British Quakers announced today (5 April) that they are calling for a boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This is a brave decision, given the volume of abuse, hate mail and downright lies that face those who take a public stand against the Israeli authorities.
Personal experience has made me very aware that there are few more subjects likely to generate hate mail than comments on Israel and Palestine. When I worked for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), I was quoted in the Jerusalem Post opposing arms sales to Israel. I emphasised that "I'm not anti-Israel, I'm anti-arms trade". But I received an email beginning, "Dear Symon Hill, the British Nazi".
A few years ago, I attended an event in a London church supportive of Palestinians' human rights. A Christian Zionist standing outside literally yelled in my face, telling me that the event was promoting hatred. The church received hundreds of abusive messages, including one saying that the curate would "burn forever in a real hell" (presumably this is distinguished from a fake hell, which has pretend flames cut out of orange cardboard).
To be fair, I dare say that people who back the Israeli government also receive hate mail. This is just as abhorrent.
I'm often very critical of Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM), the formal organisation of British Quakers. But on this occasion, I applaud both the decision they have made and the courage they have shown in making it.
When the Methodist Church decided to call for a boycott of settlement goods, their position was not only attacked but consistently misrepresented in the media. Misrepresentation of the Quaker position will surely come - very soon.
I'm assuming that Quakers will face the same accusations that were made about Methodists. With this in mind, here are some important points about the Quaker decision.
Firstly, the boycott applies only to goods produced by the colonial Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It does not apply to goods produced in Israel itself.
Secondly, British Quakers are not "pro-Palestinian" and "anti-Israeli". They are "pro-human rights". Like many people who boycott settlement goods, they oppose violence committed by both Palestinians and Israelis and recognise that the occupation is a key part of structural violence. If the situation were reversed, and Palestinians were building illegal settlements on Israeli land, I am confident that Quakers would be just as opposed to occupation.
Thirdly, Quakers did not make this decision after listening only to Palestinians and not to Israelis, or only to Muslims and not to Jews. Quakers have been engaging in discussion with several groups. The decision on Saturday was almost certainly swung by the support for a boycott offered by Jewish and Israeli peace groups. British Quakers count a significant number of Jewish people, and people with Jewish connections, among their members.
Fourthly, the decision was not made lightly or quickly. Whatever you or I think of Quaker decision-making methods, the one thing they cannot be accused of is undue speediness (their much reported decision to endorse same-sex marriage came twenty-two years after they first formally discussed it). The decision followed deep discernment, which built on years of active Quaker involvement in the Middle East through the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Quakers administer the British wing of this project, which is run by the World Council of Churches.
Let us not forget the wording of the formal minute of the Quakers' decision: "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.”
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. His book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion can be ordered at http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion.