Sunday, November 15, 2015

West of Eden: A Pax on Both Their Houses

AFSC workers pass out blankets in Gaza, 1948. Via Rabbi Brant Rosen.
On November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day! When Britons celebrate the defeat exactly 410 years ago of the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy of disaffected English Catholics to blow up the Parliament and destroy England's ancient liberties, hoping to turn that green and pleasant isle over to the tyranny of the Pope, those were the days huh), Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by two fellows of the Middle East Forum, Alexander H. Joffe and Asaf Romirowsky, under the title "The Quakers, No Friends of Israel".

You should have seen the version they ran at their own shop (Middle East Forum: Promoting American Interests, the wingnut-welfare home of fascist Arab-hater Daniel Pipes and his odious crew), where the headline, under the runninghead "MEF Research and Writing", ran, in red,
The Quaker War on Israel
What it's about, of course, is the participation of the Friends in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to pressure Israel to end its illegal occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, give full civil rights to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respect (not necessarily implement) the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes.

Or, as Joffe and Romirowsky put it, launching into the propaganda tone right away,
The Quakers, for instance, are known as peaceful and supremely benign. Few suspect that one central mission is promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (or BDS) movement that opposes Israel's existence.
No, the BDS movement does not oppose Israel's existence. Its goals are extremely clear. It does oppose an Israel that functions as an abusive colonial power and maintains two tiers of rights within its borders, one for Jewish citizens and one for other citizens. Some participants think that's the only kind of Israel that can exist, as do some members of the Israeli cabinet (only that latter think that's a good thing), but BDS as an institution works toward a better Israel in which everyone, Jews included, is safe and respected. That's non-negotiable.

And how do you know what "few suspect" or what Americans know or don't know about the Friends? (Pew's 2014 survey of US attitudes toward specific religious groups doesn't mention them at all, and I can't find a more detailed picture than theirs.) The language is serving the rhetorical object of frightening the readers with their own ignorance: put those "thee"-saying, broadbrim-hatted, Friendly Persuasion oatmeal salesmen out of your mind, because little do you realize, these guys are sinister.

Then we move to the Lie Direct:
The commitment of the Quakers through their primary organization, the American Friends Service Committee, is unmistakable. It is a leading member of the BDS umbrella group known as the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and provides support to BDS efforts on numerous college campuses. The AFSC works alongside the Students for Justice in Palestine and the rabidly anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace. Its representatives have even helped write Israel divestment resolutions for student governments. How much of the AFSC's almost $160 million annual budget is devoted to BDS isn't known, as the Internal Revenue Service classifies the organization as a church.
The only thing you could call a "primary organization" would be the international Friends World Committee for Consultation, but Quakers really don't do monolithic or hierarchical. At the US level there are five distinct groups of Yearly Meetings, with different geographical overlaps and no kind of central structure. AFSC is a service organization with an annual budget of about $34 million, not $160 million (the error has been corrected at WSJ but continues to live at the Middle East Forum, whence it spreads to, israpundit, and other equally reputable sites).

The fact that AFSC doesn't file an IRS form 990 isn't that the IRS "classifies it as a church" but because it is, in fact, an "integrated auxiliary of a church", unlike, say, Catholic Charities, a "support organization" for many integrated auxiliaries that are themselves exempt from form 990. Whether filing the form would clarify how much money they spend on BDS is unclear, but I'd challenge anybody to tell me how much any Catholic Charities division spends on preventing abortions from looking at their 990.

What you can tell about AFSC is that they are committed to complete financial transparency, and provide in their annual report a clear picture of what they do to overcome conflict in Africa, embrace diversity in Asia, create conditions for peace in Latin America and the Caribbean, advocate for peace worldwide including bringing together participants from 34 countries to programs in Burundi, China, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and El Salvador and working in the US for immigrant rights, prisoners' rights, and against inequality. They also work for peace in the Middle East which last year meant particularly calling for an end to violence in Gaza, working with a tiny peace movement in northern Syria, and encouraging young Jewish, Druze, and Arab Israelis to refuse military service, and in the US, calling for an end to the 2002 AUMF, sponsoring 208 young people in the If I Had A Trillion Dollars Film Festival and commemorating the Global Day of Action Against Military Spending, and, yes, contributing (mostly information) to divestment from Israel:
called on global corporations to end activities undermining peace in the region, supported student and activist groups in several successful divestment campaigns, and developed an online investment screening tool.

