Walking down the aisle of Trinity St. Paul's Church on Bloor on Wednesday, October 26, I stumble straight into the words of Desmond Tutu comparing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories to South African apartheid. "If apartheid ended, so can the occupation," according to the words of the archbishop flashed on the screen in front of those packing the pews to hear Jeff Halper, among the best-known of Israeli dissidents, who made his name protesting the bulldozing of Palestinian homes by his country's army.
But as he himself acknowledges, protests have been a complete failure, and the fact that this church is crowded tonight for a talk about bringing sanctions against Israel "is a tragedy and a shame - no one wanted to get to this point."
Like it or not, 150 people from North America, Europe and the Middle East are meeting at a conference on a subject that has been discussed quietly, mostly away from microphones. The gathering is organized by Canadian supporters of Sabeel, the band of Palestinian Christians that for the last dozen years has been trying to use the non-violent means of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King to turn back Israel's military might.
The list of sponsors is a cross-section of Christianity, from the mainstream World Vision Canada and the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada to the less well-known Ursuline Convent of Santa Rosa, California. And, though smaller in number, there are Jewish and Muslim participants, too, upwards of 75 groups altogether, a rainbow gathering of faith groups united in their willingness to use moral authority where politics and diplomacy have failed.
But this is still a novel discussion, approached with trepidation. Tonight's session and the next night's with Sabeel leader Naim Ateek at Bloor Street United Church are the only ones for public consumption. The campaign for South Africa-style sanctions is only a couple of years old, and its would-be participants are still trying to find the language to impart their message without appearing - or being made to appear - anti-Semitic.
This night is both pep talk and language lesson, taught by Halper, the gadfly activist and Israeli anthropology prof in jeans and plaid shirt whose nationality gives him a certain protection. "It's not against Israel but about ending an intolerable situation," he coaches. "These sanctions will be in place only until the occupation ends. That covers you from charges of being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel."
In addition, these are scaled-down sanctions. Unlike the all-out campaign against South Africa, the target here is those organizations that profit from the occupation - Caterpillar tractor and the Israeli universities that have property on occupied land and yet offer no support to Palestinian students. Halper also supports a sports boycott, one that would keep the adored Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv from playing in the European league.
As conference organizer and New York-based sanctions activist David Wildman tells me later, there's no unanimity here about sanctions and divestment, on which there's been more activity in the U.S. than north of the 49th. The U.S. Presbyterian Church has been the most active on the divestment front, buying shares in Caterpillar and raising questions at shareholders meetings. Canadian Presbyterians have not yet joined on. Student groups in the U.S. have gone after Starbucks and Burger King, which do business in the settlements, but other groups have not got on board.
The only company that everyone agrees is a rightful target is Caterpillar, which makes boots and apparel as well as the bulldozers that have crushed so many Palestinian homes.
(In response to queries, Caterpillar says in a statement that the firm abides by "all local, U.S. and international laws and policies governing sales of our products. We clearly have neither the legal right nor the tangible ability to regulate how customers use their machines.')
The aim of the conference, Wildman says, is "to look at lessons learned, and how to avoid some of the negative press and criticism."
Delegates get a taste of just that when B'nai Brith on the very first morning of the conference hosts a press briefing at the Sutton Place Hotel. Here, it produces four U.S. Christian spokespeople who insist that those calling for sanctions do not speak for all people of faith. B'nai Brith rep Ruth Klein in her statement says the sanctions bid is an "attempt to isolate and dehumanize Israel.' (She cannot be reached for direct comment.)
The briefing focuses on Sabeel Jerusalem director Naim Ateek. "[North American Christians] go to the Holy Land; they meet up with the Christian communities and fall under the sway of those Palestinian Christians who criticize Israel and only Israel for their suffering,' complains Dexter Van Zile, director of the U.S.-based Judeo-Christian Alliance.
Despite the furor that has followed Ateek to Toronto, there are fewer members of the public at Bloor United than came to hear Halper the night before. With his black shirt and priestly collar, Ateek himself looks perfectly at home. He bounds up to the pulpit to deliver his case for sanctions against the occupation, with Scriptural references and a special call to those who, like him, are of "the body of Christ."
In addition to being a Christian, he's also an Arab, driven at gunpoint from his family home in 1948. Then, he says, he would not have been able to accept the permanence of Israel, but now he does, because, he says, "I am not living any more in 1948." He says he supports a two-state solution and a secure Israel. But when he mentions in passing that the Torah offers only two ways for Jews to deal with land grabbers, kill them or throw them out, I wonder if he's creating trouble for himself.
Most of the audience rises in applause at the end of his talk, but there are un-fans. One woman takes him to task for his "begrudging support" of the Jewish state, and a man, Steve Samuels steps into the aisle to offer a passionate rendition of otherwise standard rebuttals to critics of Israeli policy, such as the fact that before Israel grabbed the West Bank in 1967, no Arab country allowed the Palestinians to set up their own state.
The sudden storm brings an end to the official part of the meeting, but the debate with Samuels and his entourage has only just begun, except now the interlocutors are members of the audience, not Ateek, many of them Jews, religious and secular.
"We're doing to the Palestinians what was done to us," screams a man wearing a yarmulke.
And it goes on and on long after Ateek's exit, down the aisle, out to the porch and, after they've locked the doors, out on the street, a beautiful row, Jew to Jew.
Maybe a debate based on morality can make a difference after all.