‘Moral imperative’ to speak out on Israel-Palestine, church leaders say

Visitors at a checkpoint giving access to the Western Wall Square and the Temple Mount Complex, Jerusalem. Photo: Delbo Andrea/Shutterstock
Published May 9, 2023

Leaders of several Canadian churches, including Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, met with MPs April 26 and 27 to speak about peace in Israel-Palestine—but disagreed substantially with at least one of them on what Canada should do.

“I think one of the most disappointing moments of the last two days was speaking with an MP who I will not name,” Nicholls said during a panel discussion on the evening of April 27. “That MP said, ‘Well, really, Canada has no voice because we have no economic power, we have no leverage, we have no—nobody will listen to us.’ It was a very pragmatic approach that said basically there’s no point in speaking up and don’t bother us and don’t push us,” Nicholls said.

“We all left the room going, ‘No!’” she said. “There is a reason to speak up, and the reason is because it’s morally right to speak up … Canadians hold values around human rights that must be named and declared even if we don’t have a solution ready.”

“To this politician, we did say ‘There is a moral imperative,’” added Dorcas Gordon, principal emerita of Knox College. “And he said, ‘No way. No way. It’s economic and military power.’ We were so discouraged after that conversation.”

Nicholls visited Ottawa together with Bishop Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; the Rt. Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, moderator of the United Church of Canada; and the Rev. Dorcas Gordon, principal emerita at Knox College, a Presbyterian seminary in the University of Toronto.

At the panel, the four church leaders gathered with experts from St. Paul’s University and non-profits including Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq and KAIROS Canada to build a consensus on the current situation in Israel and Palestine. Several panel members, including Lansdowne, compared the situation to settler colonialism or apartheid, right down to Palestinians needing permits to travel through Jerusalem and other Israeli territory. Others called out what they referred to as a trend of disturbingly open Jewish supremacy, Zionism and other forms of intolerance among the current Israeli government.

These attitudes are present in state-perpetrated and -endorsed oppression and violence against Palestinian people in Israeli-occupied territories, said Jonathan Kuttab, a co-founder of Al-Haq. Other panel members said they are also present in a rising tide of anti-Christian sentiment, intolerance and even violent attacks in the Holy Land.

“For many years, the different Israeli governments of the right and of the left have tried to maintain a facade that the situation is a temporary one. That they are trying under difficult circumstances to manage the conflict. That they are waiting for the right Palestinian leadership, for enough international pressure, for the proper conditions on the ground to allow a change … Now we have a government that openly declares itself to be in favour of Jewish supremacy,” Kuttab said in an opening address delivered over video call.

While several of the church leaders present detailed their efforts to advocate for a peaceful resolution, they also expressed disappointment with the lack of unity and consistency in their churches’ responses, acknowledging Kuttab’s statement that Palestinians were disappointed in Canadian churches’ lack of follow-through.

They identified Canadians’ lack of awareness about the Israeli government’s human rights abuses as part of the problem—as well as a fear of being labelled antisemitic, which they said both prevents mainstream media from regularly reporting on the abuses and Canadians from speaking out against what they do know.

One way for churches to respond with advocacy, said Gordon, is “demanding that the federal government and the mainstream Canadian media speak more clearly and honestly, without misdirection, in defence of international law and human rights.”

Also contributing to the limited response, the panellists said, were factors such as the popularity of Christian Zionism—a belief that a fully Jewish Israeli state is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy—and the simple fact that declining attendance across denominations means there are fewer resources to go around.

Limited resources make the need for partnerships between churches more urgent than ever, said Johnson. She pointed to the meeting earlier that day between the four church leaders and the MPs, in which their combined efforts got them a more prominent audience than they might have had on their own.

Partnering with secular organizations may be a prudent measure, too, said Michaël Séguin, an assistant professor at St. Paul University. To illustrate, he told a story about a recent visit he had made to discuss the issue with an MP who told him that they were also getting frequent visits from representatives of the Centre for Jewish and Israeli Affairs. “One MP was [saying] ’They are in my door every day. I see you once a year.’”

