The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, meeting in Edinburgh this week, today (23 May 2009) decided to continue selling and profiting from goods from illegally occupied territories at its hotel centre in Tiberias in northern Israel - to the disappointment and dismay of many within the Church.
The Kirk operates three centres in Israel: two churches with hotels and a multi-cultural school. The Jerusalem church and hotel was initially created as a memorial to Scottish soldiers who died in the First World War Palestine campaign; the Jaffa school near Tel Aviv and the Tiberias institution by the Sea of Galilee originated as 19th century missionary enterprises.
In recent decades, the Church of Scotland has increasingly tried to make its witness in these centres reflect the complex situation on the ground. In doing so, it has moved from what was at one time seen as a strident pro-Zionist standpoint, to a position in sympathy with the dispossession of many Christian and Muslim Palestinian communities resulting from the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land.
In recent years there have been numerous calls from Palestinian civil society, including many in the churches, for the boycott of goods and services originating in the Occupied Territories. This movement has its origins in the boycott campaigns of the South African anti-apartheid struggle.
However, after recently refurbishing the Tiberias centre and turning it into a first class hotel, the Church of Scotland sells and promotes a number of products and services from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and the Palestinian West Bank. In particular, wines produced in the Golan have been prominently advertised on the hotel website – with the bottles being promoted in the restaurant
‘wearing’ miniature kilts – and staff in the shop openly state that it does not sell any Palestinian or fair trade products, despite the Church’s Jerusalem centre hosting one of the most successful Palestinian fair trade businesses in the region, Sunbula.
Citing the Church’s World Mission Council report to the Assembly that its work in the region is an “expression of our vision of justice and peace which springs from faith in Christ as Saviour”, the Rev Sigrid Marten, from London Road Church in Edinburgh, argued that the Church’s "commitment to remaining alongside the people of the region, especially at this difficult time" entailed taking concrete action to support this and not profiting from the sale of goods from occupied land.
“Illegal occupation,” she said, “means taking land away from the rightful owners. Using that land to produce goods is not much better than theft. Selling these goods seems to me to be supporting that theft… The Church of Scotland has repeatedly spoken out against illegal settlements in these regions. I think we should ensure that we follow this decision up by avoiding produce and goods from these places at all costs.”
Noting that the Kirk’s “commitment to being part of a peaceful solution to the conflict in the region” necessitated the Church ensuring its actions “are consistent with [its] pronouncements”, Ms Marten also pointed to the need to further links to the Church’s Anglican partners in the region as well as relationships with other local churches. Taking such a stand would be seen as an expression of solidarity with the Scots’ Palestinian Christian neighbours.
The Rev Colin Renwick, the Convener of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council, expressed sympathy for the intention behind the motion, but argued against it. Though he did not cite any evidence, he denied Marten’s account of visitors to the shop being told by staff at Tiberias that no Palestinian or Fairtrade products were available.
Using arguments that critics accused of paralleling white claims from the South African apartheid era, Mr Renwick also said that adopting this motion would potentially harm Palestinian producers – though Palestinian organisations have themselves called for such boycotts.
He also said that the Church is working on an ethical policy for its work in the region, though he gave no indication of when this might be completed. Adopting the Rev Sigrid Marten’s motion would, he argued, prejudge some of the very issues the ethical review would be dealing with.
Supporters of the resolution expressed real concern that relations with the Church of Scotland’s Palestinian Christian and Muslim partners in the region will be harmed. However, Ms Marten’s motion was defeated.
“This means that the Church will continue to profit from the sale of products from territories illegally occupied by Israel, whilst at the same time preaching solidarity with those oppressed by that very occupation,” an observer told Ekklesia.
The Church of Scotland is the country’s national church, in the Presbyterian tradition.