Speaking Up for Palestinian Rights Now

Delegation with Ramallah Friends Meeting, June 2023. Photo courtesy of the author.

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.”

Steve Chase

Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the Quaker Palestine Israel Network. He has served as an interfaith ally of the D.C. chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and is the author of the Pendle Hill pamphlet Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? A Quaker Zionist Rethinks Palestinian Rights. He is currently working on a book titled Seeking Justice in the Holy Land, and has been selected as Pendle Hill’s Henry Cadbury Scholar for 2024.

8 thoughts on “Speaking Up for Palestinian Rights Now

  1. Thanks, Steve, for sharing your traumatic experience in the West Bank and word of US Quakers’ increasing efforts to work for peace.
    Several Colorado Meetings are holding brief post-Worship Called Meetings to support FCNL’s urgent call for an end to violence in Israel-Palestine and development of structures for ongoing, unified peace. Congressional Reps are hearing these calls for action now.

  2. This will be my last comment on any article posted by Friends Journal. I will be unsubscribing after this. I have had enough of moral equivocating. On October 7 Israel witnessed its worst day of terrorism since the Holocaust. Do you expect Israel to ignore the horrific attacks on its citizens? Do you honestly believe Hamas would not take advantage of a ceasefire to regroup and rearm? Why do we constantly make excuses for Islamic terrorism? While we’re at it, has anyone from Friends Journal ever opined about the plight of the LGBTQIA community and the status of women in Gaza and other Middle Eastern nations besides Israel?

    My two-year old grandson attends a nursery school/day care facility in which a number of Jewish toddlers are enrolled. A few weeks ago Hamas had declared a Day of Rage/Jihad against Jews around the world. My daughter and her husband thought long and hard about whether to take their son to school that day, knowing full well that Hamas and their supporters love to kill children. Police in our municipality were diverted that day in order to provide extra protection. My daughter and I drove around the neighborhood of the school several times that day. I was so tense that I finally called her and insisted she pick up her son and bring him to me. Does it not matter to you that we are dealing with terrorists who will stop at nothing? How can you make peace with those whose religion is death? If Hamas and the Palestinians are viable partners for peace, why will they not release the hostages? Why do you not accept the right of Israel to exist in peace?

    When I first signed up for the notifications and articles, I had hopes that for enlightened and spiritual discussion. I will now seek elsewhere.

  3. Are Quakers really being led by the Light to speak up for the rights and safety of Palestinians only, as this article suggests? Are we really being led to take sides?

    The unique gift that Quakers bring to injustice and conflict is seeing truth clearly. Truth arises from, but is not the same as, facts. One of those facts is that Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups are committed, in writing and by their actions, to the destruction of Israel and Jews everywhere. The dead bodies of 1400 Israelis are the most recent evidence of that. Another fact is that after creating opportunities for a two-state solution that were rejected by Palestinian leaders, Israel has spent decades forcibly establishing Jewish settlements that displaced Palestinians from their homes and undermined the possibility of such a solution. In daily life, it is a fact that Israel has deliberately and tragically created an apartheid state. In military conflicts, it is a fact that far more Palestinians than Israelis have died and are dying now, as I write this.

    Those are facts, but what is the deeper truth the Light shows us? For me, it is that neither side has let themselves be guided to make the hard and sacrificial commitment necessary to achieve a just and peaceful way to live together. Religion, identity, old and new wounds, and uncompromising claims to territory and homeland have made both sides hard and unyielding, and have been cultivated as a political strategy. Quakers need to see clearly and speak plainly about the damage inflicted by these attitudes, and the need for both sides to create a shared commitment to non-violence, communication, understanding, healing, and peace.

    To quote from the mission statement of Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, it is the role of Friends to be “a living expression of a spiritual life, and be in constant search for God in all human situations.”  We need to encourage Palestinians and Israelis to be “committed to helping each person recognize her or his responsibility as a caring member of the school, community, nation and global family where ‘each lives for the other and all live for God.’” We need to speak this deeper truth to Palestinian, Israeli, and American power.

  4. The moral difference between the two sides is stark and is clearly exemplified by the current exchange of bloodthirsty imprisoned terrorists for old women. toddlers , babies, pre-teens .
    The stark moral difference will be further exemplified when all is said and done by the number of the old women , babies, toddlers, teen hostages that have already been tortured and murdered at this juncture , but that we are unaware of.
    Compared to the number of terrorist prisoners that have not been.

  5. When Israel bombs kill innocent parents, siblings, and children in far greater quantities, how many more Palestinians are radicalized to blame and hate in a downward spiral to violence? Both sides have religions that fail to prioritize love and forgiveness, which prevents them from choosing the better solution in South Africa. Did not help that after WWII, UN (all of us) forced Israel into Palestine without full compensation for land and homes and businesses taken, let alone any damages. Israel continued that UN model of taking property without proper compensation. Blaming one side or the other does not help the problem, especially when all are responsible for this mess.

  6. There has always been a Jewish presence in the land.
    The Israeli’s do not target old women and children for systemic rape , burning alive, beheading or use old women, children, babies as human shields.
    Hamas uses innocent Palestinian parents ,siblings, children as human shields, and also commits systemic rape on Palestinian girls until they are to disgraced to have any hope for becoming anything but terrorists themselves
    According to a British census in 1864, Jews constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem. In 1875, an Ottoman census of Jerusalem confirmed the Jewish majority in Jerusalem and another in 1905 showed Jews represented two-thirds of the Jerusalem population.

  7. Interested in solving the problem, or just creating more division? Majority rules is just a way to exclude others from equality and create division for elites to exploit for selfish gain….just like the US and nearly every other nation.

    God wisely chose Moses, the former murderer, to bring us “Thou shall not kill” but it does not come with an exclusion if it’s an accident or well intended or even self-defense. Later, this would be enhanced as “turn the other cheek” which cannot be done by those tempted by base human desires of revenge, only those not afraid due to love and forgiveness, which leads to peace.

    Ask the French and English how post-WWI harsh punitive revenge against Germany turned out for the world, let alone Jews who then got scapegoated by Hitler, largely due to Martin Luther’s anti-semitism of blaming Jews for Jesus’ death, which is ironic for Christians called on to love and forgive by Rabbi Jesus. Of course, Martin Luther was just a reaction to the absolute power of the Christian government that corrupted absolutely by abusing power for selfish interests, so as usual plenty of blame to go around.

    Unfortunately, lots of thou shalt nots do not inspire humans to a higher standard of love and forgiveness that can prevent, slow, and stop wars. Long after Ashoka sent missionaries from India to the middle east to share Buddhism 250 years earlier (perhaps symbolized as the three wise men of the east), Rabbi Jesus (and Peter and Paul) may have blended the best of Judaism and Buddhism (perhaps symbolized as Epiphany) to create a far more aspirational ideal goal, rather than settling for trying to control human reality, which can be very dark and lack inspirational light.

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