Quakers to boycott products from Israeli settlements
Middle East Programme
Society of Friends
Many years ago, I came very close to joining your ranks and becoming a Quaker. I have generally admired much of what you do and some of what you believe. But I am now thoroughly grateful that I did not become a Quaker then, for I fear I would have to abandon you now. I find myself frequently disappointed in the Quaker attitude to Israel, and more so given your recent decision to boycott settlements in Samaria and Judaea, which you regard as illegal under international law. That is, of course, highly inaccurate. There is no firm position in international law concerning these settlements, and authorities veer from one side to the other and will do so until the matter is resolved by a future peace treaty or other instrument. The only point I wish to make in this regard is that, so long as the legal position remains unclear, you have no right to declare the illegality of the settlements, particularly since you are not a properly constituted legal body with the authority to pronounce on such matters. There is something high-handed about your position, which clashes with traditional Quaker belief in the virtues of humility.
I have spent much of the past week composing a letter to a 12-year-old girl called Tamar Fogel, and distributing it to people around the world, who have written in support of the letter and the sentiments it expresses. The letter will be delivered to Tamar before Passover next week, by her grandparents. Even for a professional writer like myself, it proved a difficult letter to write. Tamar is the oldest of the three surviving children of the Fogel family. On returning from her Sabbath youth club three weeks ago, she found her parents and three of her siblings murdered in a bath of blood. Her mother had been stabbed to death, her father and two brothers had had their throats slit, and her 3-month-old sister had been beheaded in her cot. The perpetrator or perpetrators have so far remained in hiding. When news of this atrocity was made known, Palestinians in Gaza handed out sweets and danced in the streets of Gaza City.
The massacre of this harmless family, all residents of one of the settlements you so despise, is only the latest in a long line of atrocities that have been carried out against Israeli civilians. Palestinian terrorist attacks have no excuse, yet I have never seen a supporter of the Palestinians march or protest against the very great evil they represent. A website entitled ‘Quakers in Israel and Palestine’ says almost nothing about Israel, but records a long list of activities you have undertaken in the Palestinian territories. An American website called ‘Quakers With a Concern for Palestine-Israel’ has a series of links, not one of which presents the Israeli point of view, but most of which reiterate a pro-Palestinian position. Does that seem balanced to you? Fair? Helpful? Likely to work towards peace? Another site, entitled ‘Quakers in Britain’ has a page named ‘Israel-Palestine’. It shows a photograph of part of Israel’s security barrier, to be precise a section of the barrier which is a wall. Only 3% of that barrier is a wall, the rest is a fence. Why did Quakers choose to show the wall when the fence would have been more representative? Does that match Quaker ideals of fairness and justice? The barrier has reduced terrorist attacks within Israel by around 90 percent. Might it not have been appropriate to have made that clear? You will know that images of this wall sector are routinely used by groups and individuals who seek to defame Israel and who mischaracterize the barrier and the reasons it is there. Can you explain how Quaker ideals sit alongside those of groups motivated by anti-Semitism and hatred for the Israeli state?
Palestinians have done much to worsen their position. While sympathizing with their plight, fairness demands we take notice of their many acts of self-defeat and hatred. They have fought wars against Israel and killed thousands in terrorist actions. They continue to do so, and their boldness in semi-military action grows year by year. Israel has done much to help them and for over 60 years has appealed to them to accept the legal status of Israel and to build their own state alongside it. Yet their newspapers, their school textbooks, their radio, their television and their mosque sermons are filled every day with exhortations to kill Jews, with appeals to young children to grow up to become suicide bombers, with blood-curdling cries to launch a jihad once more against the Jews, ‘those sons of apes and pigs’. Speaking in English, Palestinian politicians preach peace, but in Arabic they deliver a message to their people of ‘No surrender’ and predict a day when there will be no more Jews and no more Israel. Does it not seem to you that Quakers might be better employed in trying to break down these dreadful barriers of hate and militancy? But do Quakers have the courage to do so? You have made many friends with Palestinians, but fewer, to my knowledge, with Israeli Jews or, for that matter, Israeli Arabs.
