The Progressive Saviour Complex: Quakers, American Jews and Israel

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Quakerism has long had a certain appeal to Jews; its pacifist nature and liberal values harmonise well with the universalism of most Jews on the religious and political left. But its influence on American Judaism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been poorly charted. At the extreme, that influence is seen in ‘Quaker Jews,’ who purport to unite the doctrines of a 17th century Christian dissenter sect with those of Judaism, in the manner of ‘Buddhist Jews’ and other syncretisms based on agnosticism. The irony of liberal Jews ‘quaking’ before God – like Haridim who ‘tremble’ – is rich, but is pointed out mostly in vain.

But the influence of Quakerism on modern American Judaism arguably goes deeper. Quaker similarities with Reform Judaism – which since the 19th century often vacillates between a social practice and an ethnicity in which liberal values are central, and with only minor ritual glosses – seems pronounced. Quakerism is also more individualistic practice than group theology, at once a personal means of accessing the ‘inner light’ of God without formal prayer, but it is also a social movement oriented toward pacifism and good works; ‘tikkun olam’ in all but the name.

There have also been other unspoken influences of Quakerism on Reform Judaism. Pacifism and its direct political impacts, and the more subtle influence on attitudes towards war and peace, ‘conflict resolution,’ strength and weakness, are in evidence. All this is to say that Quaker attitudes towards power may have influenced Jews on the religious and cultural left more than has been acknowledged.

Not surprisingly, during the 20th century and after, the Quakers have also been at the forefront of religious ‘peace-making’ aimed at the Arab-Israeli conflict. Quakers were deeply involved in refugee relief from World War One, even winning the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Their work helping Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, however, was a turning point. Though they were effective at delivering aid and services, the American Friends Service Committee was unsuccessful at convincing refugees to resettle in surrounding countries. It then gradually distanced itself from refugee relief, and began a transformation into a left wing pressure group opposed to nuclear weapons, the Cold War, and ultimately, Israel. Here, too, Quakerism appears to have influenced a portion of American Judaism.

How did this influence take place? How does 20th century history help explain the influence of Quakerism on American Judaism as religious and political movements, especially with respect to Israel? A focus on a few leading individuals will help us to unravel the story.


At one level, the influence of Christianity on American Jews is not especially new. Early American Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise recounts an 1847 meeting with Isaac Leeser, an intellectual forerunner of Modern Orthodox and Conservative standpoints, at which Leeser commented that:

the native Jews were, if I may say so, tinged with Christian thought. They read only Christian religious literature, because there was no Jewish literature of this kind. They substituted God for Jesus, unity for trinity, the future Messiah for the Messiah who had already appeared, etc. There were Episcopalian Jews in New York, Quaker Jews in Philadelphia, Huguenot Jews in Charleston, and so on, everywhere according to the prevailing sect.[1]

The Reform movement was founded in Germany in the 1830s, and had found its first institutional supporter on American soil in Isaac Mayer Wise. Quakerism, however, was already 200 years old and had been a force in America for almost as long. The colony of Pennsylvania had been founded as a ‘holy experiment’ by a Quaker, William Penn, in 1682. Quakers had dominated the political and cultural life of that colony, founding many of its leading institutions. With the founding of the US, however, Quaker political dominance came to an end, although its intellectual and social impact continue to be felt even today, most notably through the network of Quaker schools, colleges and universities.

Of all the Jews who have embraced the influence of Quakerism, the most famous was Judah Magnes, the first chancellor of the Hebrew University and later as its president. His influence extended widely across the new institution, its graduates and advocates worldwide, and the Reform community. Where his influence did not resonate was within the Yishuv or Israel.

Born in San Francisco in 1877 and educated at Hebrew Union College, Berlin and Heidelberg, Magnes was a prominent Reform rabbi in both the US and Mandatory Palestine. He is best remembered as a leader in the pacifist movement of the World War One period, for his advocacy of a binational Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, and as one of the most widely recognised voices of 20th century American Reform Judaism. Magnes was a follower and subscriber to the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform adopted by the American Reform movement, which among other things stated:

We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason. We are convinced of the utmost necessity of preserving the historical identity with our great past. Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions of Judaism, we appreciate their providential mission, to aid in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth. We acknowledge that the spirit of broad humanity of our age is our ally in the fulfillment of our mission, and therefore we extend the hand of fellowship to all who cooperate with us in the establishment of the reign of truth and righteousness among men.

At Magnes’ funeral in October 1948 a speaker from Society of Friends offered a eulogy stressing his prophetic nature saying, ‘he tried to look at the world for the point of view of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah’[2] But while Magnes’ Jewish idealism was heartfelt, it had roots not only in the Reform movement but also in Quakerism.

