Quaker Witness in Palestine

In the summer of 2008, I joined a small group of teachers, most of whom worked at Quaker schools near Philadelphia, on a "listening pilgrimage" to Palestine and Israel. In spite of extensive reading, I could not begin to understand the complexity of life there. This was my first opportunity to learn from both sides about this troubled part of the world.

When we visited Ramallah Friends School, I asked about the school’s history. This inquiry began a conversation that led my spouse and me to volunteer to spend the 2009-2010 school year there. We were to gather documents, scan old photographs, and build an archive. As a public historian, I was especially interested in collecting oral histories from alumni and others to tell the School story from a Palestinian perspective. Only then could we begin to tell others the remarkable tale of this 140-year-old Quaker institution.

We arrived in August 2009 and were almost immediately confronted with Israeli checkpoints, 20-foot-high concrete walls, and electrified fences carving up the country. These, plus separate roads and highways and administrative obstacles, serve to hinder greatly most Palestinians’ medical care, employment, schooling, and basic freedom of movement. Every day we heard stories about persons who confronted these challenges.

Many other Palestinians experience home demolition, land confiscation, livelihood obstruction, and an occupying authority that can hold individuals in "administrative detention" with no legal proceedings for indefinite periods, even many years. It is a troubled region, and most individuals whom I interviewed expressed little optimism about a peaceful resolution.

How can I witness to this situation? I know enough Jewish history to be sympathetic to the desire of Jews for their own country. As a historian, I have read enough to know that the conflict has a long history and that there are no simple answers. And as a Quaker internationalist, I am certain that peaceful resolution is absolutely critical to preventing more violence in this troubled region.

I chose to "witness" by learning more about Quaker programs in Palestine. I hoped that sharing their stories might offer other Quakers information about the history and the contributions that we are making today. In other publications, I elected to "witness" by writing about both Jewish and Palestinian peace efforts in order to show that people of good will exist in Israel and Palestine.

As one Quaker scholar counseled me, "There is truth on both sides." But it is not a balanced story, and I cannot pretend it is. The two "sides" are not equal. Israel possesses one of the strongest military forces in the world. Palestine is fragmented, governed by a collaborative regime, and dispossessed.

As an observer here, I know well that not all Jews support all the actions of the Israeli government. There are Jewish peace groups that speak out against their government’s treatment of Palestinians. And there are an estimated 750 NGOs and other foreign government programs operating in the region today. There is a lot of help, but not much progress.

Meanwhile, Quaker programs, one begun as early as 1869, have continued their presence and commitment to tolerance, nonviolence, and peace. Today, five Quaker programs operate in Palestine, described below.

Ramallah Friends School (RFS) began in 1869 when Eli and Sybil Jones of New England Yearly Meeting met Miriam Karam, a 15-year-old girl, in Ramallah. Miriam asked them to start a girls’ school since there was no educational program for girls. Educated in Jerusalem, Miriam offered to be the first teacher. The Quakers agreed, and soon after, four day schools began to operate in small villages with traveling teachers. A medical mission program was established, and by 1889 a girls’ boarding school opened its doors to 15 students from across Palestine and Lebanon. In 1902, a boys’ school on a separate nearby campus began offering instruction to male boarding students. Later, the two schools joined together. For over 140 years, Quakers have contributed their teaching, their administrative skills, and partial funding support to the schools. Countless other Quakers have come to Ramallah Friends School to volunteer for shorter periods.

After the 1967 Israeli War, the school changed from a boarding to a day school because parents were no longer willing to enroll their children in a place they feared was unsafe. In 1987 with the First Intifada, and again with the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, Friends School dealt with governmentenforced school closures, lengthy curfews, and occupations by Israeli soldiers, tanks, and helicopters. Such events left anxious and traumatized children in the classroom. A missile once destroyed a classroom—although no one was injured. Other students who attended peaceful protest demonstrations were wounded or killed. A few have served time in Israeli prisons under administrative detention with no formal charges brought against them, no trials, and no communication with their families.