Meanwhile, it will be important to work on informing parishioners and rallying opposition to the harmful ideologies present in Israel, the panellists said. They strongly emphasized the importance of building that work on a foundation of firm belief in equality and tolerance. It is just as important to repudiate the movement of antisemitism that has been growing in Western countries, which involves addressing Canada’s own history of antisemitism and colonialism, Johnson and Lansdowne said.

“This is not a change that has to be anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, but rather it’s a change that is for human rights, human dignity, equality and against racism, discrimination and yes, anti-Jewish antisemitism, Islamophobia and any other discrimination on racism,” Kuttab said. “If you really love the Jewish people, if you really repent from past sins against Jews, I think you need to take a strong position against Zionism because [certainly] the kind of Zionism we see in Israel today does not represent the best interest of the Jewish people or of Judaism.”

Richard Marceau, vice president, external affairs and general counsel at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) disagrees. In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Marceau said Judaism is the story of a people and its special relationship to the land of Israel ,and the form that relationship takes in the present day is Zionism. The idea that Zionism isn’t the best thing for Judaism therefore doesn’t make sense, he says.

Marceau watched a recording of the panel before being interviewed by the Journal. A panellist’s remark that any response to Israel’s conduct should distinguish between individual Jewish people and Zionism or Judaism as a whole, he said, ignored the importance of Zionism to Jewish identity.

“Why would a Christian tell Jews what to believe or how to identify? … To me, that is the antithesis of a respectful dialogue.”

He also took issue with the use of the word “colonialism.”

“Jews see themselves as an indigenous people and Israel as their ancestral land, so all this talk about colonialism and Jews being there as a colonial enterprise—it’s actually the exact opposite,” he said.

In a subsequent email, Marceau clarified that his comments on the use of “colonialism” were intended to refer to allegations that the return of the Jews to Israel was colonialist, not to panelists’ allegations about Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories specifically.

Some panellists, including Kuttab and Johnson, expressed doubts about the continued viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Johnson said her concerns were that the power exerted by the Israeli government was too great for the Palestinian side to negotiate with equal footing as long as the occupation remained in place.

Marceau, who referred to himself as a pro-Palestine Zionist, said that’s as good as saying the churches are working for Israel not to exist anymore. “When a Jew hears that there’s no more [advocacy] for a two-state solution … it is interpreted by a Jew as a code word for ‘we don’t believe in the state of Israel anymore.’”

He disagreed with the panellists’ concern over attacks on Christians and churches, too, pointing to an op-ed piece he wrote for the National Post in Dec. 2022. The article cited 2021 research saying 84 per cent of Christians in Israel reported satisfaction with their treatment there. He argues that Israel is “the only functioning democracy in the Middle East where their religious freedom is guaranteed,” while their numbers are dropping in nearby Islamic nations.

Nicholls, Gordon and Johnson, however, each noted that during their recent visit to the area, they heard increasing anxiety from Palestinian Christians.

“We were repeatedly told that young people see no future in Palestine or Israel for themselves,” said Nicholls.

Likewise, several panellists said the conduct of some right-wing Israeli politicians has more recently emboldened intolerance and violence among their supporters. In 2022, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a coalition agreement with Avi Moaz, the leader of Noam, which the BBC at the time called “a religious-nationalist, anti-Arab and anti-LGBTQ party that argues for a strict interpretation of Jewish religious laws in Israel.”

Marceau replied that he had no problem with anyone criticizing a specific government, but he felt too much criticism takes the form of allegations that Israel is an apartheid state, which implies that the whole nation is inherently racist.

“The use of those terms is a way to de-legitimize the very existence of a Jewish state,” he said.

Affairs in the Holy Land are expected to come up when Anglicans and Lutherans across Canada meet at this summer’s Assembly. The agenda is expected to include presentations on efforts by Churches Beyond Borders, an ecumenical partnership, on working for peace in Israel-Palestine.

Correction: Archbishop Linda Nicholls said church leaders visiting Ottawa April 26-27 disagreed with one MP with whom they spoke. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

This story was updated with new information May 10.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

Related Posts

Skip to content