Quaker-style pacifism was central to Magnes’ thought. As Mandate official Norman Bentwich describes in his biography of Magnes:

He had an instinctive sympathy with their outlook. Man was created in the image of God, and human life was sacred. After his marriage, he saw much of their community in Chappaqua. He was inflexibly opposed to American participation in World War One; and not only opposed, but passionately, militantly resistant. He had no use for ‘a detestable indifference and neutrality’ on the question of war or peace.[3]

Shortly after the American entry into World War One, Magnes chaired the First American Conference for Democracy and Terms of Peace at Madison Square Garden, out of which came the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace. Chappaqua was one of the oldest Quaker settlements in New York, founded in 1785, and was the center for a Quaker coeducational institute. Magnes had lived in a Christian community in Cos Cob, Connecticut but moved to Chappaqua after his opposition to World War One antagonised his neighbors. This itself was a harbinger of things to come.

As another biographer, Daniel Kotzen, notes, Magnes’ diary records that his goal was ‘to make Jew and pacifist identical, like “Quakers and pacifist” were identical.’[4] But its influence extended beyond the question of World War One and pacifism. Bentwich, explains how, after World War One Magnes launched plans in America for a Jewish fellowship, on the model of the Quakers’ Religious Society of Friends. Those plans and the later attempt in Palestine to found with a few colleagues at the University, a Society of ‘Seekers for Thy Presence,’ miscarried. In neither country could he gather a group of Jews, knit together in work for peace and humanity and illumined by the inner light – because he himself lacked this inner light. The society in Jerusalem, which was to help resolve the religious perplexities of its members, came indeed into being, took the Hebrew name ‘The Yoke’ (of the Kingdom of Heaven). It published the ‘open letters’ to Gandhi by him and Buber; but it did not live long, as a society. Even the small circle could not share his religious questioning.[5]

Magnes’ mission, as Kotzin puts it, was to take ‘the American nationalist mythic language of mission, fused it with the Quaker ideal of pacifism, and placed it at the foundation of Jewish nationalism. His goal was to avoid Zionism becoming an extreme form of nationalism that was intolerant of difference, whether ideological or ethnic.’ Kotzin goes on: ‘Magnes praised those Jews who joined him in opposing the war because it showed “one of the glories of Jewish life … It saves Judaism from the bankruptcy which has overtaken Christianity. It distinguishes Jewish prophetic nationalism from the heathen nationalism of Christian nations.”’[6] Bentwich puts it more simply and notes that Magnes ‘was often taxed by Jewish critics with being too Christian in his political ideas; and was regarded by Christians as a true Christian in spirit.’[7] 

In Magnes’s 1930 pamphlet Like All Nations, he expressed in literal terms his vision for Quakerising Judaism, to the extent possible, and specifically, how it would shape the Yishuv:

I have no illusions about the Jews here becoming a Quaker community. That would be too good to be true. Nor do I see the possibility, in Palestine or elsewhere, of doing without adequate police protection. This ought to be given everywhere by any government worthy of the name, and if a future government be as helpless as this, we might have to take measures which all the world should know about. What I am driving at is to distinguish between two policies. The one maintains that we can establish a Jewish Home here through the suppression of the political aspirations of the Arabs, and therefore a Home necessarily established on bayonets over a long period; a policy which I think bound to fail because of the violence against us it would occasion, and because good opinion in Britain and the conscience of the Jewish people itself would revolt against it. The other policy holds that we can establish a Home here only if we are true to ourselves as democrats and internationalists, thus being just and helpful to others, and that we ask for the protection of life and property the while we are eagerly and intelligently and sincerely at work to find a modus vivendi et operandi with our neighbors.

The world not in Palestine alone may be bent upon violence and bloodshed. But will not my opponent agree that there is a better chance of averting this tendency to bloodshed, if we make every possible effort politically as well as in other ways to work hand in hand as teachers, helpers, friends with this awakening Arab world?[8]

This vision – pacifist, idealistic, contingent on a series of individual and community decisions far beyond anyone’s control, and which put the primary onus on the Jews – might today be called a progressive savior complex.

But unusually, and in contrast with the then dominant position of Reform anti-Zionism, Magnes’ vision took him and his family to Palestine in 1922. In 1925 he famously became the first chancellor of the Hebrew University (which he had helped found in 1918, along with Albert Einstein and Chaim Weizmann). He became the president in 1935 and remained so until his death in 1949. From this unique position as leader of a Jewish, Zionist, and highly Germanic institution, Magnes was ideally positioned to spread his vision in the pre-state Yishuv and beyond.

