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Response to Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racist Framework

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Below is a response to Mike Merryman-Lotze's guest blog post Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racist Framework from members of the Palestine Israel Action Group (PIAG) of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting. The original blog post, though written in Mike's personal voice, does reflect AFSC's position and Mike replies to this open letter below. Though we don't agree with PIAG's position, we publish this letter in the spirit of dialogue and engagement and welcome additional comments on this topic. - Lucy

An Open Letter to the American Friends Service Committee

From: Palestine Israel Action Group (PIAG) of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting

As a Quaker organization, PIAG has always worked against all forms of oppression. Individually and/or collectively, we are members of anti-racism groups such as the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Black Lives Matter. As a subcommittee of the Peace and Social Concerns Committee of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting, we have engaged in educational efforts with our Monthly and Yearly Meetings over the last twelve years and have convinced both groups to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. We have distributed over a half million map cards nationally and internationally showing the loss of Palestinian lands to Israel’s Occupation. In short, we are knowledgeable, seasoned activists who are strongly committed to working for justice and equality wherever that work may lead us.

It is in the spirit of our anti-oppression work that we take issue with the message in AFSC’s online communication, IMPACT; specifically, the post by Mike Merryman-Lotze on AFSC’s Acting in Faith blog, “Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racism Framework” (8/10/2015). We find a disturbing disconnect between the statement: “At AFSC, our work is guided by the Quaker belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God” and the participation of AFSC in the denunciation of one particular person, Alison Weir, and her longstanding work for justice in Israel/Palestine – work which PIAG deeply respects.

We are also troubled by the insistence that “we” (that is, we presume, Quakers engaged in anti-racism work) “must” act in particular ways, choosing certain tactics, methods, analyses, and goals over others. We cannot agree, as Quakers, that everyone must see the truth in the same way, analyze human behavior in the same way, and agree to work according to principles put forth by any social justice organization, however well-intentioned.

George Fox was pretty clear about the idea that everyone has the ability to listen to the voice of God, to think about the meaning of that voice, and above all, to speak for themselves. As Fox told the assembled at Ulverston steeple-house, “You will say ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this,’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"

This message was one of the earliest and most radical challenges to the dogmatism and demands for obedience required by the Church in 17th century England.  The statement was so compelling that it later formed the basis of Quakerism: There is no dogma. There are no “musts” in Quaker belief and practice. It is enough that Quakers be inspired by the values of “simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality,” and that we work to incorporate these abstract but profound Quaker values into our lives and the lives of others as we see fit.

We agree that anti-racism efforts that counter prejudice and bigotry on every possible occasion can be meaningful work. We agree that oppressions are linked and widespread and that opposing only one form of bigotry may not be enough. But we do not agree that everyone must accept these insights as the only way to see and be guided by the light. As Quakers, we strive for inclusion of ideas and perspectives. We have faith in Quaker process in resolving disagreements, rather than removing individuals and groups from the family when their beliefs and practices threaten our vision of the truth.

We do not dispute the “right” of the coalition to remove any member of the group as the leadership sees fit. But we have seen the effects of that removal: fear and silencing (“Who among us will be next?”), discord and schism, and a loss of focus on Palestinian freedom. Unfortunately, as we have come to understand, righteous zeal creates its own oppression.

PIAG continues to promote vigorous, open debate, a multitude of paths toward justice, and a focus not on transgression but on the Inner Light, the spirit of the Divine that resides in every human soul.

Yours in peace,

Palestine Israel Action Group of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting: Helen Fox, Convener; Ruth Zweifler, Marilyn Churchill, Karen Deslieres, Ed Morin, Anne Remley, and Linda Wotring

Reply from Michael Merryman-Lotze:

Dear Helen and PIAG,

Thank you for your letter regarding my recent Acting in Faith Blog post on anti-racism and Palestine activism.  As I noted in my blog post, it was written in a spirit of dialogue with openness to being challenged and knowing that my opinions would not be shared by all.  I take your comments seriously and hope that in a continuing spirit of dialogue I might respond to what you have written. I would of course welcome additional dialogue on what I have written below.

First, I want to emphasize that my blog post was not a personal attack on Alison Weir or If Americans Knew.  The post did develop as a direct result of my reflections on the dispute between Alison and Jewish Voice for Peace and the separate removal of If Americans Knew from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation Coalition.  As a member of the US Campaign Steering Committee I gave this issue extensive thought as the US Campaign made its decision and the ideas included in my piece developed in part as a result of that dispute.  Opening with that context was important for the sake of transparency. However, my intention in the Acting in Faith piece was not to rehash and express AFSC support for the separate US Campaign and JVP decisions.  Rather, my intention was to discuss more broadly my opinions about the question of how anti-racist principles should be integrated into Palestine activism.    

