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British Quakers divest from occupation, and are accused of ‘obsessive’ tunnel vision for ‘the only Jewish state’

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Last week Quakers in Britain became the first Christian denomination in the U.K. to adopt a responsible investment policy towards the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian land. It was the first denomination but I doubt it will be the last.

Within hours of the announcement, the Board of Deputies, the body which asserts its right to represent Jewish interests in Britain, had issued a statement of rebuke from its President, Marie van der Zyl, titled “Board of Deputies condemns Quakers’ Israel divestment policy.” In a few short paragraphs, van de Zyl gathered together all of the usual anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) talking points and fired them in one almighty blast at the Quakers.

The Board’s statement is worth examining in detail since it reveals so much about the Jewish establishment’s mission to set the parameters of acceptable debate on Israel to the detriment of interfaith relations.

A moral duty

Paul Parker, recording clerk for Quakers in Britain, explained why the Quakers had taken the decision:

“Our long history of working for a just peace in Palestine and Israel has opened our eyes to the many injustices and violations of international law arising from the military occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government.

“With the occupation now in its 51st year, and with no end in near sight, we believe we have a moral duty to state publicly that we will not invest in any company profiting from the occupation.”

The Quakers also reaffirmed a 2011 decision to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements.

President van de Zyl’s response was a verbal assault which showed no respect for the Quakers’ nearly 400 years of commitment to peace and justice in Britain nor the practical experience it has in bringing reconciliation to some of the world’s most troubled places. Instead, Marie van de Zyl was an inch away from accusing the Quakers of anti-Semitism.

“The appalling decision of the Friends House hierarchy to divest from just one country in the world – the only Jewish state – despite everything else going on around the globe, shows the dangers of the obsessive and tunnel-visioned approach that a narrow clique of church officials have taken in recent years.”

There’s a lot going on in that opening salvo but all of it is devoid of historical or political context.

What exactly is so “appalling” about a Christian denomination with a natural concern for what takes place in the Holy Land, choosing to demonstrate its historic commitment to non-violence by implementing a policy of divestment from companies which profit from the occupation of Palestinian land?


Quakers have used boycotts as a tactic many times over the centuries. In the 19th century they boycotted produce produced by slave labour, even refusing to put sugar in their tea. In the mid 20th century American Quakers supported boycotts in support of Black Civil Rights. In the 1980s Quakers backed anti-apartheid boycotts. Today, Quakers in Britain refuse to invest in fossil fuels.

The Board ignores this ethical tradition, preferring to distort the Quakers’ motivations by accusing its leadership of being solely concerned with “one country”, “the only Jewish State” and thereby planting the idea that there must be something anti-Semitic in all of this.

The Board knows full-well that no country or group has ever applied boycotts consistently, and that includes Jews and the State of Israel.

In the 1970s Jewish activists boycotted Soviet Union-sponsored culture events in the U.K. Should they have also boycotted Idi Amin’s Uganda before they had the right to campaign for Soviet Jewish rights? Must Israel today call for trade sanctions against every distasteful regime around the world before it can talk about Iran? The British Quakers are naturally focused on a part of the world where they have obvious interest and decades of experience. What on earth makes it anti-Semitic?

But the Board ignores another critical consideration in the Quakers’ decision that goes a long way in explaining why its divestment tactic is being applied to Israel. The Palestinian people, including a comprehensive coalition of Christian organisations, have themselves called for this form of global support.


The Board condemns the Quakers for ignoring “everything else going on around the globe” but a quick look at the Quakers’ website shows how ignorant this accusation is.

The Quakers International Work page shows its commitment to challenging corruption and abuses of power in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi and its conciliation work in South Asia. This is alongside its longstanding work in coordinating the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). In recent decades the Quakers have also been actively involved in conciliation work in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.

In contrast, if you look at the Board of Deputies’ website you’ll find nothing about concern for the rest of the world apart from Israel and the Middle East.

So which organisation is displaying a lack of global awareness? Which organisation is “obsessive” and “tunnel visioned”?

Narrow cliques

As for the “narrow clique of church officials,” the Board’s President really ought to visit some Quaker Meetings around the country if she thinks this decision will not have considerable support from Friends at the grassroots.

I’ve spoken about my Jewish solidarity for the Palestinian people all over the country and, invariably, I find myself speaking in Quaker Meeting Houses. That’s because Quakers are willing to allow their buildings to be safe spaces for free speech in the name of peace and justice.

