Parents Angry with Friends’ Central for Previously Supporting BDS Organization

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At the N-12 private Quaker school in Wynnewood, a dispute between parents and the school centered on previous financial support of the American Friends Service Committee.
 

With the school year coming to an end, things are heating up at Friends’ Central School, whose board of trustees was forced to clarify its policies with regard to organizations and activities that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
 
At the N-12 private Quaker school in Wynnewood, a dispute between parents and the school centered on previous financial support of the American Friends Service Committee.
 
Lisa Zucker Sandler, a parent of two, became involved around Passover of 2015. 
 
A friend mentioned to her that he discovered Friends’ Central was donating money to the  Service Committee, a Quaker organization that “supports activist efforts to change government policies and corporate/institutional practices that support inequality and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory” and “promotes implementation of Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and calls for full equality between Palestinians and Israelis,” according to its website, among other human rights ideals. 
 
She did some research and discovered that the money raised at the school’s annual peace concert, about $200, was given to AFSC. 
 
“I was floored,” she said. When talking to this friend, she thought, “Friends’ Central wouldn’t do that. A huge percent of the school is a Jewish population, and I always thought Quakers were pacifists. So to me, the BDS movement is economic warfare. So even though Friends’ Central itself wasn’t coming out in support of the BDS movement, they are still sending money to an organization that is coming out in support of the BDS movement, and that really bothered me.”
 
Sandler wrote to the head of school, Craig Sellers, and the Board of Trustees, asking about the school’s connection with AFSC.
 
She met with the board in May 2015 and asked it to stop sending money to AFSC.
 
“In a nutshell, we said we’re pro-Israel, we’re Jewish, and we think the AFSC’s position is wrong. We didn’t want the school where we send our child and pay tuition every year to support an organization that supports the BDS movement,” she explained.
 
At first, according to Sandler, the school remained on the fence, but it recommended Sandler and other parents meet with AFSC, which the organization agreed to do over the summer.
 
According to Sandler, the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) chairs back in May 2015 decided that they also didn’t condone AFSC’s support BDS, and said if they held another concert, the money would be sent elsewhere.
 
“Friends’ Central will not direct funds to the BDS work of any organization on either side of the issue, nor will the school’s decisions be based on the recommendations of the BDS movement,” Robert Gassel, clerk of the board of trustees, announced via email last month. “Rather, our work as an institution is with our students, creating opportunities for learning that are challenging and balanced.”
 
This year’s peace concert was held in recently, and the money raised was instead given to Families Forward, a not-for-profit organization that provides counseling, protection and shelter to homeless families.
 
In a message posted on the school website on April 4, Head of School Craig Sellers wrote about the dispute and the change in the organization the school supports.
 
“Beginning in 2003, in response to the Iraq war, Friends’ Central’s Home and School Association (HSA) organized a Lower School peace concert designed to provide FCS children the opportunity to give of themselves and assist those impacted by the war. The parents in our HSA who organized the concert decided to give money raised to the AFSC to help with the Iraqi refugee crisis and to promote peace.
 
About 15 children have participated each year since, and a very modest sum has been collected each year.
 
“Last year, a parent raised a concern about contributions going to the AFSC as the funds might be perceived as Friends’ Central supporting the BDS movement. When our HSA leadership became aware of the sensitivity around this issue early this winter, they decided to send any future funds collected to Families Forward, a local organization, and I support that decision.”
 
Sellers did not wish to add further comments.
 
When Sandler informed the school that her son would not be returning next year, she was told that the Board of Trustees was still in discussion.
 
“To be clear and fair, we never asked the board to come out with a statement against the BDS movement,” she noted. “I knew that would take a lot of discussion and a lot of time, and I really wanted to make sure first that money wasn’t going to the AFSC, because that to me would be a good first statement.”
 
Mike Merryman-Lotze, Palestine-Israel program director for AFSC, discussed the situation with the Jewish Exponent via email.
 
The funds from Friends’ Central originally supported Iraq relief work and later went into AFSC’s general funding pool.
 
“After 13 years, it seems perfectly reasonable for the HSA to reassess how they prioritize their giving,” Merryman-Lotze wrote. “While we would love to continue receiving support from Friends’ Central, we recognize that the funds raised from this concert series are limited and Families Forward, which is now receiving these funds, seems like a great local organization that will use these funds well.”
 
In AFSC’s annual report for 2015, the $200 the organization received from Friends’ Central was actually only a small sliver of the other endowments received.
 
For the year ending Sept. 30, 2015, AFSC’s operating revenues from public support — contributions, grants, bequests — totaled $15,726,418 in the unrestricted fund. 
 
“There has never been a formal institutional relationship between AFSC and Friends’ Central,” he continued, “and AFSC was not consulted as Friends’ Central made their decision. I therefore can’t speak to their reason for reprioritizing where these funds were directed. I do know that concerns raised by several parents regarding AFSC’s positions on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory led to the HSA discussion that ultimately resulted in the retargeting of the funds raised through the peace concert series.”
 
He noted that “AFSC and Friends’ Central are independent organizations and have no formal or contractual relationships.”
 
When asked if AFSC supports the BDS movement, Merryman-Lotze wrote, “AFSC supports the use of economic activism as a proven tool for bringing about nonviolent political and social change. This includes targeted boycott and divestment campaigns and rightly ordered sanctions. We don’t make an exception for the Israel-Palestine context where we support BDS tactics as tools for bringing change. At the same time, we also actively support economic activism campaigns in other parts of our work, including our work challenging the private prison industry, pushing for immigration reform and working to end nuclear proliferation.”
 
Both of Sandler’s children attended Friends’ Central. Her daughter left for unrelated reasons, and her son is finishing this year in the Lower School and will attend Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy next year.
 
“As a parent, it’s been very frustrating because I didn’t and I still don’t understand the need for the board to continue to discuss [it],” she said.
 
Sandler said statements from the school are not good enough.
 
“As a Jewish person and a staunch supporter of Israel, I don’t understand how there can be two sides of the BDS movement,” she said. “It inspires hatred and incites violence.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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