If the Quaker movement stands, in the eyes of non-Quakers, for anything, it is the pursuit of peace. Your efforts, when directed to that end, have been commendable. We all hope and work for peace. It is an essential quality of civilized human life that all of us, be we religious or secular, should make efforts in the path of peace and reconciliation, for without them civilized life is not possible. I do not, however, believe that boycotting one side in this conflict is conducive to peacemaking. Through her tears, the little girl Tamar, whom I mentioned above, told an interviewer that she was resolved to continue in the path set by her parents. Her surviving family, her grandparents, aunts and uncles are all religious people, much like yourselves. They work hard to build something that symbolizes the survival and endurance of the Jewish people against the odds. No people in history have gone through the persecution, brutalization, and contempt that he Jews have done. We all thought that, when the Holocaust had ended, its horrors would speak to mankind and mark the end of hatred of the Jews. And yet it is clear today that anti-Semitism is as strong as it ever was, perhaps stronger. Hatred of Israel has become a mask for hatred of the Jews. Why else would the one Jewish state be singled out for the daily opprobrium that is heaped on it? Why do ordinary young people march in the streets chanting ‘Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas’? Not in Berlin in 1939, but in London in 2009. Having survived the Holocaust and returned to their homeland after 2000 years, the Jews are not going to cave in to your boycott or any other trick that singles them out for punishment, much as Hitler singled them out.
For over 60 years, the Jewish people have done all in their power to make peace with their neighbours. They have given up Sinai and Gaza, and they will give up most of the West Bank when a reasonable deal has been made with their enemies. What have the Palestinians given in return? In 2000, Yasser Arafat walked away from an offer at the Camp David Summit that gave him 97 percent of what he had asked for. He then started a pre-planned second intifada, in the course of which over 1000 Israelis and over 4000 Palestinians were killed. While Israeli hospitals continue to treat Palestinians of all kinds, the Palestinians have offered a steady diet of violence, from suicide bombings to bullets to car bombs. They fire rockets on civilian communities, they target children, they teach their children to kill. No Israeli school teaches violence. So why do people of peace like yourselves prefer to boycott Israelis and to leave untouched the men of violence? Perhaps you will say you work among the Palestinians to inculcate a love for peace. If that is so, may I say in sorrow that your efforts have borne no fruit? As time passes, the Palestinians grow more violent, not less, more dismissive of gestures for peace, not less.
You have a role to play in the Middle East, but at present I believe you are playing the wrong one. The settlements are a prickly subject that will be settled in its own time. It is fairly certain that most of the settlements there now will remain. The Palestinians and the Jordanians say that no Jew will be allowed to remain on Arab soil. Yet 20% of the population of Israel is Arab. Racism against tolerance, surely. I think it would be better if you could agree not to interfere in the settlements, for which you seem ill-equipped. Work with both sides, by all means. Give comfort to the Jews and good counsel to the Arabs. Associate yourselves with activities like Israel’s Save a Heart Campaign, which gives heart transplants to Palestinian children. Much good can come of that, and your help would be much welcomed. Go to Hebron and see for yourselves how the small Jewish population is restricted to 3% of the town, on pain of death. Much reconciliation is needed there. Visit Givat Haviva's Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the four Hand in Hand schools in Israel and the West Bank, and many, many more. Such projects offer a positive response to alienation and fear. Boycotts only exacerbate enmity.
I do not doubt your motives, your sincerity or your commitment. I only ask if you are properly informed about the realities of the Middle East and whether you do not take your information from tainted sources. You must act by your own lights, but I fear that is exactly what you are not doing. You have a mission to the Palestinians, and that is essential. But I believed you also have a mission to the people of the settlements, to children like young Tamar Fogel and her two brothers. The horror she witnessed will never leave her. But nor will the determination she has to build on the foundations left by a loving mother and father. If it is possible, I would ask you to visit some settlements and to sit in silence with the people who live in them. But do not boycott them or the produce they work so hard to grow.