British Quakers have called for a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The decision to back a boycott was made after lengthy discussion and reflection by Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the formal organisation of Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, have described the boycott as a "nonviolent move for peace for Israelis and Palestinians". They are keen to emphasise that they are not calling for a boycott of goods from Israel itself, but rather from the settlements that are illegal under international law.
The issue has provoked heated debate within British Quakers for several months. In the end, the decision to back the boycott was heavily influenced by Jewish and Israeli peace groups. They stress that boycotting settlement goods is neither anti-semitic nor anti-Israeli.
The boycott is also a response to Palestinian Quakers, who have appealed to Quakers around the world to consider boycotting settlement goods.
The decision was taken by Meeting for Sufferings, the executive committee of BYM (which still retains its seventeenth-century name). They reached their conclusion on Saturday (2 April) and publicly announced it today (5 April).
"We are clear that it would be wrong to support the illegal settlements by purchasing their goods," stated the minute of Saturday's decision, "We therefore ask Friends throughout Britain Yearly Meeting to boycott settlement goods, until such time as the occupation is ended."
The minute declared that "People matter more than territory,". It continued, “We pray fervently for both Israelis and Palestinians, keeping them together in our hearts. We hope they will find an end to their fears and the beginning of their mutual co-existence based on a just peace. And so we look forward to the end of the occupation and the end of the international boycott.”
While the majority of British Quakers are likely to support the decision, there may be criticism from others. Since Meeting for Sufferings began to discuss the issue, there has been heated controversy on the letters pages of the The Friend, Britain's weekly Quaker magazine, which is independent of BYM structures. But supporters of a boycott seem to have considerably outnumbered opponents.
BYM acknowledged that "although we unite in this decision we recognise that Friends have different views, and we must treat one another tenderly".
Quakers consider that this boycott builds on their other nonviolent moves for peace in the region. Since 2002, Quakers in Britain have trained human rights observers for the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a scheme run by the World Council of Churches.
The observers, called ecumenical accompaniers, work with Palestinians and Israelis to promote nonviolence by their protective presence, to monitor human rights abuses and to advocate for an end to the Israeli occupation.
The decision by BYM almost certainly required considerable courage, in the light of the volume of hate mail and abuse experienced by other groups critical of the Israeli authorities. A similar decision by the Methodist Church last year was attacked and misrepresented in parts of the press.
Quakerism developed in Britain in the mid-seventeenth century, drawing together several movements that arose during the turmoil of the civil war years.
Quakers emphasise that anyone can experience the "Inward Light" of Christ. They seek to testify to their experiences of the divine through lives committed to peace and equality. They meet together to discern the Holy Spirit's leading. There are about 23,000 Quakers in Britain and around 400,000 worldwide.