This is an expanded report on an hour-long phone interview I did for the article “Muddying the waters on Israeli divestment.”
In July 2016 Mennonite Church Canada delegates passed a resolution that calls on Mennonites to “avoid investing in or supporting companies that do business with Israeli settlements and the Israel Defense Forces, and companies that are profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” (See the entire MC Canada document “Resolution on Palestine and Israel.”)
In response, Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Toronto-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), issued a statement that read, in part: “We condemn the Mennonite Church of Canada’s decision to adopt a policy that discriminates against Israelis, hinders Palestinian economic opportunity, and ultimately serves as another barrier to peace.”
Koffler Fogel said the resolution, “speaks to the moral blindness and increasing marginalization of a denomination in decline.”
That is not exactly an invitation to dialogue, but I know some of my Mennonite sisters and brothers align with Koffler Fogel’s sentiments. As a journalist and as a member of the MC Canada family, I care about their concerns, whether or not I am inclined to share them. Plus, I see increasing value in trying to understand people whose views stir negative reactions in me.
So I sent CIJA an email, and Steve McDonald, their deputy director of communication and public affairs, was happy to talk. We had a cordial and helpful conversation. I still have numerous questions, but my understanding was expanded.
Below are some of the things McDonald told me. I will not repeat everything in the article that this piece accompanies, other than to say that McDonald and CIJA believe Palestinians are deserving of “statehood and prosperity.” McDonald also said, “The only pressure Israel can't resist is an embrace.”
Please understand that this is not a comprehensive look at various perspectives, so don’t criticize it for not being what I never intended it to be. Instead, it is a glimpse into the perspective of a representative of a large and credible Canadian Jewish organization.
Here are some of the views McDonald shared with me. These are his views, either paraphrases or quoted directly.
- The situation in Israel Palestine as a “very tragic and painful conflict with immense suffering on both sides.”
- “There are good people on both sides.” Churches and other people not directly connected to the conflict should ask themselves, “What can we do to support good people on both sides?”
- It is an “easy thing” to pass resolutions which “we know don’t really achieve anything . . . [except] self-satisfaction.”
- Boycotts are ultimately a tool of conflict. “How is separating and dividing people good for peace?” A “divisive approach” is not in keeping with the Christian faith.
- Tens of thousands of Palestinians (different groups have different numbers) work in Israeli settlements and in Israel. They receive higher wages than in the West Bank or Gaza. When people work side by side that is good for peace. Joint Israeli-Palestinian business ventures help lay the foundation for peace.
- For MC Canada to link itself to the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement links it to a long history of boycotts. Nazis boycotted Jewish businesses, and certain Arab states in the Middle East have boycotted Israel for considerable stretches in the intervening decades. Boycott actions today raise these associations. The de facto boycotts of surrounding nations have had little discernible impact on Israeli policy, and its economy has flourished despite them.
- These forms of economic pressure simply have not worked. What are the results of BDS? “I haven’t seen the peace process advanced because of this.”
- To my question of whether Palestinians are an underdog with a need to address a power imbalance through actions such as boycotts and divestment, McDonald reiterated the point about economic pressure being ineffective.
- The separation barrier (fence, wall) has reduced suicide bombing attacks.
- Violence by Palestinians against Israelis is real. Most places in Israel feel quite safe, but children, and others, do get killed by mortar attacks. People who work in hospitals (such as some of McDonald’s friends) are forced to leave patients and head for shelters when the rocket warning sirens sound. Many buildings and homes—with the exception of some older ones—have safe rooms, and people in different areas of Israel have, for example, 15, 30 or 45 seconds from the sound of the siren to get to safety.
- Without the Israeli army, Israel would “cease to exist” so the implication in the MC Canada resolution that the Israeli Defence Forces are persona non grata is offensive. These are the forces that keep Israelis safe. They also keep McDonald’s family safe when he visits, as well as Christian pilgrims.
- Hamas is a “significant obstacle” to peace. (It is expressly committed to jihad against Israel.) Palestinian Islamic Jihad is another terrorist organization that perpetrates violence against Israelis.
- Israel continues to provide a significant amount of aid to Gaza, even though Hamas controls Gaza.
- The fear is that Palestinian leaders do not ultimately want a two-state solution but want to one day take over the region, with Jews living as a minority in a Palestinian-controlled state.
- The situation is not black and white.
- “The overwhelming majority of my community wants peace.”
- Most Israelis do not feel there is equal will for peace on other side.
- Most Israelis have no need for pressure. They need a fundamental shift on the ground that would lead them to be able to trust Palestinian leaders. They need a clear statement about the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Hardliners within the Palestinian population make it difficult for their leaders to say this.
- “What expectations do you [supporters of the MC Canada resolution] have of the Palestinian leadership?”
- Settlements are “one of many issues that have to be resolved.” The “vast majority” of settlements are suburban communities adjacent to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Eighty percent of settlers live in communities contiguous with Israel. A simple land swap would be a solution. Israel has offered such solutions on different occasions.
- It is a capital offence to sell property to Jews in Palestine. The opposite is not true in Israel.
- Home demolitions are partly related to cultural difference in views of land ownership and permitting.
- Home demolitions are often used against terrorists and this has been an effective deterrent.
The main take-away message I heard from McDonald is that most Israelis want peace. They do not need pressure to move toward peace, they need key Palestinian actors to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and provide credible assurances of safety and security.
In the context of some louder, more aggressive Jewish voices that tend to reach the airwaves, I found McDonald's comments of value.
For more context, including Mennonite voices critical of the BDS resolution, and more comments from Steve McDonald, see “Muddying the waters on Israeli divestment.”
For some fairly concise historical and statistical context on both Israel and Palestine, I found the PowerPoint presentation “Pathways for Peace and Justice in Palestine and Israel” helpful. It is available on the CommonWord website.