Today, the school has almost 1,200 day students. Two-thirds are Muslim. Tuition covers 80 percent of the operating budget. Quaker contributions allow the school to offer financial assistance to families with limited means. The former Girls School is now for girls and boys, kindergarten through sixth grade. The former Boys School, now also coeducational, offers grades 7 through 12.

The school provides English language training beginning in kindergarten, and by high school, all courses are taught in English. Ramallah Friends School is the only Palestinian school that participates in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Classes in Quaker history, faith, and practice are part of the curriculum.

As part of a drive toward equality, a program was established in 1995 to incorporate over 40 children with learning disabilities and other challenges into the mainstream learning environment. This program remains the only one of its kind in Palestine.

Partnerships with U.S. and British Quakers are evident. Quaker schools in the United States including Westtown, George School, Penn Charter, and Sidwell Friends each offer one-year scholarships to a RFS high school student annually. Students reside either in the school dormitory or with Quaker families from these schools.

This year, student workcamps from Westtown and Guilford came to Palestine for several weeks to experience Palestinian life, get to know the students, and help in community service projects. They participated in "home-stays" with RFS families.

Most RFS students attend college, with as many as one-third matriculating in U.S. colleges and universities. Last year, three graduates were admitted to MIT, two went to Harvard, and one went to Yale. The Quaker colleges Guilford and Earlham regularly accept RFS students. Over the last decade, 17 RFS students have enrolled in Guilford College alone.

Ramallah Friends Meeting has long been a partner with the Friends School. From its beginning in the late 19th century, Friends School principals and teachers have been active members and organizers of meeting activities. RFS boarding students attended Sunday meeting at the meetinghouse. Over the years, some U.S. Quakers came to the meeting in lieu of military service and performed pastoral and counseling services. One U.S. teacher arrived 40 years ago to pastor the meeting and teach at the school. He married a Palestinian teacher whose family was active in the meeting and still teaches at Friends School. Today, the small meeting membership is linked through history and by family to the academic institution.

Friends International Center in Ramallah: Five years ago, Quakers in the United States paid for renovation of the Ramallah meetinghouse. At about the same time, the Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR) was created. Activities include organizing educational and cultural events along with a lecture series on pertinent topics, offering counseling and information to newcomers and guests, and providing space for local NGOs to meet. There are lots of potluck dinners for information and networking. A top-notch monthly electronic newsletter goes out to over 3,000 subscribers worldwide.

Ramallah Meeting, which is unprogrammed, is the only Quaker meeting in Palestine. On Sunday morning, international guests visiting Palestine from around the world worship together, learn about life under occupation, and unite in fellowship. In 2010, the meeting celebrated the centennial of its newly restored building.

The history of occupation has greatly affected Friends School and meeting life. In World War I, the British used the meetinghouse for their canteen until they realized that it was a place of worship. Since schools were closed, Turkish and then British soldiers occupied RFS buildings. In 1918, the boys’ campus was used by the British as a hospital.

In 1948, with the partition of Palestine and 800,000 Palestinians driven from their homes and villages by Israeli soldiers, the Meeting was opened as a clearinghouse for refugees. Nine families, totaling 58 people, moved in and arranged apartments in the meetinghouse, which had no kitchen or bath facilities at the time. A refugee mother delivered her son there, and named him Khalil, the Arabic word for "friend." Friends School used its resources to help these individuals with food, clothing, medical care, and even ambulance service in the school station wagon. Dinners were sent daily to the meetinghouse. There were shortages of gasoline, kerosene, and water. Nearby East Jerusalem was under daily bombardment, and curfews were frequent.

Once war conditions eased, Ramallah Friends Meeting offered its space for five years as a girls’ refugee school under the sponsorship of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The meeting annex was added to provide enough space for the 300 little girls who attended each school day. A few of these students later attended Friends School.

Amari Play Center was created in 1974 when Violet Zarou, a local Quaker in Ramallah, helped establish the program to equip 50 pre-school refugee camp children with learning skills necessary for success in school. Zarou continued to oversee the play center until her death in 2006. Originating at the meetinghouse, the play center later moved to a location in the Amari refugee camp. Its funding today still comes almost completely from Quakers.

