The Nature of Quaker Education

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By Asaf Romirowsky

Unwittingly, Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, a well-regarded Quaker establishment, has once again come under fire for its ties to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement supported by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

The school operates in accordance with the Quaker philosophy of “simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Underlying all facets of School life is the belief that ‘there is that of God in everyone.’ Meeting for Worship is central, providing time for connections among members of the community and between individuals and their spiritual sources. Peaceful resolution of conflicts, seeking truth and collaboration are key aspects of a Friends’ Central education.”

The Quakers have cultivated their image as peaceful and supremely benign. Few suspect, much less know, that one of their central missions is promoting the BDS movement that opposes Israel’s existence.

The Quaker experience in the Middle East was unique; they provided relief to Palestinian refugees in 1949-1950 but withdrew after the United Nations took over. The Friends also spearheaded religious diplomacy about the fate of Jerusalem, which was besieged and divided during the war of 1948. Though the mission was unsuccessful, and Jerusalem would remain divided until 1967, their efforts were characterized by the scrupulous evenhandedness and appeals to the religious sensibilities of Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Building on this and a long history of opposing Israel, it is no surprise that the AFSC is one of the leading organizations supporting BDS on university campuses and through support to various groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, which spearhead the movement.

Enter Sa’ed Atshan, an assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College who is also, not surprising, a well-known advocate for BDS. Atshan had been set to appear at Friends’ Central but his talk was canceled after his BDS ties were exposed to the administration by parents who found the scheduled presentation to be biased and one-sided.

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.”

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. In many regards, he represents the Quaker echo chamber regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures that only the Palestinian narrative will be voiced.

Predictably, once Atshan’s appearance was canceled, students protested; some expressed their “disappointment and dismay” while others walked out of the meeting after the announcement. Jewish students and parents will thus bear the blame for the cancellation. But the fact is that they fell into a not very clever trap: Either shut up and accept a biased speaker, or protest and take the heat, whether the talk was canceled or not. This is one of the basic tricks of the BDS movement.

In turn, this incident will undoubtedly transform into a conversation on free speech and academic freedom but pedagogically, the bigger concern is that pro-BDS individuals who use hate and racist speech will use and abuse academic freedom, whether it is academic or not.

This freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the twin Satans, Israel and America, although efforts to curtail speech that academics find unpleasant and unacceptable have been longstanding in the form of “speech codes” and restrictions on “hate speech.” Clearly academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.

Historically, the AFSC has adopted a hypocritical form of pacifism. It claims to oppose violence, but in practice engages in apologetics for terrorism. It claims to want peace for both sides, but inevitably advocates only for the Palestinians, often in extremist terms. And it has moved closer and closer to a retrograde, supersessionist theology that has been the basis of Christian anti-Semitism for centuries.

The AFSC’s relationship to Israel is tragic; a once-noble organization has not only embraced an ignoble cause, but has betrayed its own founding principles in the process.

The AFSC appears to regard its support for the BDS movement as righteous. As it puts it, 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.

But it also betrays itself by claiming to support, in accordance with its “principles and history,” all “nonviolent efforts to realize peace and justice in Israel and Palestine,” even though this is demonstrably not the case, and has not been for years, given its support for Palestinian groups that both advocate and practice extreme forms of violence.

Many Jewish parents send their children to Quaker schools seeking to instill values they find analogous to those represented by Judaism, especially since the Quakers and their schools have substituted “social justice” for traditional liturgy. But Jewish parents should be encouraged to do more research on the Quaker approach and then decide whether Jewish values and Quaker values, as they exist today, are the same.

Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is co-author of Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I find this article very troubling, displaying the same bias it accuses AFSC and Sa’ed Atshan of. It is an accurate statement that AFSC supports BDS, but a number of your assertions that follow are less than accurate. Some of the more troubling ones include the following.

