The Quaker Exchange, Part 2: On Radical Pacifism and the BDS Movement

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Dear Dr. Romirowsky and Dr. Joffe,

In round one you told us about the intriguing history of the involvement of a Quaker NGO (the AFSC) in the early beginnings of the Palestine refugee relief effort. Another interesting aspect of the story is the curious turn this organization has taken since. Obviously, today the AFSC represents something very different than it did in the late 40s as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. For the second round, I’d like to ask you to tell our readers a bit about the organization’s role in the promotion of the Palestinian cause today and about the reasons for the difference between its current involvement and its past efforts.

Best Regards,



Dear Shmuel,

The significance of the AFSC today also stems from its leading role in the global BDS movement. In addition to its relief efforts, the AFSC also had a separate strand toward radical pacifism. Though this pacifism derived from the Quaker religious tradition, in the aftermath of World War II the organization’s leaders saw the danger of nuclear war as so profound that it consciously abandoned its previous political neutrality and took a strident tone regarding disarmament. The United States rather than the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China was cast increasingly as the party responsible for the Cold War. The organization argued that the US was the global bully, but little was said or done for victims of Communism.

By the 1960s and the Vietnam War the AFSC’s anti-Americanism was obvious; arguably it was the organization’s central policy. It routinely condemned the US in sham international proceedings and even provided direct aid to the North Vietnamese government, in contravention of US law. From the 1950s to the 1970s the Quaker concepts that had guided the organization, not least of all modesty and political neutrality, had completely disappeared and it became a routine left-wing pressure group, supporting whatever causes the US opposed.

At the same time, after 1967 the AFSC took up the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its primary missions. It uses the network of Quaker schools in the West Bank established in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as more recently NGO activities to support Palestinians and attack Israel, in Israeli courts, international fora, and at the grassroots levels. Since 1967 it has become more extreme in its disdain for Israel, gradually adopting elements of Protestant supersessionism and ‘liberation theology’ that see modern Jewish Israel as having lost its covenant with God, replaced by a near sacred Palestinian people. All the while it professes respect for Jews, but demands that Jews give up support for Israel.

The AFSC leverages its history and past good work against Israel. The AFSC’s support for the BDS movement is one element. Another is the way in which anti-Israel radicalism are introduced into Friends schools through the intellectual leadership provided by the AFSC. The many local Quaker fellowships around the country, although greatly reduced in number from their 20th century heyday, are important tools for the AFSC to shape local BDS efforts, usually in association with other Christian, pro-Palestinian, and ‘anti-war’ groups. All this is predicated on a distinguished history that the AFSC both leverages and disregards.

Asaf Romirowsky is a Middle East historian. He holds a PhD in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London, UK and has published widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict and American foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as on Israeli and Zionist history. He lives in Philadelphia.

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona, USA and has published widely on topics in archaeology, ancient and modern history, and contemporary politics. He lives in New York.

This exchange focuses on their new book, ‘Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief’. (Part 1 can be found right here)

The Quaker Exchange, Part 2: On Radical Pacifism and the BDS Movement

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