One leading feature of this vision was his concept of Quaker Judaism. This was even notable in his tone, at least to those close to him. In 1930 he drafted a response to the Simpson Report on immigration to Palestine. But in a handwritten note his wife cautioned, ‘Don’t write too much like a Quaker because you are not addressing “brethren,” Jewish, Arab or British . . . Don’t lecture too much, but warn against “policy” of supporting politically clever conservatives (election promises).’[9]

Magnes and Binationalism

Most substantive was his advocacy for binationalism, the idea that Jews and Arabs would find an arrangement to share the land in political and cultural senses. This was both rhetorical and practical. The organisation called Brit Shalom held this view and counted Martin Buber, Arthur Ruppin, Hans Kohn, and many others as members. (Magnes authored their platform but never joined.) Brit Shalom lasted from 1925 to 1933 when it foundered under the weight of its many contradictions, not least of all near-universal Arab rejectionism. That it ended just as Nazism was sweeping Germany, threatening first Jews and then all of Europe, is one irony.

Brit Shalom’s leading members, this time including Magneslater created the Ihud party in 1942, which also advocated binationalism. Ihud was created at the moment when the Holocaust moved into full gear, with the Axis on the doorstep of Egypt threatening the destruction of the Yishuv, and with Zionist movement issuing the Biltmore Declaration expressing support for a sovereign Jewish home. The combination of idealistic intellectualism and fraught political conditions was not auspicious. However attractive binationalism appeared on paper, like pacifism, the intrusions of the real world were such that the idea sank from view.

If nothing else, binationalism was an expression of Magnes’ core theological view of the nature of Israel and its roles in the world:

The people of Israel is selected and separated from among the nations, and Judaism has made every effort to banish from its life and being all spilling blood and all idolatry; and it is because of this kind of dissent that Judaism lives today, and is made also to suffer these superhuman trials throughout the generations.[10]

Positing dissent as a core Jewish value appealed to both the Reform movement’s traditional emphasis on the prophetic nature of Judaism (Reform founder Abraham Geiger had even named the movement ‘Prophetic Judaism’ in 1838) and Quakerism’s roots as a dissenting Protestant sect opposed to the Church of England. The very term is Quaker.

Magnes binational vision was out of synch with local reality, certainly after 1929. His vision of Quaker Jews resonated with almost nobody in the Yishuv; religious and non-religious Jews ignored it, while Arabs and the British seemed altogether unaware of it. Where his vision did resonate was in America. The lines of connection were pacifism and Palestinian refugees.


Dissent against prevailing doctrine lies at the very core of Quaker belief, which posits social justice, pacifism and refusal to bear arms as central tenets. The American entry into World War One therefore posed a serious challenge to the Quakers, as well as to other ‘peace churches’ such as the Mennonites and Amish. Conscientious objection had existed in America since the Revolutionary War. But during the 1914-1918 war, which America entered in 1917, the system that had developed during the Civil War, when objectors who were conscripted could find a substitute or pay for one, was discarded, and objectors were required to serve in non-combatant roles.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was thus formed on 30 April 1917 to provide alternative forms of ‘service’ and to satisfy government and public opinion regarding the participation of Quakers in the war effort. The AFSC partnered with British Quakers and with the Red Cross to deliver medical aid and help with reconstruction and resettlement in northern France, with a smaller mission in Russia. The success of AFSC in France was such that after the end of World War I the organisation was providing medical aid and relief in Serbia, Austria, and Germany.

The AFSC’s philosophy towards refugees was also distinctively Quaker. Helping displaced refugees create temporary shelters and returning refugees rebuild was a particular emphasis for AFSC. Restoring self-reliance was critical. But after World War One, the organisation stood at a crossroads. The goals of helping provide alternative service for war resisters and relief to war victims had been met, so in 1924 the mission of the AFSC was expanded to address racism and the needs of African Americans, as well as to extend overseas operations. Doing so set them further on the path to becoming a preeminent American aid and relief organisation with a political inclination towards controversy.

This approach, in effect seeking support for political action in the name of a Christian love that was above politics, has a familiar ring for many Reform Jews today. But like many other Protestant denominations, Quakers were deeply involved in missionising in the Middle East, engaging in generally fruitless attempts to convert Muslims, while more successfully creating a highly influential network of schools and hospitals. Spreading the faith through direct evangelising was not as central to Quakers as it was to other Protestant denominations, but their theology of individual action led them to create institutions that would in effect speak for themselves.

But despite Quaker theological opposition to nationalism, it became unavoidable during the decades after World War One. For example, the boys’ school in Ramallah became a hotbed of Arab nationalism and opposition to Zionism. Moreover, in later years the Ramallah School became a feeder to Quaker schools in the US especially in Pennsylvania.

