It is no surprise that this past week the student leaders at Swarthmore College voted to endorse boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel after initially rejecting it three weeks ago.
Quaker schools are fertile ground for BDS and have become ground zero when it comes to pro-BDS faculty and students. The Quaker tradition of even-handedness and political neutrality has long passed; by the late 1970s the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) had effectively enshrined Palestinians as the “new Jews.” Support for Palestinian terror as “resistance” against Israel’s “structural violence” and against sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program is now customary.
Quaker support for BDS is long standing and deeply founded in the denomination’s history. Since the 1960s, we have seen the growth of “scholar warriors” who have given up the ideal of impartial scholarship for activism. As Quakerism is about doing rather than praying, their institutions created mission-oriented avenues that are today chiefly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And when it comes to Jews, the Quakers increasingly share the supersessionist theology of some American Protestant denominations, a theological justification for deemphasizing the Jewish connection to the Holy Land and deriding the Jews as a people forsaken by God. Zionism presented a direct challenge to supersessionist theology, and many Protestant missionary and aid groups in the Middle East opposed the movement and supported Arab nationalism. The Quakers, for the most part, stayed neutral on the subject, although Quaker institutions in Palestine itself and individual Palestinian Quakers became leading advocates of Arab nationalism and fervent anti-Zionists.
These negative attitudes toward Israel and its supporters are reflected in the educational curricula of Quaker schools across the country, but most of all in the AFSC’s leading role in the BDS movement. Today, the AFSC runs several offices dedicated to supporting the BDS movement, partners with the odious Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and with the Muslim Brotherhood backed Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) 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. Swarthmore has seen all of that and more.
Moreover, the AFSC together with their “Jewish” friends, the JVP, are behind the BDS Summer Camps under the rubric of “We Divest Campaign Student Leadership Team Summer Training Institute,” where they offered a five-day program to train campus BDS activists and organizers in a summer-camp environment.
For cosmetic and political reasons BDS groups try, albeit unsuccessfully, to draw a distinction between anti-Zionism and antisemitism to soft peddle their racist policies. As such, following the vote, Swarthmore student government president Gilbert Orbea sent an email to Swarthmore president Valerie Smith and the board of managers, stating that the vote was “not a repudiation of the Jewish faith or of our fellow Jewish and Israeli students.”
Of course, their email cited students from the newly formed JVP club, who claimed that divestment was “not in any way a measure taken against the existence of the state of Israel. This vote only condemns the human rights violations occurring in Palestine due to the Israeli occupation.”
Jewish Voice for Peace is hard left anti-Zionist group which mainstream Jewish groups consider to be beyond the pale; the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) characterized them as “the largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group” in the US. Anti-Zionism is the rejection of a Jewish state – and only the Jewish state – the type of antisemitism the Democratic Party is grappling with today in the age of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Yet these are the only kind of “Jews” who are acceptable and welcome in Quaker schools.
Swarthmore is also the home base of Sa’ed Atshan, an assistant professor of “peace and conflict studies” and who is also, not surprisingly, a well-known advocate for BDS. Atshan is a poster child for Quaker education; an alum of the Quaker school in Ramallah who now teaches for the same Quaker school he attended as an undergraduate. He represents the Quaker echo chamber regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures that only the Palestinian narrative will be voiced.
Atshan has also been active with SJP, whose parent organization, American Muslims for Palestine, was recently shown to be connected to the same American Muslim Brotherhood supporters who funded Hamas through the Holy Land Foundation, and which has trained its activists in “Countering Normalization of Israeli Oppression on Campus.”
Quaker pedagogy on Israel has impacted both the colleges and high schools they operate. Back in 2012, the Friends Seminary in New York hosted Gilad Atzmon an antisemitic author, writer and musician, who describes himself as an “ex-Israeli” and an “ex-Jew.” In 2017, Atshan had been set to appear at Friends’ Central, but his talk was only canceled after his BDS ties were exposed to the administration by Jewish parents, who raised questions about the one-sided view point. Notwithstanding, Atshan spoke shortly after at Haverford, another Quaker school, during their “Israeli Apartheid Week.”
Unpacking BDS necessitates a greater understanding of the supporting groups and institutions. There is a greater correlation between Quaker schools and BDS motions than is generally known, and this will likely grow as antisemitism becomes more mainstream.