    1) “Atshan had been set to appear at Friends’ Central but his talk was canceled after his BDS ties were exposed to the administration by parents who found the scheduled presentation to be biased and one-sided.” On what was the determination that the scheduled presentation was ‘biased and one-sided’? Did anyone the parents who protested, yourself, the head of school ASK him his intentions? In my personal conversations with Professor Atshan he indicated an intention of quite a different focus than that presumed.

    2) ” In many regards, he represents the Quaker echo chamber regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures that only the Palestinian narrative will be voiced.” I don’t take that statement to be accurate in its assumption, but even if it were the saddest thing we can say about it is that it appears to be the opposite side of the coin holding the position of an echo chamber maintained by some Jewish people that says ‘No narrative that disagrees with the Israeli narrative will be allowed’. Did any of the Jewish parents who protested suggest the alternative of having a Jewish presence? Did any suggest what would have been the more moderate approach, saying, ‘ We wish to come and hear what Sa’ed Atshan has to say and if he speaks, by our perception, things that are incomplete or inaccurate, we ask for equal time in the near future?

    3) “… the fact is that they (the Jewish parents) fell into a not very clever trap: Either shut up and accept a biased speaker, or protest and take the heat, whether the talk was canceled or not. This is one of the basic tricks of the BDS movement. When reduced to this simplicity, my first ‘simple’ response is to wonder if that is the same trap that persons concerned about injustices perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians are in danger of falling into – ‘Either shut up and accept a biased speaker, or protest and’ and be accused of being anti-Semitic.’ Any person or group who is effective in their protest knows that ‘heat’ will follow – Just take a look at any of the effective protests throughout his. The converse would indicate the protest was in fact lacking. The protest put forward by SOME Jewish parents worked and indeed that constituency is very powerful. Unfortunately, the one, in my opinion, who really fell into the trap in this situation was the Head of School. He’s the one who (at least from the outside of the situation) appeared to take the heat.

    4) “The AFSC’s relationship to Israel is tragic; a once-noble organization has not only embraced an ignoble cause, but has betrayed its own founding principles in the process.” As a person who has been active in the AFSC for more than three decades, and often, in a non-staff position, participatory in discussions touching on the very issues you identify as signs of the AFSC’s moral deterioration, your comments lead me to observe that you move onto very thin ice in making strong assertions about an organization that you do not know very well.
    Actually living and witnessing to a testimony of pacifism is not easy when one encounters the injustices and inequalities that often exist in any conflict. Has the AFSC at time stumbled in that effort – I would say ‘yes’. However, to suggest that that is not agonized over by those active in the AFSC with the effort in the direction of learning how to do better the next time is a falsehood. In these conflicts “right” is not fully a possession of either party.
    In closing I am reminded of a quote by Rabbi Lieberman in one of his books on the Israeli -Palestinian conflict of his that I read several years ago. He said, “The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between Israel and Palestine; it is a conflict between moderates and extremist son both sides.” Being locked in a struggle focused on proving the wrongs of the other side is a zero sum game. When will caring people on both sides be ready to recognize that the status quo is not working for either side. When will people open their eyes and recognize what this has done to a whole generation of people on both sides and what the violence is doing to the young people NOW.
    Thirteen years ago I was, with other US Quakers, in an 11th grade classroom at Ramallah Friends School to have a conversation with the students. One of the first questions from a feisty female student was, “What do you think of suicide bombers”? We were not in favor of them, but fumbled badly in our efforts to speak our beliefs regarding killing another person. Her second question was, “What would you do if you were us?” That was even harder, but after a minute I felt led to say, ‘I don’t know what I would do if I were you, but I do know that we, as adults, are failing you and your generation when one of the best options you feel you have is to blow yourself up’. And, I would say the same thing to young people in Israel – their experience in the military is not life-giving, particularly to those assigned to duty in the West Bank – but that’s a whole other discussion for another day.

  2. Excellent analysis in ferreting out the truth and highlighting intentional misrepresentations on the part of the author of this article. I appreciate the Jewish Exponent for publishing this well thought out and thorough response.

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