I’m yet to find a synagogue offering me the same hospitality. In fact, Board of Deputies officials are in the habit of trying to stop me speaking. So where in reality is the “narrow clique” controlling the debate? Friends House or Torriano Mews?

One-sided propaganda

The statement from Marie van de Zyl notes that there was:

“no particular trigger incident for this decision, just the ongoing insistence of certain Quaker bureaucrats of feeding a diet of one-sided propaganda to those unfortunate enough to rely on them for information.”

The reason there was no “trigger incident” is precisely because Quakers in Britain has taken its time in reaching this decision. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction to anything. It’s recognition that 25 years of ‘peace process’ has made the situation worse with the prospect of justice and peace further away than ever. A different approach is needed to shift the dial.

As for “one sided propaganda”, I haven’t noticed the Board of Deputies ever offering a broad spectrum of views on Israel.

Controlling the debate

What’s interesting to observe about the Board’s attitude is the presumption that it has the right to dictate to other faith communities what their policy on Israel should be. Marie van de Zyl contrasts the Quakers’ independent thinking with how she prefers Church denominations to behave:

“While other churches have reached out to the Jewish community at this time of rising antisemitism and polarisation to work together to tackle prejudice and promote peace in the region, the Quaker leadership has chosen to import a divisive conflict into our country, rather than export the peace that we all want to see.”

In other words, let us tell you what to think and what to do when it comes to Israel.

And note how criticism of Israel is placed firmly within the context of “rising anti-Semitism”. Only the Board, it appears, understands how to “tackle prejudice” and “promote peace”. Anyone that considers an alternative course of action is just “importing a divisive conflict”.

Van de Zyl concludes her diatribe by calling on Quakers in Britain to reverse its decision and “join those of us looking to build bridges instead.”

But what is the Board’s idea of bridge building? What kind of Church behaviour on Israel is considered acceptable to Marie van de Zyl?

Investing in Peace’

We’ve seen the answer this month with a series of events around the U.K. organised by the Board of Deputies and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland with the title Investing in Peace’.

The Board brought together Jewish Israeli and Palestinian peace activists with a message not to “take sides” but to “build bridges” through grassroots relationships.

I’ve got nothing against any of this in principle. It’s good as far as it goes. But it’s designed not to go too far. I can tell this from van de Zyl’s quote in the accompanying press release:

“At a time when tensions and emotions are understandably running high, it is so refreshing to have balanced, nuanced dialogue on this topic.”

So, Investing in Peace sets up the discussion within a paradigm of “balance” and “nuance” as if the lack of such things has been the stumbling block to peace over all these years. It’s a narrative which ignores the power dynamics on the ground, the dynamic of oppressed and oppressor in Israel/Palestine. But if that true relationship is not acknowledged and confronted, neither justice nor peace are likely to emerge.

The Board of Deputies has shown itself incapable of understanding why Quakers in Britain could be justified in adopting an ethical investment policy directed at Israel. That’s because the Board of Deputies is acting not as a Jewish community body in the U.K. but as a plank of the pro-Israel lobby. In that role it’s determined to maintain the illusion that Israel/Palestine is a “conflict” requiring “balanced” debate and a heavily managed interfaith conversation.

The Quakers, on the other hand, have grasped the reality and seen through this distortion. I hope others will follow them.

This post first appeared on the Patheos site, on Nov. 25. 

Robert Cohen

Cohen is a British writer. He blogs at Micah's Paradigm Shift.

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26 Responses

  1. eljay on November 26, 2018, 10:51 am

    Sounds like “The Board of Deputies of British Jews” should be “The Board of Deputies of British Zionists”. But the former name is in keeping with Zionists’ anti-Semitic conflation of Zionism and Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Zionism and Israel.

    • ErikEast on November 26, 2018, 1:13 pm

      The British Board of British Jews can hardly claim to represent British Jewry when only a minority of the British Jewish community are eligible to vote in its elections.
      It is just another pompous organisation that makes up for a lack of credibility with its ardent support for Israel.