Between the wars the AFSC became involved in providing famine relief in Russia in 1920-1921, poverty relief in the US, and war relief to victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War. Although the onset of a new war in 1939 made AFSC operations in Europe far more difficult, participation in European relief during the interwar period had given AFSC continued credibility even with the Nazis, and they were allowed to operate in Vichy France for a time. In cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the AFSC provided assistance to Jewish refugees in France, Spain, and Portugal, and in 1941 and 1942, the AFSC transported Jewish children from southern France for transfer to the US.

Cold War Factions

But in 1947 a faction within the AFSC forcefully argued that tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were so extraordinarily dangerous that the AFSC should abandon its long-standing position of political neutrality. Instead, this faction proposed, the organisation should actively attempt to shape public opinion and spearhead a peace movement, which in practical terms would be aimed at the US and its policies. With this new direction firmly established among the leadership, and with the moral ‘halo effect’ that accompanied the Nobel Peace Prize, the AFSC began to articulate a conventional left-wing pacifist message largely devoid of religious or Quaker content. Pamphlets argued for a strengthened United Nations and reconciliation with the Soviet Union, and later with China, nuclear disarmament, and radical pacifism. Meanwhile, there was Palestine.

Palestinian Refugee Relief and the transformation of AFSC

Thanks to its worldwide reliefs efforts during and after World War Two, the AFSC was invited to take over relief work for Palestinian refugees in Gaza. That unique experience saw the organisation drawn deeply into the local and international politics of refugee relief in the context of the emerging Cold War. Also unique was the group’s dedication to providing skills and education for refugees, as opposed to merely housing and feeding them, to rooting out waste and fraud, including by the refugees themselves, and to creating a model of rehabilitation that ultimately foundered.

Once confronted with the Palestine Arab refugee situation, many individual fieldworkers in Gaza began to sympathise both with their charges and their cause. This challenged perceptions of the ‘proper’, or at least well-understood role of Jews as victims, casting them instead as victimisers. Nevertheless, faced with the prospect of having to provide relief on an open ended basis – in violation of Quakerly ideals of self-reliance and dignity – the AFSC withdrew from Gaza and the United Nation Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) took over.

Palestinianism forms a central pillar of Quakerism today, as well as for a broad swath of American Jews influenced by Magnes’ unique Quakerly Judaism. Palestinians have acquired a curiously sanctified place, and their violence is tolerated, explained and even justified, by pacifists.


A closer look into the late Don Peretz, one of Magnes’ ardent disciples, is especially revealing of the evolving Quakerism-Judaism relationship.

Peretz was best known as a Middle East scholar and activist who spent his academic career at the State University of New York at Binghamton, as a frequent contributor to reports on Palestinian refugees, and the later the Arab-Israeli peace process for organisations such as the US Institute of Peace. But Peretz’s path to Magnes and Quaker activism, and his later career, was long. Born to a Sephardi family with deep roots in Ottoman Palestine and strong Zionist sentiment, Peretz’s father had been forced to flee under suspicion that he was a British spy, while his grandfather, a village mukhtar, was imprisoned.[11]

Growing up in New York, like many of his generation Peretz appears to have been attracted to socialism and disaffected with traditional Judaism. But his dissent went further still. In 1941 Peretz joined the Jewish Peace Fellowship, organised by Hebrew Union College faculty member and AFSC collaborator Rabbi Abraham Cronbach. He was then inspired to declare himself a conscientious objector during World War Two, one of only a few hundred American Jews to do so – in sharp contrast to some 500,000 Jews who served in the military. Peretz did so under the influence of a Quaker professor at Queens College and Rabbi Isidore Hoffman, a neighbor and pacifist who served as the Jewish chaplain at Columbia University where Peretz later studied. The Jewish Peace Fellowship was for all intents and purposes a Quaker organisation that sent its objectors to Civilian Public Service Camps run by the American Friends Service Committee and which refused to even buy War Bonds.[12]

Many Jewish pacifists like Rabbi Moshe Kallner eventually wavered in their faith, as did Judah Magnes, who by 1940 had come to see armed resistance to Hitler as the lesser of two evils. Peretz eventually served as a non-combatant Japanese interpreter on Okinawa. He was witness to bitter combat on the island, which, as he later described it, ‘saw incidents in which Americans behaved in ways which we are told the Japanese or the Nazis acted.’ His larger conception of war was that the innocents inevitably suffer for the deeds of the leaders: ‘It’s not those who plan the extermination of Jews or even those who carry out the extermination of Jews who are fighting in the front line.’[13]

This equivocation, born of a genuine devotion to pacifism, seems strangely a-contextual, a forced evenhandedness that both deliberately ignores the circumstances that produced the conflict in the first place, and the only likely path to ending it. It is, however, typical for Quaker thought of the period: cause and effect do not truly exist, fascist and anti-fascist violence are somehow one and the same, and bearing witness to injustice will lead, somehow, to others sharing the same insight and abdicating violence.

