Israel's Blacklisting of Quakers Is a Crime Against Jewish History

Support for a partial boycott or even full BDS is no excuse for forgetting the enormous debt Jews owe to the American Friends Service Committee

The American Friends Service Committee logo.

Quakers broke away from the Christian church in England in the mid-17th century. They reject all religious establishments and deny their right to dictate prayer or ritual. Instead, they believe in a godly Inward Light that exists in all human beings. Having detached themselves from the ecclesiastical world, Encyclopedia Britannica notes, Quakers have punched high above their weight in Western society, in science, culture, academia and politics.

Despite their small numbers – there are about 200,000 Quakers in the world, most of them living today in the United States – two Quakers, Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover, have served as U.S. presidents. However, given their overall records, people might say that two is more is enough.

In the first two centuries of their existence, Quakers lived among themselves and tried to refrain from contact with the outside world, but their enlistment in the battle against slavery galvanized the group to ally with other like-minded organizations and its members to go out into the world in order to change it for the better. Quakers are pacifists and have refused to serve in American wars but they have more than made up for it with their extensive humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees and war victims. Here, too, the Quakers have played an enormously oversized role.

The American arm of the so-called Quaker Friends Societies, the American Friends Service Committee, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 in general recognition of the humanitarian wartime aid Quakers have provided throughout modern history, but specifically for the role played by AFSC in saving Christians and Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Unlike most Christian organizations, which helped only Christians, AFSC did not differentiate between faiths and thus became one of the most active non-Jewish organizations saving Jews.

The group played a pivotal role in the organization of the well-known Kindertransport, which, until it was halted by the outbreak of war in 1939, transferred 12,000 Jewish children who were living under Nazi ruled to safety in Britain. English Quaker Bertha Bracey, who was instrumental in the Kindertransport, was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, as were more than a dozen Quakers who saved Jews, often at risk to their lives.

But Jewish history is apparently of no interest to the Israeli government. The fact that the Jewish people owe a historic debt to the Quakers in general and to the American Friends Service Committee in particular made little impression on the masterminds who published the list of 20 BDS-supporting organizations that are henceforth barred from entering Israel, unless the Minister of Interior decides otherwise. Perhaps the people presuming to speak on behalf of the Jewish people decided that there is a statue of limitations on gratitude, especially when the fate of the Jewish settlements in the territories is at stake. These days, thats a card that trumps all others.

As Allison Kaplan Sommer reported, AFSCs original sin was that it supported the use of boycott and divestment campaigns targeting only companies that support the occupation, settlements, militarism, or any other violations of international humanitarian or human rights law. The AFSC website made clear that Our position does not call for a full boycott of Israel nor of companies because they are either Israeli or doing business in Israel, but perhaps thats already history. In its reaction to being included in the Israeli government blacklist, the AFSC no longer bothers to distinguish itself from the broader BDS movement with which it was already collaborating anyway.

It is a measure of just how slippery the slope really is that the very inclusion of those who support only a limited boycott of the territories under the overall BDS umbrella was considered outrageous when the Knesset legislated it in its first anti-BDS law in 2011. By March 2017, when the Knesset approved the even more controversial amendment that bars such boycotters from entering Israel altogether, the differentiation between supporters of limited boycott and those who embrace BDS in its entirety was no longer mentioned.

Israel had succeeded in lumping supporters of economic sanctions against Jewish settlements and those who do business with them together with those who oppose the very existence of Israel itself. That is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the above-mentioned AFSC reaction proves. In for a penny, in for a pound, limited boycotters are likely to say, since theyre already being grouped together with anti-Zionists and anti-Semites anyway.

But even on the assumption that AFSC promotes BDS in practice, it is hard to understand how the hand that signed the list of 20 didnt shake when it came to blacklist the Quaker organization. How political opposition to Israels expansionist policies in the territories can wipe out the credit that Quakers earned by saving thousands of Jews under the most horrific of circumstances. No less disconcerting, how no major Jewish organization in the U.S. has stood up for the Quakers and reprimanded Israel for ignoring the history of the Jewish people. 

The AFSC has helped victims of wars and stood up for victims of oppression throughout the world since its inception in 1917. The group believes that conflicts are the outcome of injustice, and it has thus committed itself to helping those it feels are the victims of injustice, from African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. to Palestinians in the Holy Land.

Perhaps it is this that really galls Israeli policymakers: The insinuation that it is the Palestinians, rather than the Jews, who are the victims of the conflict between the two sides, and that Israel is somehow to blame. The thought that Quakers and others might even draw a direct line between Palestinians and Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis is an even greater abomination, leading Israeli proponents of its harsh anti-BDS measures to argue that AFSC is no longer what it used to be when it was helping the Jews. Perhaps.

But one doesnt have to support BDS, partial or full, to feel anguish and pain at such moral amnesia and such a disturbing lack of historical gratitude. It is a measure of how protection of the settlements has become the main – if not the sole – guiding principle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus government. It is another example of how often those who claim to speak on behalf of Jewish dignity and power often turn out to be the cowards that debase Jewish history most of all.