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Refusing to water the seeds of war: AFSC and BDS

Acting in Faith  |  By Mike Merryman-Lotze, Nov 6, 2015
Quakers calling for boycott of the occupation

Quakers calling for boycott of the occupation

Photo: AFSC

There was a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed mis-characterizing AFSC's position regarding boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) in the Palestine-Israel context. This piece provides a bit of history and perspective on AFSC's position. For more information, please take a look at AFSC's principles for a just and lasting peace in Palestine Israel and the links that follow this post.- Lucy

There have been many questions recently about AFSC’s support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) in the Palestine-Israel context.  This short piece outlines both how we came to support BDS and the values and beliefs that undergirded our decision. 

AFSC has maintained connections to Israel and Palestine since 1948, when AFSC was asked by the United Nations to respond to the needs of Palestinian refugees in Gaza and displaced persons in the newly formed state of Israel.  AFSC continued to implement programming in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza during the 1950s and 1960s, and in the 1970s established offices in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.  Starting in 1970, AFSC also began supporting advocacy work in the U.S. with the goal of changing policies that sustain violence while building support for a just and lasting peace.   

Here, a concrete reminder to work to open mind and heart. At all costs.

In 2007, AFSC staff and partners working in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory asked AFSC to look at its investment portfolio and, if needed, take action to ensure that it was not investing in companies engaged in business practices that violate its “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel.”   Their request led to an extended conversation by AFSC’s board and eventually resulted in AFSC adopting an internal investment screen in 2008.  That investment screen committed AFSC to not invest in companies that:  

  1. Provide products or services that contribute to violent acts that target either Israeli or Palestinian civilians. 

  1. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance of the Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

  1. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory.  

  1. Provide products or services that contribute to the maintenance and construction of the Separation Wall.  

The adoption of this internal investment screen led to a larger conversation about how AFSC’s internal position should be viewed in light of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions call.  That call was made in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations and included three goals:  

  • Ending Israel’s occupation and dismantling the Wall. 

  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality. 

  • Respecting, protecting, and promoting Palestinian refugees’ right of return. 

AFSC staff in Shujaiya, Gaza

After nearly two years of research and deliberation, AFSC’s board of directors decided that AFSC can support BDS in the Israel-Palestine conflict as a nonviolent social change tactic that is in line with both Quaker values and AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel.  Those principles uphold the right of both Palestinians and Israelis to self-determination, emphasizing that realizing both peoples’ right to self-determination necessarily means ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory and addressing refugees’ right of return.   

Quakers and AFSC have a long history of engagement in economic activism including support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.  Quakers pioneered the use of boycotts when they helped lead the “Free Produce Movement” which boycotted goods produced using slave labor during the 1800s.   

This quote by 17th century Quaker abolitionist John Woolman captures the spiritual foundation of this work:  

“Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul.  May we look upon our treasures, and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions." 

At AFSC we continue to view economic activism actions as appeals to conscience, actions that seek to raise awareness in those engaged or complicit in harmful practices.  It is our belief that economic activism keeps us accountable to our values and, when rightly ordered, serves to affirm our common humanity.  We also believe that boycott, divestment, and sanctions tactics, when used strategically, are effective nonviolent tools for realizing political and social change.   

Our support for boycott and divestment actions is therefore not limited to the Palestine-Israel context.  In recent history the AFSC has supported and led a variety of boycott and divestment campaigns linked to civil rights, anti-apartheid, farm worker, and prison rights struggles.  Within the last week AFSC launched a new online investment screening tool to support divestment from companies profiting from the prison industry.   

Our economic activism work continues to grow, and as an organization we will continue to use economic activism tactics to support social change and justice efforts that aim to undermine institutional and structural support for violence and oppression.   

About the Author

Mike Merryman-Lotze is the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine-Israel Program Director.  He coordinates AFSC’s Israel and Palestine focused advocacy and policy programming, working closely with AFSC’s offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the US. 

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan and Greg Elliott work together and with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Greg is the Friends Relations Associate. He grew attending North Branch Monthly Meeting in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Greg currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.