After the war Peretz was inspired to use his GI Bill benefits to study at the Hebrew University under Magnes and Martin Buber, explicitly because of their advocacy for binationalism. Arriving the day after the King David hotel bombing, Peretz had arranged to work as an NBC stringer but was instead drawn to become involved again with the American Friends Service Committee. Unlike the very much larger Gaza relief effort, the American Friends Service Committee in Israel served a small population of Arabs in Acre and in the Galilean village of Turan.

One of the remarkable things about Peretz’s experience with the Quakers was the abuse he endured from the organisation’s leadership, though this appears not to have affected his devotion to the group or their values. AFSC Beirut field chief Don Stevenson was characteristic, expressing overtly antisemitic and anti-Zionist views in letters to his superiors in Philadelphia that gave lie to any superficial impartiality and detachment: ‘Because the Jews in Europe have been robbed has nothing to do with the justice or lack of justice of robbing the Arabs of their living. Two wrongs do not make a right.’ He was also especially harsh towards Peretz himself, but in an underhanded way; ‘I don’t want to be too hard on Don Peretz. I am sure he meant well and I do not question his motives. I doubt if he is able as a Jew and a Zionist, however, to take an independent position toward Israel.’[14]

But Peretz remained more Quakerly than his Quaker counterparts. Peretz lasted perhaps a year in Israel before returning to the US. His doctoral dissertation – deeply informed, balanced, and far more useful than most of his later works – focused on the Arab-Palestinian refugees and was written at Columbia University under the supervision of another Jewish scholar, J.C. Hurewitz. Like several other AFSC veterans, notably fellow conscientious objector and Columbia PhD Channing Richardson, Peretz became an academic and made the Arab-Israeli conflict the focus of his long career.

During the early 1950s, Peretz traveled through the Middle East on behalf of the Ford Foundation, then in an early stage of adopting an international focus, interviewing and writing widely. Rarely did he have a discouraging word about his interlocutors. He interviewed Muslim Brotherhood figures such as Hassan al Bana, whom he was told ‘would light the gas lamps and stove of an elderly Jewish woman who was his neighbor each Friday evening and on Saturday,’ as well as the former Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Hussaini, who ‘displayed far more hatred of the British than of Jews and Israel.’[15]

At one point an ironic situation developed, of which Peretz was apparently conscious. Americans associated with the American University of Beirut, ‘believed that they would be contaminated if it were to be discovered that the Foundation was also assisting an American Jew interested in the volatile refugee problem.’ Meanwhile, officials in Israel were irritated by his attention to the facts, with one diplomat admonishing ‘The trouble with you is that you’re trying to look at this problem like a man from Mars!’

Peretz’s devotion to intellectual objectivity was forthright but blinded him to the intractability of certain situations, particularly when he turned from analysis to prescription. Similarly, his political even-handedness was a hallmark of both his socialism and what might be called his Quakerly Jewishness (which was ethnic and ethical rather than religious). His prescriptions demand a Quakerly level of reasonableness that rarely exists in the real world, and in their absence, a certain impatience and stridency emerges, typically directed against those who are expected to be intellectually and socially inclined towards reasonableness – Jews.

On this point Peretz explicitly acknowledged his debt to Magnes, who in 1947, on the verge of the United Nations partition and war, restated his pacifist creed:

Is there no place in our totalitarian society for those who dissent from the decisions of the majority, and, who conscious of their collective responsibility, obey the command of the conscience by lifting their voice, not for murder and destruction, Heaven forbid, but for peace and understanding among the people?[16]

At its best, in his scholarly work, Peretz produced results that have enduring value. His dissertation, published in 1958, remains significant today, especially for his succinct account of the numerous international negotiations and plans to address the Palestinian refugee problem, including repatriation, the shift to ever larger economic development solutions, and internal Israeli political debates.[17]

One of the most controversial and telling aspects of the book was his relatively brief analysis of the origins of the refugee problem. He contrasted, for example, the Jewish community’s ‘quasi-government’ with the Arab community’s near complete lack of autonomous institutions. With the British withdrawal there was a breakdown of all services to the Arab sector, a collapse of morale, and ‘the community became easy prey to rumor and exaggerated atrocity stories. The psychological preparation for mass flight was complete.’[18] His analysis stands in contrast to historians since the 1960s, who in their eagerness to ascribe exclusive blame to Israel, have strenuously downplayed explanations that include Palestinian agency and leadership. The books was dedicated to Magnes ‘because of his important role in efforts toward greater understanding between Jews and Arabs.’

