Palestinian narrative ends up being marginalized for lack of the political, economic, and PR power that the Israeli side has. The field is not level.

To answer your call for more specifics on McDonald's assertions. Here are my main ones, paragraph by paragraph (following the bullet points in the briefer article):
1) McDonald's propagandist rhetoric raises red flags for me: "speaks to the moral blindness and increasing marginalization of a denomination in decline." A denomination known for its work in peace and justice is accused of being "morally blind"?
2) Effectiveness of boycotts, etc.: McDonald invokes the Nazi era, but he ignores the large role that more recent boycott movements played in winning civil rights in the US and, more recently, dismantling Apartheid in South Africa.
3) He ignores the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization has "embraced" Israel's right to exist--and even Hamas (which I am not defending at all; it is a terrorist organization) has softened its stand on that.
4) The MC Canada resolution does not see this as a "zero sum game." It's clear that it is seeking peace and justice on both sides. The Kairos Palestine document, which was the main impetus for the resolution, repeatedly calls for justice and nonviolence on both sides. Israel's ultimate well-being, it says, is related to its regard for international law and human rights. (Which, by the way, receive scant attention in CIJA's communications.)
5) McDonald says that CIJA supports two states, land concessions, and security and safety for both communities. Note that he does NOT (or at least Braun does not quote him to) say that Palestinians and Israelis should enjoy EQUAL human rights.

Byron, it might be helpful to think of CIJA as an organization similar to MCC especially MCC's early days as a Mennonite aid organization assisting Russian Mennonite refugees during the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and then later the Volksdeutsch Mennonites in the aftermath of WW2. You minimize the importance of CIJA as an agency that does indeed represent a significant cross-section of the Jewish community in the same way that MCC represents a significant cross-section of Mennonites in Canada.

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