  2. bcg on November 26, 2018, 12:36 pm

    It”s worth remembering that here in the U.S. a Quaker group, the American Friends Service Committee, does good work on the Occupation – here’s their web page on that issue:

    In the United States AFSC works to educate audiences about Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory and supports activist efforts to change government policies and corporate/institutional practices that support inequality and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory. AFSC also supports the implementation of international humanitarian and human rights law in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, promotes implementation of Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and calls for full equality between Palestinians and Israelis.

    • Misterioso on November 27, 2018, 10:25 am

      @beg, etal

      More good news from Britain in lock step with British Quakers:


      “British Palestinian MP slaps down Trump,” Nov. 22/18 Middle East Monitor by Yvonne Ridley

      “Layla Moran, the first British Member of Parliament of Palestinian descent, has urged the UK to ‘step up to the plate and lead’ over the issue of Palestine given that the US President ‘can now in no way be considered an honest broker.’ The MP launched her scathing attack on Donald Trump in the light of the UN Relief and Works Agency’s efforts to cover its budget deficit. The US was UNRWA’s biggest donor, but Trump cut its funding in September, even though the agency provides essential education, healthcare and social services for millions of Palestinian refugees.

      “Moran’s mother, Randa, is a Christian Palestinian from Jerusalem and the MP still has family living in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Her British father’s diplomatic career took the family all over the world. Although the 35-year-old Oxford West and Abingdon MP usually downplays her Arab heritage, she has had a busy week defending Palestine and has secured a parliamentary debate on Palestinian Statehood to be held early next year. Furthermore, she seized an opportunity on Wednesday to challenge the Foreign Office on what it was doing after Trump’s move to cancel America’s donations to UNRWA.

      “Minister of State for the Middle East Alastair Burt is well aware that Trump’s funding cut will have a devastating impact on the five million Palestinians who rely on UNRWA; he is also a Minister of State for the Department of International Development. ‘The UK has made official-level representations to the EU and World Bank over the past three months on the position of UNRWA,’ he responded to Moran’s question. ‘We will continue to work with UNRWA and our international partners to help ensure essential services are maintained, despite the United States’ withdrawal of funding.’

      “Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP who won her seat in the 2017 snap general election, asked if the British government will consider hosting a donor conference to make up the shortfall in funding. ‘Further, will they support my Palestinian statehood Bill, which I will be introducing to the House later today?’

      “Burt said that the recognition of Palestine remains a matter for the UK’s judgment in the best interests of ‘peace and the peace process,’ although there is neither in the Middle East at the moment. As far as support for UNRWA is concerned, he added: ‘We continue to work with other donors and urge them to step in to assist in filling the gap in funding. We have done that with other states and we are doing that with the EU and the World Bank. We will continue to do so. We have increased our contribution this year to £57.5 million to help vulnerable Palestinians in relation to health and education. We will continue to support UNRWA.’ He said nothing about government support for Moran’s Bill.”

  3. Steve Grover on November 26, 2018, 12:44 pm

    Not surprising that the British Quakers would do this, because their U.S. counterparts pays “Rabbi” Brant Rosen to direct their Midwest office in spreading hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews.

    • Shingo on November 26, 2018, 1:42 pm

      How much does he get paid and where is the evidence of such a transaction?

      • Steve Grover on November 26, 2018, 2:31 pm

        Go to his blog and American Friends Service Committee’s website to find out. I don’t know how lucrative it is to be a “Rabbi” that spreads hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews. Maybe Phil might know? Phil & Rosen probably talk shop about spreading hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews.

      • Marnie on November 27, 2018, 12:57 pm

        And maybe you’re just talking trash, since you didn’t bother to back up your post with facts from jump street, instead saying ‘go look for it’ down that rabbit hole over yonder.

    • bcg on November 26, 2018, 2:23 pm

      @Steve Grover: He was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1992, so he’s a rabbi – why the scare quotes?

      Here’s his blog:
      You might disagree with his analysis but I can’t see any hatred against Israel.

    • James North on November 26, 2018, 2:30 pm

      Mooser: Another deft touch. You have your sock puppet slander Rabbi Rosen, who is respected even by those who disagree with him, and say that Quakers “pay” him to “spread hatred against Israel.” Brilliant! You could not possibly have found a better way to make U.S.-based Zionists look stupid and thoughtless. But have you maybe gone too far? Would any real person post these kinds of comments about Rabbi Rosen?

      • Steve Grover on November 26, 2018, 2:42 pm

        “Rabbi Rosen, who is respected even by those who disagree with him”

        Um no, he is shunned.

