Israel, Kelowna and St. Paul Street

Article for St Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.

The other day I stepped out of Coffee Culture on St. Paul Street. The rain was coming down heavily, so I lingered on the steps hoping for a quick improvement. Suddenly, a lady appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, shouting, “You people – why do you support the Jews over the Palestinians? That land belongs to the Palestinians, you know!” I have no idea who the person was, but she must have recognized me as an “evangelical Christian”, thus the “you people”. I hurried to explain that our organization works in Israel; six of our projects are with Jews and six with Palestinians. My response seemed to bring some calm.

The encounter on St. Paul Street reminded me of last month’s news that Israel played a big part in the discussions at the United Church of Canada (UCC) General Council in Kelowna. The UCC has a history of making political statements, and this convention was not to be an exception. In the final statement the UCC delegates backed away from calling for a national boycott of Israel, although groups within the church were encouraged to consider boycotting Israeli products. Some delegates referred to Israel as an “apartheid state”, and in general the accusations against the small, thriving nation in the Middle-East were fast and furious.

Why does Israel get so much attention? It is a fairly regular occurrence that churches, unions and various academic groups release anti-Israel statements. Of course, any nation has its faults, flaws and botched policies. I have sat in Bethlehem with Palestinians, who lost a relative due to a stray Israeli bullet, and in the same day spent time with a Jewish family, who lost a child due to a suicide bomber. There is deep pain on both sides, and unlike some, I’m not declaring sainthood and infallibility on Israel, but let’s get real. Why is the UCC picking on Israel of all nations?

Why not issuing a statement about Myanmar’s oppressive military junta, that has once again sentenced Aung Sun Ky to further imprisonment? When I visited this nation a few years ago the largest newspaper in the country consisted of four pages of meaningless propaganda and photos of the dictator meeting school classes. No discussion, no real news, a country forced into blind obedience. What about eastern Congo where tens of thousands have been raped and millions have been killed? Or Iran, where the government has suppressed peaceful demonstrators? Why were these countries not on the radar of the United Church? No, it’s all about Israel.

Unlike what many commentators claim, the Israeli-Arab conflict is not based in racism or “apartheid”. The Bible reports that Jews and Arabs journeyed together out of Egypt into the Promised Land, some 3,400 years ago. Any tourist to Israel has seen Jews and Arabs work side by side in a hotel in Jerusalem. Co-existence has a long history in the Middle-East. The Middle-East battle is for land – a battle that has gone on and goes on today in many nations. No, I’m not an apologist for every Israeli policy, but when current Israel is labeled racist and compared to apartheid in South Africa, or even worse to Nazi-Germany, I think enough is enough. Canada has its own history of racism; native residential schools, and sending Jews to death by refusing the ship St. Louis in 1938, just to mention two dark blots in our past.

Modern day Israel is a democracy, made up to 20 % of Arabs, and surrounded by dictatorships, which often thrive on hateful anti-Israel propaganda. The UCC didn’t seem to notice that Israel is the only country in the Middle-East that gives civil rights to homosexuals, an issue that has been of interest to the UCC. Gratefully, the call for a boycott of Israeli products wasn’t approved. Where would seniors get generic drugs from without Israel?

As for me I’m ready to take another tour to the tiny, but amazing country in the Middle-East. Israel is a modern day miracle. When it comes to the current conflict, I learn from Jesus, who set the ultimate example for how to deal with the Middle-East situation. He served Jews, Samaritans and Romans equally and without discrimination. Jews, Samaritans and Romans all jockeyed for a superior position, but Jesus always provided an equal playing field. That’s what I told the lady on St. Paul Street. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt the UCC to spend less time on political declaration, and a bit more on who Jesus is and what He has done for the world.

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