The horrific events and war crimes in southern Israel and Gaza committed since October 7 by both Hamas and the State of Israel have sent shock waves of anguish and grief around the world. People of goodwill are calling for an immediate ceasefire, believing that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace, equality, and freedom. Similar to Jewish peace groups like If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), several Quaker groups have issued a joint statement calling for a ceasefire, the release of hostages, and the restoration of humanitarian aid to the 2.2 million people of Gaza who are now facing a brutal siege, mass displacement, and bombardment.
As both American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) have long emphasized, a lasting peace with justice for all will require addressing the underlying causes of the conflict. As noted by these two Quaker organizations, the root causes include 57 years of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories; 16 years of a crushing blockade of Gaza; the rapid expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and the U.S. government’s financial, diplomatic, and military support for these Israeli policies.
In March of this year, AFSC and FCNL joined eight other U.S.-based Christian denominations and organizations in sending a strongly worded letter to President Biden and the members of the U.S. Congress. In it, they urged political leaders to stop enabling Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. They also noted that a “growing number of legal experts and human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, al-Haq, B’Tselem, and Yesh Din say this situation meets the international legal definition of the crime of apartheid.”
Inspired by the work of AFSC and FCNL, I seized the opportunity this past June to take part in a Quaker delegation to Israel–Palestine to examine the human rights situation there. The trip is sponsored annually by Friends United Meeting (FUM) and is co-led by North Carolina Friends Max and Jane Carter. Based at Ramallah Friends School, which has been supported by U.S. Quakers since 1869, we traveled through the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, and the Galilee region of Israel.
Because of the deep relationships the Carters have built since the 1970s, we met with Palestinian religious leaders; businesspeople; farmers; educators; students; activists; and current and former members of the Palestinian Authority, the governmental body of Palestinians in the West Bank. In Israel, we met with a reserve officer in the Israeli military, a kibbutz rabbi, an educator, a journalist, two Palestinian Israeli priests, and the Palestinian mayor of a fully integrated Israeli “peace village.”
It was the most intense and gut-wrenching three weeks of my life. Our delegation witnessed firsthand what the international human rights community has described as a system of apartheid. When I returned home, I felt called to give a talk entitled “Is It Apartheid? Reflections on a Quaker Delegation to Israel–Palestine” to Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and to the D.C. metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
On the basis of this presentation, I was asked to give a talk at a JVP-led event to take place in October at a Unitarian Universalist Church in northern New Jersey. Unfortunately, two days before that talk, the board of the congregation decided to revoke the rental contract and cancel the event. One of their ministers said this was “a final decision” and that the leadership of his church no longer wanted to be associated with Jewish Voice for Peace.
This was heartbreaking for both me and the event organizers, which included Pax Christi and a New Jersey FCNL advocacy team. Yet it is just one small example of what Jewish Currents magazine describes as a growing campaign aimed at silencing Palestinian rights advocates, including Jewish peace groups, in both the United States and Europe.
To their credit, the Unitarian Universalist ministers are now rethinking their decision. Encouraged by Quaker Middle Eastern scholar Stephen Zunes, they have reached out to me, to the Northern New Jersey JVP chapter, and to the president of Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East. They are trying to repair the breach they created between their congregation and Jewish and Christian peace activists. This effort at dialogue and relationship building may well yield a good outcome to a bad situation.
This incident should also encourage Quaker meetings around the country to reflect and conduct a moral inventory of our own. Will we support and facilitate interfaith peace work aimed at changing U.S. policy on Israel–Palestine? This work is especially urgent now that respected human rights organizations have determined that U.S. policy is currently enabling the crime of apartheid and a potential genocide in Gaza, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Many Quaker meetings are rising to this challenge. I have now been invited to give my “Is It Apartheid?” talk to Chesapeake Quarterly Meeting and to the meetings of New England Yearly Meeting. Other Quaker groups have asked if I might be able to speak to their meetings. In addition, many meetings are working with FCNL to lobby for a ceasefire and to resolve the root causes of the lopsided conflict in Israel–Palestine. Some Quaker meetings have joined the Apartheid-Free Communities coalition, an interfaith effort coordinated by AFSC; and many Quakers around the country are active in the Quaker Palestine Israel Network.
My own meeting in Washington, D.C., has partnered with Jewish Voice for Peace for years on joint educational events and nonviolent actions on these issues. We also recently made our meetinghouse available for a strategic planning meeting of If Not Now, the Jewish youth organization that represents the opinions of 40 percent of Jewish young people in the United States. Those in this group believe that Israel has created an apartheid state, and they do not want the pain and sorrow caused by the brutal Hamas attack to be twisted into a justification for war crimes or ethnic cleansing in Gaza or the West Bank. Our meeting is also working to discern if we are ready to take the Apartheid-Free Communities Pledge and to live into its moral commitments.
Friends Meeting of Washington also hosts a Jewish minyan weekly worship service. We had planned to host a major Friends United Meeting fundraising gala for Ramallah Friends School this December before the current war made travel impossible for the head of school. Blessedly, even in this dark time, several meeting members have expressed an interest in taking part in next year’s FUM trip to Israel–Palestine led by Jane and Max Carter (something I heartily recommend to all Friends).
It took the Religious Society of Friends in the United States over a hundred years to discern that all Quakers should oppose the sin of slavery. My prayer is it will not take us that long to reject the U.S. government policy of enabling Israeli apartheid and war crimes. My prayer is that we develop the moral clarity to offer our support to all nonviolent efforts to promote peace, justice, equality, and self-determination for everyone in Israel–Palestine.
As a Palestinian village priest told our delegation in June, “It doesn’t matter if you are named Moshe, Mohammed, or Matthew, all are precious in the sight of God, and all deserve to live in peace, love, and justice.” We also heard from an Imam in Ramallah who said, “Most Palestinians don’t mind having Jews as neighbors. We only object to them being our masters.”