      • Mooser on November 26, 2018, 4:34 pm

        “But have you maybe gone too far?”

        I’ve go to push it to the limit, even at the price of getting banned. Look at my competition! The person who does “Jackdaw” is an expert.

        (And to think “Steve Grover” was supposed to be a gentle parody of a US Zionist, helping to humanize Zionism using gentle, self-deprecating humor. But something went wrong)

    • Misterioso on November 27, 2018, 10:39 am

      @Steve Grover

      Wake up!!

      The number one cause of what you describe as “hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews” ** is racist Zionism and its spawn, the expansionist, brutal/illegal occupier, ethnic cleanser, fascistic entity known as “Israel.”

      **As is common knowledge, support for “Israel” is in accelerating decline within the world Jewish community, especially its youth. No surprise!!

  4. annie on November 26, 2018, 1:03 pm

    by “nuance” they mean don’t openly criticize the slaughter of children, medics, journalists and scores of rock throwing / kite flying protestors.

  5. amigo on November 26, 2018, 1:56 pm

    British zionists show tunnel vision when it comes to the one and only Palestinian State .

    What they have left of it.that is.

    I can.t stand hypocrites.

  6. edwardm on November 26, 2018, 2:20 pm
    Some people have very short memories.

    • RoHa on November 27, 2018, 12:49 am

      Yeah, yeah. But what have you done for us lately?

      • Steve Grover on November 27, 2018, 9:49 am

        Spread hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews. So they kinda suck now.

      • eljay on November 27, 2018, 10:54 am

        || Steve Grover: Spread hatred against Israel, Israelis and the vast, vast majority of Jews. … ||

        It’s both sad and disturbing to see how the Zionist mind desperately distorts good (justice, accountability and equality; respect for international laws and human rights) into evil (“hatred”).

        And it’s disappointing to know that the “vast, vast majority of Jews” choose:
        – to be supremacists; and
        – to participate in and/or defend the past and on-going (war) crimes of a deliberately and unapologetically colonialist, (war) criminal and religion supremacist state.

  7. Maximus Decimus Meridius on November 27, 2018, 11:51 am

    This idea that opposing Zionism is ‘anti semitic’ because most Jews support it is incredibly arrogant. Jews are not more special than anyone else, and similar claims are never made for other religious or ethnic groups. Most Americans (just about) support the death penalty. Does that make someone anti American if they oppose it? Most Evangelical Christians are against gay marriage and all sorts of other things too. Am I anti-Christian if I support it?

    Zionists really are desperate. Antisemitism is the only game in town for them, and boy they’re going to play it at every turn.

    • eljay on November 27, 2018, 12:48 pm

      || Maximus Decimus Meridius: This idea that opposing Zionism is ‘anti semitic’ because most Jews support it is incredibly arrogant. Jews are not more special than anyone else … ||

      One of the defining characteristics of Zionists is hypocrisy. It soothes the dissonace of:
      – promoting Israel as an Israeli state that should be treated just like any other country; and then,
      – defending Israel as a “Jewish State” that should be exempted from criticism and accountability.

  8. RoHa on November 28, 2018, 1:13 am

    Why is it important to point out that Israel is “the only Jewish state”? If there were four or five Jewish states, would it be acceptable to boycott just one or two of them?

    • Mooser on November 30, 2018, 11:41 am

      ” If there were four or five Jewish states”

      That could lead to a bad situation. Five Jewish states, 11 or more foreign policies.

  9. henspert on November 29, 2018, 9:37 pm

    Article mentions Quaker 2011 decision on illegal settlement goods. Here is an early article from 4 27 2011 by Alderman with his twisted self.

    I guess we have more spite from Quakers… lol

    • Mooser on November 30, 2018, 11:38 am

      Quakers have turned spiteful towards Jews?

      Okay, then, it’s Malt-O-Meal at breakfast from now on. The spoon is mightier than the Penn

  10. Stogumber on December 1, 2018, 1:46 pm

    I think Zionists ought to be defended from the reproach of hypocrisy. Zionism in itself is a simple variant of nationalism, sometimes stupid, sometimes shallow, but in itself honest and even, if not under imminent danger, tolerant.
    Ther hypocrisy stems from Western Jews who want at the same time be Zionists and “universalists”.

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