American Friends Service Committee has been working in the region since 1948, when it assisted with refugee relief. Recently, AFSC moved its Middle East regional office from Amman, Jordan, to East Jerusalem. Within Palestine, AFSC has been working for the past eight years in support of the AFSC Palestinian Youth Program. With offices in both the West Bank and Gaza, and outreach to East Jerusalem and Palestinians living inside Israel, this educational and skills-building model focuses on helping young people become active citizens in their society. It teaches them skills they need to contribute fully to improvement and preservation of their communities as well as society as a whole. Each trainee group consists of 10-12 individuals, 14-17 years of age. Depending on the social and cultural environment, the groups are all male, all female, or mixed. Each group is coordinated by one or two college- aged coaches, and training lasts for eight months. To date, over 6,000 young people have completed the program. Two hundred seventy university students also became coaches for the program. They live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

When training is completed, graduates take their new skills back into their communities, where they work to implement new projects. Past projects include establishing science labs and computer centers, developing youth-focused websites, starting libraries, campaigning against early marriage, and initiating cultural heritage education and preservation.

Since the 2008 siege of Gaza, graduates there revised their projects in order to improve economic standards and employment opportunities. For example, they provided two families with sewing machines and cloth for school uniforms. The women make school uniforms, and the men started a business to sell them. In turn, each family is asked to pay back the service it receives by helping another two families.

All AFSC Palestinian staff operate under daily constraints of occupation, and none can travel without special Israeli government permission. Ramallahbased staff are refused entry to nearby East Jerusalem, where the AFSC Middle East office is located. Gaza staff are unable to leave their region at all. Youth training staff must take government travel restrictions into consideration daily as they do their work.

Quaker Service Norway (QSN), operated by Norwegian Quakers, maintains three programs in Gaza. The first program comprises 13 kindergartens with approximately 1,700 young children. This program was begun initially by AFSC in the 1970s. In 1993, QSN assumed financial responsibility for teacher salaries, with support from the Norwegian Development Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and private donations. In addition to providing financial support, QSN plays a role in supporting and cooperating with the organization and the teachers, helping them meet the demands they face. These 13 kindergartens are located in refugee camps all across Gaza.

The second program began in 2006 when QSN was asked to assist in teacher training on how best to support traumatized children. Training courses were held for all teachers, with some receiving additional training in 2009. Consultation units were established in five of the kindergartens, and seminars were held for parents. Children with special needs were given treatment as part of the project. After the 2008 siege of Gaza, the need became even greater, and there are now ten consultation units.

A third Gaza project, Open Schools, is supported in cooperation with Almajd Women’s Association in Nusirat Refugee Camp. Volunteers and parents offer after-school activities such as sports, dance, drama, music, and art. Almajd has entered agreements with the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) to use six of their schools, to give children a good, safe environment in which to play. The project has recently expanded to include four government schools.

Friends worldwide help to support all of these Quaker programs in Palestine. Many U.S. Quakers are personally knowledgeable about these programs and are willing to speak about them. Meetings are encouraged to assist the Quaker effort by planning educational seminars about the role of Quaker witness in Palestine today. Individuals are invited to consider volunteer placements at Ramallah Friends School or FICR.

For more information on these programs, readers are invited to search the websites below:

Ramallah Friends Meeting/FICR: http://www.ramallahquakers.org
Ramallah Friends School: http://www.palfriends.org
AFSC Palestinian Youth Program: http://afsc.org/office/palestine
AFSC Middle East Program: http://www.afsc.org/region/middle-east
Quaker Service Norway: http://www.kveker.org/kvekerhjelp (currently only in Norwegian language)


Betsy Brinson is a member of Richmond (Va.) Meeting. A public historian, she uses oral history to produce films, exhibits, and written publications. She and her spouse, Gordon Davies, spent the 2009-2010 school year as volunteers at Ramallah Friends School, working on several history projects.