In later years Peretz wrote repeatedly on Israel and Palestinian society and government, separately and together, up through the intifada. Many of his works have the subtext of support for binationalism. But his willingness to downplay the antipathies of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims towards Israel (and later the West), and his habit of being used by institutions that were either increasingly hostile towards Israel (like the AFSC) or biased in ways that became hallmarks of academia (like USIP and the Middle East Institute), exploited his evenhandedness to disguise antipathies based on pro-Arab and pro-Islam positions typical of the American Protestant ruling class. Peretz died in 2017, still espousing both his pacifism and hopes for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.


During the 1950s and afterwards, AFSC would effectively align with the People’s Republic of China and North Vietnam. Today the AFSC opposes all US intervention overseas and in 2008 co-hosted a dinner in New York City for then Iranian president Ahmadinejad. The logic of the AFSC’s pacifist principles have caused it to embrace forces that attack what it sees as the ‘root causes’ of global unrest, the US and Israel.

Nowhere has this paradoxical trajectory – an ostensible commitment to ‘non-violence’ actually producing a kind of endorsement of or apologia for political and other forms of violence – been more evident than with respect to Israel. As far back as the 1972 the AFSC was pointing to ‘structural violence’ as the ‘root cause’ for terrorism in South Africa, Israel and elsewhere, the ‘slights and insults of rampant injustice, of exploitation, of police brutality, of a thousand indignities from dawn to dusk and through the night’ and advocating ‘liberation pacifism.’

But the putative non-judgmental approach stated at once that ‘While two wrongs never make a right, before we deplore terrorism it is essential for us to recognize fully and clearly whose “terrorism” came first, so that we can assess what is cause and what is effect’ and then ‘It is up to the Latin Americans and the Africans to decide how they will wage their struggle for freedom. We cannot decide for them. Certainly we dare not judge the morality of their choice.’ This logic pointed in only one direction.[19] The AFSC quickly called for an arms embargo, and advocated against Israel in local and international courts.

But the logic that ‘Nonviolence begins at home’ was also quickly felt in the US. Its interfaith exchanges also became the opportunity to abuse American Jews where ‘Jewish participants were asked to tolerate some anti-Semitic remarks in order to keep the lines of communication open. It was argued that Palestinians cannot be expected to be understanding or asked to cool their anger until justice was achieved. Instead we must concentrate on erasing stereotypes including the one that associates the PLO with terrorism.’[20] This is a familiar situation today, especially on university campuses where demands are made for Jews to endure antisemitic abuse regarding Israel and ultimately speak out against it as the price for acceptance into the progressive community.

Today, the AFSC is the leading American Protestant supporter, in a direct organisational sense, of the BDS movement, and espouses a barely disguised Christian supersessionism. As one Quaker put it – in 1977 – ‘Now Israelis are making Jews out of Palestinians. In the Palestinians, I recognize my Jews.’[21] It has embraced the Kairos Palestine document which casts ‘a new light on the Old Testament, on … themes such as the promises, the election, the people of God, and the land.’

Quakerism has, again ironically, subtly aligned itself both with conventional Protestant supersessionist dogma, gradually seeing Israel as fallen and a broken covenant, and with Palestinian replacement theology, which posits Palestinians as the New Jews who are sacralised in their suffering. Still more ironic is the unconscious alignment with Khomeinist doctrine which views the US and Israel as the Great and Little Satan.

The AFSC regards its support for the BDS movement as righteous; its advocacy of BDS is ‘contextualized by Quakers and AFSC’s long support for boycotts, divestment and sanctions as economic tactics that appeal to human conscience and change behavior,’ relating this to its opposition to slavery, segregation, apartheid and other reprehensible phenomena. Assimilating Israel to assorted evils, giving opposition both an individualistic ‘social justice’ and vaguely theological basis, and sheltering under the outdated halo of an organisation and ideology is typical of much Israel hatred today.

As Joyce Ajlouny, current head of the AFSC, a native of Ramallah and formerly the head of the Quaker school, recently argued during an online talk sponsored by the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, Congregation Rodeph Shalom (a reform synagogue in Philadelphia) and Stockton University’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies stating, ‘I don’t see sanctions [against Israel] as hatred,’ she insisted. ‘I see them as a way to get my rights. It’s effective. If you’re living under an apartheid system and military rule and you are looking for ways to liberate yourself, you have to look for strategies that are effective.’