My goal in writing my post was to outline my thinking regarding anti-racist organizing in the context of Palestine activism.  I began from a point of disagreement with the public position taken by If Americans Knew but the core focus of my piece was my own thinking and not If Americans Knew or Alison.  This is why, I did not focus the majority of my writing on the If Americans Knew case. 

I did not write my blog post as a general condemnation of Alison and If Americans Knew, explicitly stating that I was not seeking to shame or shun either Alison or If Americans Knew.  Prior to writing my post I dialogued with Alison and I remain open to continued dialogue with her around our points of disagreement.  I wrote publicly about the principles that lead me to a different position than If Americans Knew on what it means to work within an anti-racist framework because If Americans Knew’s position is public.  I believe that opening a public discussion about disagreements over public positions is not unnecessarily divisive but rather can help to further understanding of important issues. 

I welcome disagreement with my positions but hope that disagreement will primarily focus on the content of my position regarding the role that anti-racism should play in Palestine activism and not the context that led me to write my post. 

Second, I want to address the concern you raise about my use of the term “must” throughout my piece.  I have read back through my post and agree that in a few locations it might be appropriate to substitute the term “should” where “must” is used.  However, in most locations I believe that the term “must” is the most appropriate term for conveying my meaning.  I use the term “must” in the context of saying that we must oppose direct injustice or things that directly lead to injustice.  I strongly believe that injustice must be opposed.  I am not willing to say that injustice “should” be opposed. 

At the same time, my blog post was written as a personal piece and I recognize that my positions have evolved over my years of activism and will continue to evolve.  I expect that others will disagree with some of the positions or actions that I have said “must” be taken.  I’m completely willing to accept disagreement and to reconsider my positions if challenged on particular points.  However, I’m not willing to concede that the holding of strong convictions about particular issues is in and of itself wrong or against Quaker testimony. 

I do not agree that my positions are dogmatic and that they therefore are counter to Quaker opposition to dogmatism.  Dogma is a religious term which implies that a position is being held up as incontrovertibly true based on a particular understanding of God’s will.  I make no claim of this sort and am open to being challenged and to changing my position should I be convinced it is wrong.  I do not claim that my positions are incontrovertible. 

I also come from a religious perspective that opposes dogmatic theology but I cannot support the idea that Quakerism opposes the holding of strong convictions on issues of principle or that Quakers cannot use the term “must”.  If there are no “musts” in Quakerism then is it wrong to say that we must oppose war, that we must oppose killing, that we must oppose slavery, that we must oppose inequality?  What is our alternative to saying that these harmful actions must be opposed?  Note that I am not prescribing what actions should be taken to oppose these harmful actions, nor am I saying that everyone will oppose these actions.  I am simply saying that it is my belief that injustice and violence must be opposed because this is what is right, just, and does not harm others.        

Keeping this in mind, I take strong issue with your statement that,

“We agree that anti-racism efforts that counter prejudice and bigotry on every possible occasion can be meaningful work. We agree that oppressions are linked and widespread and that opposing only one form of bigotry may not be enough. But we do not agree that everyone must accept these insights as the only way to see and be guided by the light.”

I understand that not everyone will accept the insight that oppressions are linked and that not everyone will believe that efforts to counter bigotry whenever possible is meaningful, but I’m not willing to take a position that is so relativist as to say that a position that does not oppose injustice and racism is correct.  I believe that oppression and racism must be opposed.  As I see it, the only other options are to ignore oppression and racism, accept them, or embrace them.  I don’t think these are acceptable options. 

Saying that oppression and racism must be opposed is not to say that everyone must take action in the same way.  I recognize that people will oppose racism and oppression in different ways. I also recognize that people, myself included, will fail to live up to principles.  There will be times when we fail to challenge oppression and racism.  We should give each other space to misstep and show compassion and understanding to people when they misstep. 

I agree that we should not exclusively focus on transgressions, but we also should not ignore transgressions for the sake of false unity.  As I stated at the start, I do not support shunning or shaming.  However, compassionately holding each other accountable for our missteps and openly airing disagreements, even publicly at times, is important and should not be confused with support for schism, discord, or inappropriate personal attacks.  I strongly believe that it is often our disagreements and points of conflict that lead us towards growth.

No, we should not lose focus on our goals, but keeping focus on our goals should not be used as an excuse for ignoring or minimizing other injustice.  We are strong enough as a movement to allow for disagreement without fear of overall distraction and to move through our disagreements to new and strengthened positions. 

In Peace,

Mike

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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