American Friends Service Committee (1917 – present)

afsc.org

Many Jews have worked for the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) American Middle East peace program, a project of the Quaker group. Some Jews began to feel kinship with the group after it won the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize for its work assisting refugees (a large number of them Jews), and providing relief and reconstruction in countries devastated by World War II. AFSC began its direct service work in the Middle East by organizing humanitarian relief efforts for Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip and the Galilee in 1949. Its American Middle East peace work, which started in the 1970s, initially focused on introducing Israeli and Palestinian peace activists to US audiences. They often worked in collaboration with Jewish peace groups to bring these speakers to the Jewish community.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was founded in 1917 to organize non-violent forms of public service for Quaker conscientious objectors during World War I. Pacifism is a central tenet of the Society of Friends, who are also known as the Quakers. AFSC describes itself as a 'practical expression' of the pacifist Christian Quaker principles of nonviolence and justice.

In January 1970, the American and Canadian Friends Service Committee published Search for Peace in the Middle East, a book that sought to provide perspectives of Arabs and Jews and the "rights and interests of both ...be recognized and reconciled on some just and peaceful basis." They concluded that the most viable option was the prompt and faithful implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242; withdrawal of Israel to the 1967 borders and "acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area." AFSC endorsed two states--Israeli and Palestinian--as a viable option long before it was acceptable in the Jewish community and as a result, drew fire from mainstream Jewish organizations.

AFSC funded the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East (CONAME) to develop additional peace-related educational materials just before it began its own Middle East peace program in the early 1970s.

AFSC's Middle East peace work broke new ground in the US, with its focus on public education, dialogue, and periodic organized tours to the region. They funded national tours of peace-minded Israelis and Palestinians throughout the US in the 1970s and 80s who spoke on the need for negotiations, a two-state solution, and recognition of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as a legitimate negotiating partner.

AFSC coordinated some of its efforts with Jewish peace groups. For example, both Breira and New Jewish Agenda often organized Jewish venues for AFSC-funded speakers. (There was some tension within the groups, however, as some felt AFSC lacked sensitivity to the particular concerns of the Jewish community and that this could generate criticism of the Jewish peace groups who collaborated with them).

AFSC supported the work of staff person Gail Pressberg, who worked later at Americans for Peace Now, as a confidential courier between Israeli and Palestinian two-state advocates to explore whether dialogue could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

In 1982, AFSC published A Compassionate Peace: A Future for the Middle East: an overview of Middle East politics for the layperson. It called on the US to cease selling arms to the Middle East, to initiate a dialogue with the PLO, and for a reduction in US aid to Israel in direct proportion to the amount that Israel spends on settlements in the Occupied Territories.

The media took notice of AFSC's work in 1984. Just two years after the Israeli bombing of Beirut, PBS broadcast a Frontline episode based on an AFSC-funded tour. The Arab and the Israeli followed a national tour of West Bank Mayor Mohammed Milhem and Israeli Army spokesperson Morchechai Bar-On over five weeks as they spoke in synagogues, churches, interfaith groups and radio talk shows. The purpose was not to debate or disagree, but rather to advocate and explain their fundamental convictions that neither side can be defeated by violence and that the only solution is to divide the land into two states, Israel and Palestine.

With the start of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, AFSC sought to highlight nonviolent resistance to military occupation with a campaign called "Faces of Hope." It promoted the work of Palestinian and Israeli communities and individuals who were engaged in nonviolent resistance to the Occupation.

AFSC's Israel-Palestine work today is guided by its "Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel." These principles support the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law and call for an end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, support self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, implementation of refugees' right of return, and equality for Palestinians and Israelis.

Since 1948 AFSC has worked with both Palestinians and Israelis to achieve a just and lasting peace and we remain committed to supporting nonviolent activism designed to achieve this end. Taking into account AFSC principles and history, AFSC supports all nonviolent efforts to realize peace and justice in Israel and Palestine including the strategic use of boycott, divestment, and sanctions tactics."

Therefore, in the context of Israel and Palestine AFSC supports 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. Their position does not call for a full boycott of Israel (such as an academic or artistic boycott) nor of companies because they are either Israeli or doing business in Israel.

AFSC bases its support for the use of boycotts and divestments in Quakers and AFSC's long support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as economic tactics that appeal to human conscience and change behavior. AFSC had previously participated in boycott and divestment campaigns connected to the struggles of US civil rights and South Africa.

Note: This piece is included in order to provide an explanation of the role of Jews in AFSC's Middle East peace work.