Her viewpoint is also increasingly typical of a wide swath of American Judaism which views Israel and the Middle East through the lens of American ‘racial’ experience (including the notion of ‘white supremacy’) which is then filtered through a deracinated Quakerised Reform Jewish framework; explicitly pacifist, anti-national, suffused with ‘social justice’ in the form of tikkun olam, and focused on salving personal guilt through saviorism. Jews like Magnes and Peretz, deeply influenced by Quakers in theological and attitudinal/behavioral terms, respectively, appear to have been harbingers of a much broader impact of Quakerism, particularly on Reform Judaism. With its own theology oriented toward prophetic-style ‘social justice,’ pacifist-like tradition, assimilationism, and ambivalence towards power, whether American, Jewish, or Israeli, Reform Judaism seems preadapted to the Quakerly path.

A look at the Reform movement’s ‘Religious Action Center’ demonstrates the priorities and rhetoric of Jewish universalism and disempowerment. Among the issues being advocated for ‘racial justice’ in the form of diversity, equity, and inclusion advocacy, are support for the Black Lives Matter movement, for ‘immigration justice,’ for a bill in the US Senate that would federalise American elections, and for another calling for a study of reparations to African American descendents of slaves, gun control, and many other causes. Antisemitism is mentioned only in connection to Israel: ‘Let us be clear: it is not antisemitic to criticize Israeli policies or to express solidarity with the cause of Palestinian rights. It is antisemitic to hold all Jews accountable for Israel’s actions, to deny Israel’s right to exist, or to assault Jews on any pretense.’

A full recounting of Quaker influence on Reform Judaism requires a deeper analysis than can be provided here. But using Magnes and Peretz as exemplars, certain parameters are clear. From above, Magnes and others within the movement oriented it towards pacifism explicitly on the model of Quakerism. From below, consumers like Peretz sought out pacifism, rejected parochialism and nationalism, along with traditional conceptions of America and Zionism. Reform Judaism is following the same path that Quakers earlier trod; gradually divesting itself of theological trappings, Quakerism became a political pressure group that then revitalised religious rhetoric to bolster partisan political arguments.

But the institutional impacts are undeniable. Quaker ‘Friends’ schools, both colleges and secondary, remain especially influential, including among Jews, who find a middle ground between private secular education and a values-based education that is not explicitly religious. Quaker pedagogy on Israel is relentlessly negative and is palpable in both the colleges and high schools under their aegis. ‘Fairness’ is their keynote, which means privileging anti-Israel voices. Back in 2012, the Friends Seminary in New York hosted Gilad Atzmon, an notorious antisemitic author, writer and musician, who describes himself as an ‘ex-Israeli’ and an ‘ex-Jew.’ In 2017, leading BDS academic Sa’ed 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 viewpoint. Notwithstanding, Atshan spoke shortly after at Haverford, another Quaker school, during their ‘Israeli Apartheid Week.’

Quaker institutions also play on their pacifist roots in other ways. ‘Peace Studies’ has a prominent place at Quaker colleges like Swarthmore. Swarthmore is also home to Sa’ed Atshan, an associate 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. Atshan has also been active with Students for Justice in Palestine, whose parent organisation, American Muslims for Palestine, is 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.’ Quakers became leaders in the BDS movement, dedicating a uniquely high level of resources throughout the US to a battle which has attracted a small number of Jews, who reliably act as standard-bearers for what has become a fundamentally antisemitic movement.

At another extreme are voices that espouse a formal fusion of Quakerism and Judaism

‘I don’t believe in God,’ he told me, ‘but when I am in the synagogue on Saturday, with my community, I feel something.’ That’s exactly how I feel in a Quaker meeting, and I guess others might too. In a way, in a Quaker meeting I don’t feel weighed down by everything that being Jewish means. I fear I might in a Jewish service, but I need to test this. And no other gathering can replace for me the beauty of that silence, the flexibility and inclusiveness of a Quaker meeting, the gentle hand that guides us, the lightness with which we wear our traditions, and for me, the unrivalled commitment to engagement with the difficult issues of injustice in the world and the overriding commitment to peace. This is where, for now, I have found my spiritual home, my Jerusalem.[22]

But this logic had already been arrived at long ago. Bernard Gross of Philadelphia, co-founder of the Jewish Peace Fellowship had written in 1944 ‘I am a Jew… but I am also a Quaker, and perhaps a few other things besides. It does not seem inconsistent to me to belong to many religious groups and at the same time hold membership in none. I believe that honest-to-goodness religion must be above all denominational bounds.’[23]


When historian Jonathan Sarna discussed the American Jewish ‘cult of synthesis’ he noted how values perceived to be ‘American’ have been grafted on to American Jewish practice, thought and representation. ‘Even as, outwardly, American Jews paid it less and less homage, inwardly it became one of their most pronounced cultural characteristics.’[24] Writing in the late 20th century, Sarna commented that ‘gaudy displays of religious patriotism’ such as had periodically been seen were no longer in vogue.

