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How the Quakers Became Champions of BDS

A century-old religiously based pacifist organization transformed itself into one of the leading engines for the Palestinian cause

Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe
November 10, 2017
Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on June 5, 2015, calling to boycott Israeli products.THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on June 5, 2015, calling to boycott Israeli products.THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

In a not-so-earth-shattering move, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has appointed a Palestinian-American, Joyce Ajlouny, as its new Secretary General. Ajlouny is a native of Ramallah and formerly the head of the Quaker school there, a “passionate” advocate for Palestinians and for “evenhandedness.”

Ajlouny may be the perfect candidate to run the AFSC, the leading American Quaker organization, which over the years has cultivated its image as peaceful and supremely benign. Few suspect, much less know, that one of their central missions these days is promoting the BDS movement that opposes Israel’s existence.

How did a century-old religiously based pacifist organization transform itself into one of the leading engines for the Palestinian cause? Part of the answer lies in the AFSC’s evolution, which has gone from trying to save Jews to vilifying them. Its Quaker theology has similarly gone from emphasis on the “Inner Light” that guides individual conscience to something like old-fashioned Christian supersessionism, where Jews deserve to be hated. The result is that the organization is now effectively captive to progressive Israel-hatred.

Founded during World War I to provide alternative forms of “service” to pacifist Quakers, the AFSC quickly became one of the foremost refugee relief organizations of the early 20th century, with operations around the world. A favorite of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, the AFSC was also active within the US during the Depression, teaching skills across Appalachia and the South.

With the rise of Nazism, AFSC became involved with what would be the greatest refugee crisis in history. But the experience also demonstrated the organization’s approach to religious diplomacy and relief efforts, where naïve idealism alternated with practicality. Shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938, AFSC leaders traveled to Germany to personally investigate the suffering of the Jews and pled their case with Reichsführer-SS Reinhard Heydrich to bring relief aid. They were unsuccessful.

But the AFSC’s post-war record in refugee relief was so exceptional that along with a British Quaker group, it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. By the late 1940s, the AFSC had a distinctive place in American and international society, a well-established Christian NGO with global reach. But it was also a universalist organization that went against the grain to unpopular causes. Its humanitarian ethic and pacifist ideology were radical both in the American and Protestant contexts. These tensions would ultimately undo the AFSC.

The shift began when the AFSC was invited by the United Nations to run Palestinian refugee relief in Gaza in late 1948. Quakers had been in the Holy Land for over a century, running schools and hospitals for local Christians. But the refugee program was a turning point. Relief workers had never encountered refugees who did not want to be taught new skills or to be resettled elsewhere, only to be maintained at someone else’s expense until Israel disappeared.

So traumatic was this for the AFSC that after 18 months it refused to be part of any future Palestinian refugee program, citing among other things the “moral degeneration” of the refugees brought on by becoming welfare recipients. This view was prescient—almost seventy years later, the Palestinians remain the world’s largest recipients of international welfare through UNRWA and the UN system.

The Gaza experience—where in fact the AFSC excelled at providing relief and creating infrastructure, despite resistance from the refugees themselves—was enough to convince the leadership to get out of the relief business altogether. At the same time, a faction of the organization’s leadership advocated a radical pacifist, and anti-American, agenda, aimed at nuclear disarmament and elevating the status of the Soviet Union and Communist China. By the 1960s, the AFSC became a liberal pressure group, one that openly supported North Vietnam. Support for Saddam Hussein and North Korea quickly followed.

But the AFSC never lost entirely lost interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict. After 1967, the AFSC escalated its involvement, beginning with quasi-theological criticism of Israel, acting as PLO’s legal representatives in Jerusalem during the 1970s, and conducting ‘interfaith’ events in which American Jews were shamed for supporting Israel. The Quaker tradition of even-handedness and political neutrality was long gone; by the late 1970s the AFSC had effectively enshrined Palestinians as the “new Jews.” Support for Palestinian terror as “resistance” against Israel’s “structural violence” and against sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program is now standard.

These policies are reflected in the educational curriculum of Quaker schools across the country, but most of all in the AFSC’s leading role in the BDS movement. Today, the AFSC runs several offices dedicated to supporting the BDS movement, partners with the odious Jewish Voice for Peace and with the Muslim Brotherhood backed Students for Justice in Palestine to train BDS activists and run campus events at which Israel is vilified and its supporters are harassed, and endorses the Palestinian right of return, which would destroy Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.

Joyce Ajlouny’s appointment epitomizes the transformation of the AFSC. Quaker schools and education have long been hijacked by Palestinian advocacy, as was recently seen at Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, PA, where BDS supporter Sa’ed Atshan was scheduled to speak to students. Ajlouny, who served for 13 years as the Director of the Ramallah Friends School, will undoubtedly increase that kind of education, given her stated desire to, “bring educational programming on Israeli-Palestinian issues into Quaker schools, where many of the students are Jewish.”

Many Jewish parents are attracted to Quaker schools, which seek to instill values mistakenly believed to be analogous to those of Judaism, especially since the Quakers and their schools have enshrined “social justice” as a guiding principle. This is misleading. The AFSC’s concept of “justice” is one-sided, and Jewish parents must decide whether Jewish values and Quaker values, as they exist today, are really the same. Ajlouny’s appointment makes this more pressing.

Asaf Romirowsky is Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Their book on the AFSC in Gaza, ‘Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief,’ was published in 2013.

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