A Voice of Reason for Palestinians

Since the horrors of 1948, the Quakers have sought justice for Palestinians

An AFSC staff member in Gaza with Palestinian refugees in 1949 Photo: AFSC

By Sandra Whitehead

January/February 2023

At their last stop on a seven-city American book tour, two Palestinian authors spoke about the “on-going nakba,” an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe,” referring to the destruction of the Palestinian homeland that began in 1948.

“We relive it every day,” Yousef M. Aljamal told the Milwaukee audience. 

The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, solicited writers from Gaza to contribute to “Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire” (Haymarket Books, 2022), an anthology published last August to raise awareness of the 2 million Palestinians living under Israel’s more than 15-year military blockade of the Gaza Strip. The AFSC organized the book tour to bring some of its authors to meet Americans face-to-face.

“Palestinian stories need to be heard!” exclaimed Jennifer Bing, director of the organization’s Palestine Activism Program. “Without that connection, there’s no empathy. And with no empathy, there’s no hope for anything getting better.”

Quakers have championed Palestinians since 1948, when the UN asked Quaker volunteers to manage the influx of Palestinian refugees into Gaza. They set up housing, food stations, clinics and schools. At the end of the war, these volunteers tried to accompany Palestinian refugees back to their homes. Zionist militias fired on Quakers and Palestinians alike.

What started as humanitarian work soon shifted into advocacy. 

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning AFSC’s “long-term goal was repatriation of the refugees, and conciliation and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians,” writes Nancy Gallagher in her book “Quakers in the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict: The Dilemmas of NGO Humanitarian Activism” (The American University in Cairo Press, 2007).

The organization’s license to operate in Gaza, as well as its Palestinian staff onsite, give it the means to do humanitarian work. “But we’re not interested in Band Aid® solutions,” Bing stated. “It’s not a humanitarian crisis; it’s a political crisis.”

Securing Peace with Justice

“Quakers oppose war — all wars,” she explained. “But I was always taught instead of just saying, ‘I’m not going to pick up a gun,’ it’s our duty to take away the occasion for war, to address the underlying issues that drive people to be violent against one another.”

In 1982, on a university study abroad program in Jerusalem, Bing saw “how U.S. tax dollars funded Israeli settlements and Israeli soldiers. As an American, I had some responsibility for this conflict continuing,” she confessed. “It’s been 40 years and it’s only gotten worse, both for the people there and also in the U.S., being very clearly one-sided and fueling a militaristic approach.” 

The Quakers’ long history of relief work, assisting Europe’s Jewish and non-Jewish refugees during World War II, led to a concern with the plight of Palestinians turned into refugees by the 1948 war and to a series of AFSC projects in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Philip S. Khoury wrote in his review of the AFSC’s 1982 book “A Compassionate Peace: A Future for the Middle East (Journal of Palestine Studies,1983). British Quakers established the Friends School in Ramallah before World War I. 

The AFSC’s pamphlet “Search for Peace in the Middle East” (1970) called for an independent Palestinian state, noted Jim Fine, a former Quaker International Affairs Representative and humanitarian worker, and lobbyist with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “It was a watershed moment for the character of AFSC’s involvement in the conflict,” the product of a Quaker working party that had shuttled among Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Israel and the occupied territories in Jordan to listen and make recommendations. “It was met with a firestorm of criticism, and AFSC paid a heavy monetary price when Jewish contributors canceled their donations.”

A Palestinian American at the Helm

In 2017, the AFSC hired Palestinian American Joyce Ajlouny to lead its global program. Its general secretary, who has spent much of her life in Ramallah, has an “empathy born of experience,” then AFSC board clerk Phillip Lord told The Philadelphia Inquirer (Nov. 3, 2017). 

In the West Bank, she “was exposed to violence, harassment and humiliation,” the Inquirer reported. “A childhood girlfriend was shot. Her husband was detained in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers.”

“I was born there. I raised my children there,” Ajlouny said in an interview with Islamic Horizons. “I’m not a refugee. I never had my house demolished or my trees uprooted, but I know what it is to live under military occupation.

“Just yesterday, a 14-year-old child was shot. Two weeks ago, my dear friends’ 16-year-old was abducted from his home and beaten in front of them. They took him barefoot with his pajamas on. 

“Every day there are atrocities against children, against innocent men and women. Israel continues to violate every human right of Palestinians with impunity.”

The organization’s “strong stand on Palestine, its compelling work on the ground and advocacy in the U.S.” attracted Ajlouny. “I want to be clear. They were already doing this work—none of it is because of me,” she said. Nevertheless, she is proud of its record.

She pointed to the Israeli Military Detention: No Way to Treat a Child campaign, which the AFSC co-leads with Defense for Children International-Palestine; AFSC’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel; and its Gaza Unlocked campaign. 

Its No Way to Treat a Child campaign succeeded in having three bills introduced to Congress to ensure that no federal funds go toward the detention of Palestinian children. By the time the third bill was introduced, the organization had a coalition of 180 organizations supporting it, including the Jewish Voice for Peace, other faith groups and human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.

“Palestinian rights advocacy groups abandoned D.C. politics for a while,” Ajlouny observed. “It’s very hard to infiltrate that space. But we found partners in Congress, and this work is succeeding more than we could imagine.” 

Two years ago, AFSC and partners launched No Dough for the Occupation. The BDS campaign called on General Mills to stop manufacturing Pillsbury products on stolen Palestinian land. In June, General Mills announced it divested its Israeli business altogether, selling its stake in its Israeli subsidiary and ending production of Pillsbury products in an illegal settlement. 

Gaza Unlocked “lifts Palestinian voices to the general public and to decision makers,” Aljouny noted. In 2019, the campaign organized a U.S. speaking tour for Gaza writer and peace activist Ahmed Abu Artemah, one of the founders of the Great March of Return.

“That tour opened up Americans’ hearts and also impacted him,” Bing recalled. “He went back to Gaza with a whole new perspective about solidarity with other struggles in America.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic halted plans to bring other Palestinians to the U.S., Bing’s colleague Jehad Abusalim suggested bringing voices from Gaza in an anthology, and “Light in Gaza” was born. 

Success in Solidarity 

“In the past four to five years, the solidarity community has managed to link the dots, realizing the intersections of the struggles in our world,” Ajlouny said. “We did not just look at the military occupation of Palestine, but also [at] other oppressions in the world — the prison industrial complex, militarization of borders, systemic racism and others — and how corporations are profiting from them. 

“Many mainline Protestant denominations have already passed divestment resolutions. They’re asking, ‘What’s next?’ 

“We plan to build energy around an anti-apartheid movement,” Ajlouny continued. “The goal is to have 200 faith communities pledge to join the ‘Apartheid Free Community’ and take action through boycotts, divestment initiatives and educational activities.”

What exists now between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River “is apartheid,” Fine said. Attitudes in the U.S. today remind him of the decades before the Civil Rights movement, “where awareness of the repression, injustice and inequality existed in some quarters but was not widespread enough.

“We are doing things that need to be done — challenging injustices, calling out human rights violations, supporting BDS against companies that profit from the occupation, building awareness and the conviction that the status quo is unacceptable, and forming alliances with conscientious, Jewish groups, of which there are many,” said Fine. “There are many groups working to challenge injustice. One of the things that makes me optimistic is the community of Jews, Muslims and Christians who are essentially on the same side.”

And young Palestinian Americans “who aim to change U.S. policies and are well connected with other movements that bring a justice frame to the conversation,” added Ajlouny.

Sandra Whitehead is an author, journalist and long-time adjunct instructor of journalism and media studies in the Diederich College of Communication, Marquette University, Wis.

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