But as the nature of ‘Americanism’ has changed, it is fair to ask where the fusion of Judaism and Quakerism is leading, particularly as America is consumed by a class-based ‘woke’ moral panic in which Israel and Jews, have (among other things) been categorised as ‘white.’ The abuse of Jews and Israel is neither intrinsic nor necessary to the Quakerism and Judaism of the left, but it seems inescapable. At a time when polls show that younger American Jews remain relatively as attached to Judaism as a culture or ethnic category as their elders, their connections with religion and with Israel appears to be declining. The latter condition is even more true when it comes to Reform and non-religious Jews who are increasingly pressured to conform to left wing positions on race, and of course, Israel as means to retain their status in the upper and upper middle social classes where such attitudes are becoming widespread or even standard.

In the end, though, the path of American Quakers is instructive. Despite their outsized influence in the 20th century and before, their numbers have shrunk to near historic lows; perhaps 80,000 in the US. This trajectory is also unfolding for Reform Jews, who while still a majority of American Jews, are on track to be outpaced by Orthodox Jews. The transformation of Quakers into a remnant whose anger at Jews stands in contradiction to their professed values is an ironic warning to Reform Jews.


[1] Isaac Mayer Wise, Reminiscences, Cincinnati: Leo Wise and Co, 1901, p. 77.
[2] Norman Bentwich, For Zion’s Sake A Biography of Judah L. Magnes, New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1954, p. 306.
[3] Bentwich, p. 98.
[4] Daniel P. Kotzin, Judah L. Magnes, An American Jewish Nonconformist, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010, p. 157.
[5] Bentwich, p. 283.
[6] Kotzin, p. 158.
[7] Bentwich, p. 290.
[8] Judah L. Magnes, Like All the Nations? Jerusalem: Herod’s Gate, 1930. Available at 
[9] Arthur A. Goren, Dissenter in Zion, From the Writings of Judah L. Magnes, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. xiii.
[10] Judah L. Magnes, ‘Address opening the Academic Year 1947-48, October 29, 1947,’ quoted in Bentwich p. 242. In the same address Magnes also condemned American Judaism’s support for the ‘pagan Judaism which has conquered large sections of that mighty dispersion and elsewhere too. We had believed in the days of romantic Zionism that Zion is to be redeemed by righteousness. All the Jews of America share in the guilt, even those not in accord with the activities of this new pagan leadership, but who sit at ease with folded hands.’
[11] Don Peretz, ‘Vignettes-Bits and Pieces,’ in Thomas Naff (ed.), Paths to the Middle East, Ten Scholars Look Back, Albany: SUNY Press, 1993, p. 231-261.
[12] Michael Young, ‘Facing a Test of Faith: Jewish Pacifists During the Second World War.’ Peace & Change, A Journal of Peace Research 3 (1975): 34-40.
[13] Peretz, quoted in Cynthia Eller, Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War: Moral and Religious Arguments in Support of Pacifism, New York: Praeger, 1991, p. 161, 163.
[14] Asaf Romirowsky and Alexander H. Joffe, Religion, Politics, and the Origin of Palestine Refugee Relief, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 111-112.
[15] Peretz, p. 239.
[16] Peretz, pp. 256-257. This is the same 1947 Hebrew University address quoted by Bentwich.
[17] Don Peretz, Israel and the Palestine Arabs, Washington, D. C.: The Middle East Institute, 1958.
[18] Peretz 1958, p. 7.
[19] First published in the pacifist journal Gandhi Marg, James E. Bristol, ‘Nonviolence, Not First for Export,’ Gandhi Marg 16 (1972), 266–277. (Philadelphia, PA: American Friend Service Committee, 1972.)
[20] H. David Kirk, The Friendly Perversion, Quakers as Reconcilers: Good People and Dirty Work. New York: Americans for a Safe Israel, 1979.
[21] Quoted in Edward Alexander, The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies: Personalities, Issues, Events. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988, p. 105.
[22] Sue Beardon, ‘On being a Jew and a Quaker’.
[23] Quoted in Young 1976, pp. 34-35.
[24] Jonathan Sarna, ‘The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture,’ Jewish Social Studies, 5 (1/2), 75, 1998.

The Progressive Saviour Complex: Quakers, American Jews and Israel

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

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