Religious Witness? AFSC’s recent statement on Israel-Palestine
February 7, 2018 § 3 Comments
In its February 2018 issue, Friends Journal published a statement from the American Friends Service Committee on being banned from work in Israel because of its support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. (You can read the statement here.) The statement is completely secular in its tone, its arguments, and its language. You can tell that AFSC is a Quaker organization because the statement invokes some Quaker history, but you wouldn’t know that Quakers were a religious communion or that AFSC is a religious organization. But I guess it isn’t.
The statement is presented as just that, an “organizational statement”, and it was published as a story on its website, essentially as a press release. It is not, apparently, a minute of conscience resulting from collective spiritual discernment on the part of its board, its executive staff, or of any worshipping community.
Its arguments are those of a liberal political social change nonprofit. It focuses on “rights and privileges” and human rights violations. It supports “proven nonviolent social change tactics.” It mentions Quaker support for a “Free Produce Movement” boycott in the 1800s and John Woolman, though it places Woolman in the seventeenth century. But otherwise, it leans on AFSC’s own history for its authority, inevitably mentioning its Nobel Peace Prize.
It has no biblical references, although that would admittedly open a can of worms. Torah’s instructions regarding resident aliens in ancient Israel were enlightened for the time, but non-Israelites were still second class members of their communities. And talking about resident alien instruction in Torah assumes a correspondence between the Palestinians and resident aliens; the correspondence might be closer between Israel and Abraham as a resident alien in ancient Canaan and between the Palestinians and the Israelites in the period of the Judges before David’s conquest, when the Israelites were hemmed in to the Highlands of Palestine by the Philistines and the Canaanite city-states on the central plain.
Jesus, however, is another story. Love thy neighbor as thyself (from Leviticus). Love thine enemy. Etc. But no Jesus either.
But it’s been a very long time since Rufus Jones and the overtly Christian impulse behind service in the early days of AFSC.
In fact, the statement doesn’t use anything close to non-biblical religious moral argument, either. Not even a direct invocation of the hallowed phrase “that of God in everyone”, which tha AFSC itself helped to establish as the modern foundation for our testimonies. It does start thus: “Motivated by Quaker belief in the worth and dignity of all people . . . “ What is distinctively Quaker about a belief in human dignity? That isn’t even a “belief”; it’s part of a humanistic value set shared with people of good will across the board.
Don’t get me wrong. AFSC does good work. I support the BDS movement myself. I support AFSC’s stand in this conflict.
But I wish AFSC would stop presenting itself as Quaker in these ways. It isn’t. With this statement, the organization misrepresents our religious movement, seeking to leverage Quaker cred for its own purposes. There’s something off here vis a vis the testimony of integrity.
Or does it misrepresent our faith? In my experience, witness committees in our meetings at all levels of meeting organization are very likely to write a statement just like this one, utterly bereft of biblical, Christian, religious, or even moral message, and our meetings are very likely to approve such statements as minutes of conscience without realizing how we endorse the trend toward secularism in our own religious movement.