Church of Scotland’s Rejection of BDS and Criticism of Hamas Draws Cautious Welcome From Country’s Jews
Scottish Jews have cautiously welcomed the Church of Scotland’s decision at its annual General Assembly to reject the BDS campaign targeting Israel, as well as its rebuke of Hamas over the group’s continuing denial of the Jewish state’s right to exist. The decisions were approved despite searing condemnations of Israel made by many speakers at the assembly.
Long-regarded as a stronghold of anti-Zionist activism, the Church has come in for heavy criticism from British Jews in recent years over its uncompromising stance on Israel. But at this year’s Assembly, an amendment to a resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was successfully passed that expressed the Church’s “deep concern in regard to Hamas’s continued declaration…that Israel does not have the right to exist.”
A motion that urged “the adoption of economic measures to pressure the state of Israel to comply with international law” was also rejected by the Assembly. Arguing against the move, the Reverend Paraic Reamonn, minister of St. Andrew’s Jerusalem, stated that Church support for BDS would amount to “reckless endangerment of its institutions and activities in the Holy Land.” Reamonn did not say whether he had received specific information from the Israeli authorities to support his fear.
In a speech to the Assembly to mark the publication of a report on the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration — in which the British government expressed support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine” — Reamonn declared, “There is much that is rotten in the State of Israel, and what is fundamentally wrong goes right back to the foundation of the state.”
However — in what some observers identified as an important shift — Reamonn appeared to back away from the Church’s previous, even more hardline positions about Israel’s alleged sole responsibility for the Palestinian refugee issue. “In truth, there are many parties to this conflict,” he said. “It’s easy to point a finger at the State of Israel as the party chiefly to blame, but in truth there is enough blame to go around.”
The final resolution adopting the Balfour Declaration report — a matter of particular concern to the Church, as the declaration’s author, Sir Arthur Balfour, was a member — was clearly slanted toward the Palestinians, calling for “renewed prayer for all those who are displaced and live under occupation, and encourag(ing) the restitution of all Palestinian lands within the 1967 border.” But an amendment which referred to the Balfour Declaration’s “enormous cost to the Palestinian people” was voted down, while the criticism of Hamas was incorporated at the same time.
Ephraim Borowski — director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) — welcomed the criticism of Hamas, but said he was “disappointed at parts of the Church’s report and at the tone of some of the speeches in the debate, whose hostility reduced some church members to tears on the pavement outside.”
Other UK Jewish leaders weighed in with similar regrets. Jonathan Arkush — president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) — slammed the report, charging that it was “woefully inadequate in addressing the historical realities of the situation, with some seeking to make the conclusions yet more unbalanced.”
Borowski pointed out that the atmospherics between the Jewish community and the Church have improved considerably since 2013, when the Church released a report entitled “The Inheritance of Abraham?” Among that report’s assertions was that claim that Jews during the time of Jesus “were not ready” for the “radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism” he “offered” them. At the time, SCoJeC rejected the report as “effectively a call for the destruction of the State of Israel” and “an unacceptable attack on Judaism.”
“The position in 2013 was that the Jewish community was absolutely outraged by the report of the Church,” Borowski told The Algemeiner. “Since then, they have shown their willingness to listen — even if they haven’t agreed with everything we’ve said. And they’ve made clear their desire to continue the dialogue.”
Nick Jury, a former spokesperson for the Church of Scotland, said that differences between the 2013 report and this year’s Balfour Declaration report suggested that the Church had “learned from the mistakes they made, and are still learning from it.”
“But there is still room for more improvement,” Jury told The Algemeiner.
Changes in the Church’s leadership may also have been a factor behind the change in tone, Jury commented. “Take into consideration there’s been a change in senior leaders — the 2013 report was written by a different Church and Society Council and Convenor,” he said.
In an official statement launching the Balfour Declaration report, the Church of Scotland said it remained “committed to building positive relationships with the Jewish community and to improving the level of understanding between us.”
“As faith communities we share so much, and we still have so much to learn,” the Church concluded.