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Trying what love can do: A response to "The Quakers, No Friends of Israel" op ed

Acting in Faith  |  By Max Carter, Nov 9, 2015
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Photo: AFSC / Lucy Duncan

On November 6th The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed entitled "The Quakers, No Friends of Israel" written by Joffe and Romirowsky. Max Carter sent this response to be considered for publication on the same day, but as of today (Monday, November 9th) The Wall Street Journal has not agreed to publish this response. Max agreed to let us publish it here. You can read AFSC's response here and a brief letter to the editor will be published in The Journal soon. - Lucy

I don't know Joffe and Romirowsky, but I quickly recognized their style and real target. Like the Adelson-funded strategy to counter BDS, AIPAC's lobbying efforts, CAMERA's attempt to silence academic voices, and PIPELINE's scurrilous attacks on anyone hinting at disagreeing with the "party line," their screed against Quakers was not mainly an attempt to discredit Friends but to delegitimize BDS by smearing supporters. Whether one agrees with the authors' goals or not, one can only wish for better reporting.  

Beginning with "One central mission [of Quakers] is promoting BDS" and "Their primary organization, AFSC...." and concluding with "There are now fewer than 400,000 Quakers in the U.S," they wildly misrepresent facts and figures. As for the latter, they could have bolstered their argument (though through a misinterpretation of the meaning of numbers) by knowing that 400,000 is the number often cited as the worldwide membership of Friends. In the U.S., there are fewer than 90,000. More importantly, though, they betray their lack of knowledge about Quakers and tip their hand about what they're really up to by conflating the AFSC with the total body of Friends.  

Love wins on the separation wall ouside the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem

The "central mission" of Quakerism is personal and societal transformation through the power of G-d's Inward Light to show us our darkness and give us the power to overcome it.  

The AFSC is not Friends' "primary organization;" as the authors rightly point out, Quakerism is non-hierarchical - no pope, no bishops, no College of Cardinals. The AFSC is but one of many Quaker-founded organizations that seeks to, in William Penn's words, "Try what love will do."  

Ramallah Friends School

In between these opening and concluding unfortunate misstatements, the authors lay out a misleading and inaccurate accounting of Quaker involvement in Israel and Palestine. Quaker involvement there did not begin with the 1948 war. By 1869, Friends had already established a school for girls in Ramallah, a school joined in 1901 by one for boys.  

Today, those schools are co-educational from pre-K to 12, enroll more than 1,200, and are known to be among the finest educational institutions in the region. The graduates of the Ramallah Friends School have gone on to be at the heart of the moderate and progressive elements of Palestinian political and civil society. Having been "on the ground" in the Middle East for 80 years before the establishment of the modern state of Israel, Friends are uniquely positioned to see through many of the myths about the region, the people, and the politics.  

AFSC helps refugees in Gaza in 1949

As for the characterization of the AFSC as anti-Israel, a mere reading of the three major books the organization has authored over the years about the Israeli/Palestinian situation (Search for Peace in the Middle East, A Compassionate Peace, and When the Rain Returns) will show that AFSC policies remain true to Quaker reliance on nonviolence and a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The real target of the authors' piece, though, is BDS, a nonviolent strategy adopted by Palestinian civil society in 2005 among other strategies to address Israel's continuing occupation of the "1967" Palestinian territories.  

A recent book by a scholar of the Middle East, Transnational Activism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, chronicles the concerted effort of the Israel Lobby to counter BDS through efforts just like Joffe's and Romirowsky's. Whether one agrees with BDS or not as an effective, nonviolent means of ending the occupation, it is important to note that such a strategy among Friends pre-dates the AFSC (founded in 1917) and the conflict in the Middle East.  

Noted 18th century Quaker anti-slavery activist John Woolman personally boycotted all goods tainted by slavery or the oppression of others, to the point of refusing to sell rum in his store (because it was used to defraud Indians) and wearing only natural colors (because dyes were too often the product of slave labor). And he was not alone. 19th century abolitionist British Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick organized a boycott movement in the 1820s against West Indies cotton, effectively turning the tide of English opinion against "gradualism."  

Levi Coffin, another 19th century American Quaker abolitionist opened free labor stores in Indiana and Ohio, work that meshed with his reputation as the "president" of the Underground Railroad. In other ways, Friends were anything but the "quiet and benign in the land" that the authors would have Quakers truly be. We're near the anniversary of when Quaker Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the 1870s.  

Lucretia Mott quoto

Lucretia Mott, active in anti-slavery, women's suffrage, and Indian rights efforts, was often mobbed at speaking events by those hostile to her work. As will be seen, I imagine, in the upcoming movie "Suffragette," Quaker Alice Paul was not averse to tossing a brick or two through the White House windows to get the president's and the nation's attention about the cause of women's rights. I could go on!  

Norman Morrison burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon in 1965 to protest the American war in Vietnam. The Phoenix sailed into both North and South Vietnamese waters to deliver relief supplies to civilians of both sides. Adam Curle helped end Apartheid in Rhodesia; Hendrik Van Der Merwe brought De Clerk and Mandela together in South Africa.  

The AFSC led desegregation efforts in Southern cities such as Greensboro. But I'll end by citing a speaker this week on our Quaker college campus, an Israeli who led an elite sniper unit of the IDF during the Second Intifada, "The current Israeli government has no interest in or desire for a two-state solution. In fact, the opposite is true." He went on to say that the true security of Israel is not served by continuing the occupation, and certainly the human rights of the Palestinians are not served by it. There is no will to end it in Israel's political leadership.  

Ramallah Friends Meeting House

While there is no Quaker "Vatican" that controls Friends' actions and beliefs, nonviolent efforts such as BDS to change the political and civil discourse and supported by an ever-increasing number of faith communities and other organizations, are seen by many Friends to be consistent with our history, our faith, and our experience. The current situation in Israel and Palestine is not sustainable for the best interests of both sides. The occupation has to end, and BDS is one of the most effective tools toward that end - and certainly a better alternative than a violent Third Intifada.  

There is an old Quaker bumper sticker: "Friends don't even let Methodists drive drunk!" While Joffe and Romirowsky - and many like them - see Friends as enemies, Quakers who support BDS are doing their part to help keep Israel from driving drunk over the cliff of its own policies.

Related Content

A Quaker call to action on Israel-Palestine

Refusing to water the seeds of war: AFSC and BDS

AFSC's principles for a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis

About the Author

Max Carter just completed a long tenure as director of Friends Center at Guilford College. Max is a recorded Friends minister with interests in the Middle East, the Amish, conscientious objection, and Quaker history. His graduate studies at the Earlham School of Religion and Temple University were in campus ministry and American religious history.

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About Friends Relations

Lucy Duncan works 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.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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