How a U.S. Quaker Group That Won the Nobel Peace Prize Ended Up on Israel's BDS Blacklist

American Friends Service Committee was honored in 1947 for its work helping victims of the Nazis, but 70 years on has been declared an enemy of the Israeli state. Peace activists are baffled by the move, but critics say it is richly deserved

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A Quaker organization that received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for its work assisting and rescuing victims of the Nazis is among the blacklisted groups whose senior activists have been barred from entering Israel. Peace activists in Israel who have worked with the group expressed surprise at the decision.

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The American Friends Service Committee was included in a list published Sunday of 20 organizations whose leaders will not be permitted to enter Israel due to their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The blacklist was compiled by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and will be implemented by the Interior Ministry.

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In response to the move, Kerri Kennedy, associate general secretary for international programs, said “the American Friends Service Committee has supported and joined in nonviolent resistance for over 100 years. We answered the call for divestment from apartheid South Africa and we have done the same with the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions from Palestinians who have faced decades of human rights violations. We will continue to stand up for peace and justice in Israel, occupied Palestine and around the world.”

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The group, she added, was “motivated by Quaker belief in the worth and dignity of all people.”

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Quakers have historically been at the forefront of social justice movements in the United States, agitating against slavery, for race equality and women’s rights, along with anti-war movements and other activities that oppose militarism, in keeping with the beliefs of the Christian group.

The "Advocating for peace in Israel-Palestine" page on the American Friends Service Committee website.Credit: Screengrab

'Respect for human life'

Founded in 1917, the AFSC describes itself as “a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action,” in order to “nurture the seeds of change and respect for human life that transform social relations and systems.”

The group’s position on BDS, detailed on its website, specifies that it ”supports the use of boycott and divestment campaigns targeting only companies that support the occupation, settlements, militarism, or any other violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. Our position does not call for a full boycott of Israel nor of companies because they are either Israeli or doing business in Israel. Our actions also never focus on individuals.”

The group’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is detailed in its 2011 document “Principles for a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” which advocates a peace that “will be not merely the absence of war, but the presence of justice – justice between nations, and within nations as well.”

Specifically, the group advocates a two-state solution and “affirms the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live as sovereign peoples in their own homeland.” It adds that “Jerusalem must be regarded as a city that can be united but also can be shared by both peoples,” who should have “open access” to both sides, even before its final status is determined.

The document strongly condemns both settlements and the West Bank separation barrier.

The AFSC was founded after the outbreak of World War I, in order to create a form of nonviolent service for those whose religious views forbade taking up arms. The Quaker religion forswears violence, so its members sought a way to service the U.S. cause in noncombat roles that would not conflict with their beliefs. From its early days, the organization cooperated with Jewish overseas relief group the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The AFSC’s Refugee Division was established after Kristallnacht in 1938 showed that many Jews in Germany were in danger and needed more than just humanitarian relief. This was the division that rescued and assisted more than 22,000 Jews and Christians before, during and after World War II, earning it the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, together with the (British) Friends Service Council.

The Nobel committee said the award was “recognition both of pioneering work in the international peace movement and of humanitarian work carried out without regard for race or nationality.”

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the AFSC’s work was unique. “Many relief organizations specialized in certain types of refugees – Jewish groups helped Jews, Catholic groups helped Catholics – but the AFSC’s Refugee Division assisted those who were not already being helped,” it explains on its website. “In practice, the AFSC primarily worked with ‘non-Aryan Christians’ (those considered ‘racially Jewish’ by the Nuremberg Laws but who did not consider themselves Jewish by religion) and those in mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The Quakers aided people seeking affidavits to come to the United States – a critical step in the immigration process – by locating American citizens willing to sponsor them. In many cases, the refugee was unknown to the person writing the affidavit. The Quakers coordinated with numerous other agencies such as the National Refugee Service, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) to ensure that as many refugees could be helped as possible.”

In southern France, to where thousands of Jewish refugees fled after the German invasion in 1940, the AFSC established soup kitchens in French internment camps, helped hide Jewish children and, when possible, helped them escape to safety, as well as helping refugees in other parts of Europe, according to the USHMM. They also helped negotiate the release of hundreds of people held in internment camps in North Africa.

After the refugees’ arrival in the United States after World War II, the organization helped them learn English and housed them during their adjustment to their new country. They also fought anti-refugee sentiment, publishing a booklet together with the American Jewish Committee showing that refugees “were neither swarming the United States, nor would they worsen unemployment in a country still deep in the Depression.”

‘Mystery’ move

Peace activists in Israel close to the AFSC said they were surprised to see it included on the government list, when groups they considered more radical were omitted.

“The AFSC is a veteran American religious-based peace organization that has been very active in trying to find the way to a just peace. They were one of the earliest groups to talk about finding peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and former head of Friends World College, an international college based in New York. Halper, together with Palestinian activist Ghassan Andoni, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the AFSC in 2006.

Halper said he was stunned to learn the AFSC had been included on the list, calling it a “mystery” why the group would be singled out, since he believes it hasn’t “stepped out of the mainstream” when it comes to its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It really shows how vague this idea of BDS is. BDS has become a synonym for anyone critical of Israel,” Halper added.

‘Captive to Israel-hatred’

But the AFSC has been criticized by those who oppose its activities in Israel and the West Bank. Last November, Tablet Magazine ran an Op-Ed noting that one of the group’s “central missions these days is promoting the BDS movement that opposes Israel’s existence.”

The article, written by Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander Joffe, charged that the AFSC “has gone from trying to save Jews to vilifying them,” and is “effectively captive to progressive Israel-hatred.”

They charged that an anti-Israeli slant has become part of the educational curriculum of Quaker schools, and that the AFSC has taken a “leading role in the BDS movement” and works to “train BDS activists and run campus events at which Israel is vilified and its supporters are harassed, and endorses the Palestinian right of return, which would destroy Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.”

The right-wing, Israel-based organization NGO Monitor claims that, among other actions, the Quaker group “actively promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel; accuses Israel of “apartheid against Palestinians”; advocates for the “right of return,” meaning the end of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people”; and “supports efforts to encourage Israeli youth to dodge the draft.”

The group noted that George Soros’ Open Society Foundations was among those supporting the group, which had a $31.3 million budget in 2016.

Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, told Haaretz that, in his view, AFSC is “one of the [most] virulent BDS groups on U.S. churches and campuses, together with Jewish Voice for Peace and National Students for Justice in Palestine, and “provides a form of moral or religious legitimacy to demonization campaigns. The three organizations are in practice one group in terms of BDS, so it is logical to include them as such. In a policy banning activists in BDS organizations, they deserve to be among the first,” he said.

While the Quakers may have earned the Nobel Peace Prize 70 years ago, he contended that “they are a very different church today, embracing radical liberation theology and rejecting Jewish self-determination, regardless of borders. Their deep antagonism to Israel and support for the Palestinian victimization narrative is long-standing and well documented,” said Steinberg.

“Among church groups whose theological anti-Semitism has been transferred to opposing the State of Israel, the Quakers are a leading example,” he continued.

Together with JVP, the AFSC came under fire in 2014 for sponsoring a BDS Summer Institute in California. This offered an intensive, five-day “fun and comprehensive training program” for campus organizers, boasting workshops in grass-roots organizing, “nonviolent direct action planning, historical overview of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and strategy sessions with BDS movement leaders.”

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