The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council said the Methodists’ annual conference should “hang its head in shame” for passing a policy which calls for a boycott of goods from “illegal” Israeli West Bank settlements and blames Israeli occupation as the “key hindrance” to Middle East peace.
Lord Sacks said the implications of the decision would “reverberate across the hitherto harmonious relationship between the faith communities in the UK”.
He blasted the report as “unbalanced, factually and historically flawed” and offering “no genuine understanding of one of the most complex conflicts in the world today. Many in both communities will be deeply disturbed”.
Delegates at the conference in Portsmouth overwhelmingly passed every recommendation of the report, which also included a call to review whether Zionism was compatible with Methodist beliefs.
The Reverend Graham Carter, who chaired the working party that produced the report, said that while some people had wanted a boycott of all Israeli goods, “we did not feel that was the right thing to bring to conference”.
Jewish organisations are particularly incensed that the Methodists disregarded advance warnings from the Council of Christians and Jews and other groups of the likely impact of the report on relations between Jews and Methodists.
In a blistering joint statement, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council said the report’s authors had “abused the goodwill of the Jewish community, which tried to engage on this issue, only to find our efforts were treated as an unwelcome distraction”.
The conference “swallowed hook, line and sinker a report full of basic historical inaccuracies, deliberate misrepresentations and distortions of Jewish theology and Israeli policy,” they said.
Calling the outcome “a very sad day” for Methodist-Jewish relations”, they said it would “cause the enemies of peace and reconciliation to cheer from the sidelines”.
An internal church memo shows that the Methodist Church had rejected calls for a more “balanced” working party, whose members included Stephen Leah, the chairman of the York branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
David King, a delegate from Lancashire and one of a number of speakers at the debate who raised Jewish concerns, noted “a rise in antisemitic activity in the UK”.
He said: “I’m concerned that in our acts as a church we are incredibly mindful of the wellbeing of the Jewish community in the UK.”
But Mr Carter told the conference: “I want to state quite clearly that there is no hint of antisemitism in what we have said or what we intend... If we are concerned about antisemitism, why don’t we talk about the anti-Islam approach? We might be between a rock and a hard place.” Expressing his hope for continued dialogue with the Jewish community, he said: “I want us to continue to hold out the hand of friendship — and I hope it won’t be refused.”
While the 54-page document mentions that Israelis had legitimate fears, it contains no more than a fleeting reference to Hamas.
Jonathan Arkush, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies, who witnessed the debate in Portsmouth, said afterwards: “It is hard to see how anyone genuinely concerned with the Middle East and interfaith dialogue can take the Methodist Church seriously.”
The Methodist action reflects a tactic urged last year by Palestinian churches, which denounced Israel’s occupation as “a sin against God and humanity”.