A Loving Quaker Journey to BDS

QPIN Steering Committee. All photos courtesy of the author.

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.


Lauren Brownlee

Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and serves on Baltimore Yearly Meeting Peace and Social Concerns Committee and the D.C. Peace Team. She is also on the steering committee for the Quaker Palestine Israel Network.

7 thoughts on “A Loving Quaker Journey to BDS

  1. Lauren, you wrote: “…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.”

    It is certainly true the many Israelis would like to see the occupation end. But my understanding is that, according to UN Resolution 242, the occupation is legal because the West Bank was captured by Israel in a war of defense. Resolution 242 requires that the occupation will end when Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist and make a written promise to live in peace with Israelis. When that happens, Israel will be obligated to end the occupation, but up to now it has not happened. So the unending nightmare of the occupation continues.

    The issue of settlements is a different issue, because international law forbids occupying nations from population transfers into occupied territory. But the issue is not as simple as it first seems because in 1948, when the Jordanian army seized and occupied the West Bank, all the Jews who were living there (estimated at about 70,000) were either expelled or killed. Those Jews were living on land they legally owned, so from the Israeli point of view it is a return of Jews from land that was previously ethnically cleansed of Jews.

    As for BDS, I see it as problematic. But I understand many people support it for reasons that seem justified and idealistic. To me BDS seems an attempt to achieve, by economic warfare, what the Arab armies failed to achieve in a series of previous aggressions against Israel. Also, an important component of BDS efforts is what amounts to an effort to blacklist Israeli academics and artists internationally. That blacklisting has caused some who are aggressively anti-Zionist (such as Noam Chomsky) to criticize BDS.

  2. Many Jews are not Zionists, and most Zionists are not Jews. They are Christians.
    BDS is not about race or religion. It is about requiring equal human rights for all residents of the State of Israel, regardless of their race or religion.
    Apartheid was successfully boycotted in South Africa, and now it need to be boycotted in Israel.

  3. While Americans Friends Service Committee is pushing the BDS movement against Israel, its silent about the genocide that Myanmar is committing against Muslims. About that pariah state, all it says is that “AFSC’s support for Myanmar’s monastic schools touches the lives of children, parents, teachers, communities and spiritual leaders”. I’m sure that’s a great comfort to the non-Buddhist men, women, and children who are being slaughtered. Israel’s human rights record may be blemished, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Myanmar. There are no BDS movements targeting other trading nations that have appalling human rights records. Whether AFSC and pro-BDS meetings are anti-Semitic, willfully blind, or politically naive, I can’t say.

  4. Friends,

    I fear that well meaning friends are making a terrible mistake in allowing themselves to be drawn into the BDS movement. Much of the moral capital that the Religious Society of Friends has built up over 350 years will be squandered by taking sides in this very complicated issue. After the world wars Quakers gained enormous prestige through their humanitarian work in Germany. They were seen as being above politics , being motivated solely by love of humanity alone and gained the respect of millions. Violence can come in many forms and the BDS movement can only be seen as an explicit attack on the State of Israel which will accomplish nothing but a lot of ill will. In the 1930’s and 40’s many christian clerics were unwittingly lured into leftist politics by a genuine concern for those suffering from economic inequality. Joseph Stalin called them, “useful fools”. I hope history will not will not include the AFSC in that club.

  5. As a Quaker I have always been amazed how good people can blindly support and misunderstand the mission of the BDS movement, which was first organized by the Palestinian Authority and was not supported by Palestinians working for Israeli companies in the occupied territories. The result has been massive loss of good jobs,with no viable alternative for employment; also a huge increase worldwide if anti-Semitism, especially toward Jewish students on university campuses throughout the developed world. Condemnation for Israel is widespread throughout the Quaker community but there never seems to be a push for supporting the pro-peace movements in Israel. Without doing research, people support the BDS movement thinking that by closing businesses there will be increased peace and justice for Palestinians who live in occupied territories. Last year they picketed Ben & Jerry’s in Mamaroneck, NY. I think most of them were well-meaning people who thought this would help Palestinians. What is happening in the Middle East is tragic. No Arab country cares about the Palestinians. But most want to see Israel destroyed. One day I want to have a real dialogue at FGC about this. I tried twice. AFSC is a strong supporter of BDS and their representative doesn’t want to talk. Some at the presentations equate Israel with Nazi Germany. I will try again this year if I go. I don’t know if I will get anywhere — but I do know that this movement does nothing for peace and does not seek to find “that of God in everyone.” It foments hatred and anger. And it is succeeding.

  6. a very sad and disturbing article for a Quaker journal. BDS is an organization using techniques familiar to Nazis in 1932 and 1933 when they sought to isolate Jews from German society. They would want their words and actions to result in isolation and punishment and defeat )for Israel. This is a strange philosophy for a Quaker community to support

    It would have been far better if this Sidwell teacher would have followed the path of another Sidwell student Micah Hendler into the Jerusalem Youth Chorus which seeks to change the path of Israel and Palestinian relationships through Seeds of Peace and song.

    A more detailed knowledge of Jewish history, the history of the establishment of the state of Israel and the mixed relationship between the Palestinians and the Israeli for the past 75 years would be helpful too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.