I first learned about Palestine from my students. In my first year of teaching world history at a Quaker school, I had students who connected everything we were studying back to Palestine. In addition to learning from them about the history of Israel and Palestine (which was not in the curriculum!), I experienced firsthand from them the emotion of the current tensions between Israel and Palestine. One of the students was of Palestinian heritage and was feeling the pain of his people. He would often express his pain through anger, specifically by talking to me about how the only answer he could see was violence.
I had witnessed similar pain earlier that year when I had visited South Africa with the school’s Black Student Union. My greatest takeaway from that trip was that everywhere we went, people told us that Nelson Mandela had told them to throw their guns into the ocean, and they had done so both literally and emotionally. I knew from their stories that even when a situation seems intractable, nonviolence and love can work miracles. As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
I spoke to the students about the power of nonviolence, and they responded that they saw no nonviolent solutions to the conflict on the horizon. I have since discovered that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement is the kind of activism for which they were searching.
Because of my debates with those students, I went to graduate school to focus on nonviolent activism in and around Israel–Palestine. Upon finishing my studies, I had developed my own passion for the region, but I could not find an outlet for it. Although I studied many groups that harnessed the power of nonviolence in Israel and Palestine, I could not find any with which I could directly engage. Ultimately, I discovered that Quakerism was not only my spiritual home, but also the home base for my activism. I was thrilled when the Quaker Palestine Israel Network (QPIN) was created in 2013. I knew that Quakers would be working for a just peace using tactics that I would respect. The QPIN mission statement speaks broadly to that goal, while also more specifically seeking “to educate about Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as a nonviolent approach.” Although I had earlier learned about BDS, I had not felt drawn to the movement before I connected with QPIN.
He shared with me the reasons he saw BDS as polarizing, and I came away from our conversation ready to share his concerns at the gathering.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement began as a call from Palestinian civil society in 2005. The original call stated:
Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency, and resistance to injustice and oppression, we, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.
Many Quaker meetings have spent years discussing BDS and considering minutes of endorsement, and I took part in crafting minutes for both my monthly and yearly meetings. Neither of the minutes I worked on gained much traction because Friends worried that taking sides in a conflict went against the Quaker peace testimony. I couldn’t help but reflect on the Quaker’s history of taking difficult stands and on Desmond Tutu’s quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I was dispirited by the lack of momentum in my Quaker communities, but I persisted because I trusted the expertise of QPIN.
On the train on my way to the first-ever QPIN gathering at Pendle Hill in the spring of 2016, I happened to be sitting next to someone who worked for the Anti-Defamation League. We started talking about BDS, and we had an authentic dialogue across difference, in which we discussed the lack of broadly respected, viable nonviolent solutions to the Israel–Palestine conflict and the potential efficacy of BDS. He shared with me the reasons he saw BDS as polarizing, and I came away from our conversation ready to share his concerns at the gathering.
As an activist for justice, anti-Semitism is an evil that I aim to actively stand up to, and being viewed through its ugly lens is an anxiety-producing risk for me.
I was eager to do so because my greatest fear is hurting people, and my new friend had made it clear that the worst consequence of BDS is not inefficacy; it is causing more pain to a people who have already greatly suffered. I did have the opportunity early in the gathering to voice these obstacles to fully embracing the BDS Movement, and in fact, we all shared concerns that we had heard about advocating for the movement. In addition to anti-Semitism, the concerns included the following: “Those seeking peace and reconciliation shouldn’t take sides”; “BDS cuts off dialogue”; “BDS is violent and punitive”; and “BDS seeks to delegitimize and destroy Israel,” among others. The next day we worked collectively to discern whether we had true answers to those concerns, and the veteran activists among us certainly did. Those answers, now published as the pamphlet “Engaging Critics of BDS” on the QPIN website (qpinblog.wordpress.com), convinced me that although BDS is controversial, it represents a pain that can ultimately lead to healing and the greater good for all.
I recently went to a Georgetown University program entitled “Confronting Racism in Our Hearts and in Our Nation,” at which professor Marcia Chatelain called for a “love willing to risk” and asked the audience to discern what each of us is willing to risk. Supporting BDS feels like a risk to me. While I was clerk of the Quaker Life Committee of the upper school at a Quaker institution, my school was visited by the upper school principal of Ramallah Friends School (RFS). In preparation for his visit, I shared an article from Friends Journal about a day in the life at RFS, and I was told by a colleague that because the article contained background including an account of Palestinians losing their homes in 1948, she felt that I was “breeding anti-Semitism.” As an activist for justice, anti-Semitism is an evil that I aim to actively stand up to, and being viewed through its ugly lens is an anxiety-producing risk for me. That risk was amplified last school year when Sa’ed Atshan was disinvited from Friends Central School because of his association with BDS.
I believe that true solidarity means listening to those who are impacted by injustice.
What I learned from QPIN is that the BDS Movement categorically rejects and condemns all forms of racism and bigotry, including anti-Semitism. A statement on the front page of the BDS National Committee website reads: “BDS is an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” So I am able to trust in the fact that it is my love of Palestinians and Israelis that spurs on my support of BDS. I believe that BDS is a form of nonviolent activism that puts both my faith and my love into action as I work for a just peace.
I believe that true solidarity means listening to those who are impacted by injustice. In the case of Israel–Palestine, Palestinians are affected by an illegal occupation of their land, and many Israelis are affected by a government taking actions that do not reflect their values. I am willing to risk in solidarity with them. I teach a class on genocide studies, and it has taught me that so many of the activist heroes we admire today were controversial in their time; they risked for love. I reflect upon all those who risked so that I can live my dreams as a Black woman in the United States; I owe it to them to stand in love for justice even when I am in a minority. I think of John Woolman and his slow and steady witness against slavery, and also of the bolder side of Martin Luther King Jr., which is not so widely publicized. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote to his critics who wanted him to engage in less controversial tactics:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
I stand with King and with the messiness of nonviolent activism for justice. I believe it is the only path to peace.