Via AFSC Financial Information.
In 1973 the AFSC called for a U.S. embargo on arms and other aid to Israel, and in 1975 adopted “a formal decision to make the Middle East its major issue.” It opened an office in Israel, installed specialized staff members at offices in the U.S., and began advocating for Palestinians in Israeli and international courts.
I've been working all afternoon to identify these two documents without success. AFSC calls for arms embargos in one place or another, from time to time, including one against Israel in 2014 after Israel's superviolent punitive expedition in Gaza, but there is no reference to one in 1973, and certainly no reference to the "formal decision" to make the Middle East "its major issue" ever. All online references trace back to a single one, a 2013 article under the title "When Did the Quakers Stop Being Friends?" by, you guessed it, Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe, using, as it happens, identical words:

They didn't "quickly open an office in Israel" at that point, either, as if for the first time—they'd been working with refugees in the country since 1948—but rather started an office in occupied East Jerusalem in 1974, as we learn from "Tug-of-War: American Voluntary Organizations in the West Bank" (JSTOR link) by John P. Richardson, Journal of Palestine Studies 14/2, winter 1985):

So more or less every detail seems to be a fabrication too.
The AFSC treads dangerously close to outright anti-Semitism and "replacement theology," the idea that Palestinians were the "new Jews," displaced and downtrodden.
The authors offer no evidence for that over-the-shoulder semi-blood libel, but I know what replacement theology is, the belief that Jews were un-chosen by God after the death of Jesus and replaced by a new chosen people of uncircumcised pork-eating believers in bodily resurrection, which was official Roman Catholic dogma for many centuries until Vatican II, and is still a tenet of faith for Dominionist Christians who "support" Israel now by way of preparation for Jesus to come over and take over Jerusalem himself, giving the local Jews a chance to convert, maybe, and casting the noncompliant into the Lake of Fire. But it has absolutely nothing to do with Quakers and Palestinians. (The other, liberationist theology, in which today's Palestinians resemble the Hebrews of Exodus in their plight, as enslaved Africans did in the 19th century, is another matter.)
Why the commitment against Israel? Part of the explanation is the banal devolution from a peace church into what scholar H. Larry Ingle called "one more pressure group within the secular political community." From advocating for improved relations with communist China and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, to overt support for North Vietnam during the 1960s, the AFSC has long been in the vanguard of the Protestant left.

Quakerism's lack of a coherent theology and Christian praxis renders it especially susceptible to shifting fashions.
Everybody's a critic.  But really, fuck you.

For those who would like a sense of the AFSC's actual position on BDS, as opposed to Dominionist fantasies, it has been since 2008 roughly like this:
After nearly two years of research and deliberation, AFSC’s board of directors decided that AFSC can support BDS in the Israel-Palestine conflict as a nonviolent social change tactic that is in line with both Quaker values and AFSC’s Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel.  Those principles uphold the right of both Palestinians and Israelis to self-determination, emphasizing that realizing both peoples’ right to self-determination necessarily means ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory and addressing refugees’ right of return.   
It's not a war on Israel but a pax on both their houses.

And it's not just the Friends, though different churches may take more measured approaches. The United Methodists have agreed to boycott goods from the West Bank settlements, though not to divest; the Presbyterians have substantially divested, but decline to boycott. The Mennonite Church has been unable to decide, and recently put the vote off for two years. On June 30, though, the 30th General Synod of the United Church of Christ, meeting in Cleveland, voted to boycott and divest from companies that profit from Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. I don't know if Joffe and Romirowski are trying to head off some huge shift in public opinion—it seems as if the larger the Democratic party grows and the more likely to win the 2016 presidential election, the solider its support for a Palestinian state—

Chicago Council, November 9.
—but this rubbish about Quakers, lies recycled intact from a two-year-old article and placed in the hallowed columns of the WSJ, are indicative of some kind of real panic, as if the BDS movement itself might be starting to have some real bite. I hope so.

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