The decision taken in April 2011 by British members of the Religious Society of Friends – or Quakers, as they are perhaps better known – to officially join the BDS movement and engage in the boycotting of goods originating in certain parts of Israel brought the need for examination of this group’s activities into clearer focus. For several years, some British bloggers have been publicly asking for explanations regarding repeated incidents of the hiring out of Quaker-owned facilities in London and elsewhere in the UK to extremist groups with a less than pacifist ethos. Others have wondered at some of the funding decisions made by Quaker charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. A look inside the world of the Friends is, therefore, perhaps long overdue.
Several of the organisations which have received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust over the last few years are familiar actors in the assault upon Israel’s legitimacy. They include ‘War on Want‘ (which actively promoted Ben White’s book “Israeli Apartheid- a Beginner’s Guide), the Oxford Research Group and its offshoot organisation the Oxford Peace Research Trust (which feature such figures as Tony Klug, Azzam Tamimi and Gabrielle Rifkind), the Nobel Women’s Initiative (which includes flotilla participant Mairead Maguire), Christian Peacemaker Teams (at least one member of which took part in the recent ‘flytilla’) and the Network of Christian Peace Organisations which includes Pax Christi, the Methodist Peace fellowship and Ekklesia. The Israeli organisation ‘New Profile’, which solicits and encourages Israeli youth to break the law of their country by encouraging and enabling draft dodging supposedly on the grounds of ‘conscientious objection’ was also a Rowntree grantee in 2007 and has further ties to both UK and US Quaker organisations.
Perhaps one of the more dubious funding decisions taken by the Rowntree Trust was its June 2007 award of a £45,000 grant spread over three years to Alastair Crooke’s ‘Conflicts Forum’, which includes on its board Ismail Patel of ‘Friends of Al Aqsa’, Hamas supporter Azzam Tamimi and Moazzam Begg of ‘Cageprisoners’. In July 2010 a second grant of £40,000 over 24 months was awarded and in addition to that, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust appeared to be very proud to announce that ‘Conflicts Forum’ had been selected as the recipient of a “special peace grant”.
Conflicts Forum’s director Alastair Crooke is a staunch supporter of the current Iranian and Syrian regimes as well as a supporter of and mouthpiece for Hizbollah and Hamas. In 2007 – perhaps with the aid of the Rowntree funding, although it was also being funded by the EU at the time – ‘Conflicts Forum’ produced a report (worth reading in full) detailing a public relations campaign to rebrand the proscribed terrorist groups Hamas and Hizbollah in the West as proponents of “social justice”.
At first glance it may appear incongruous for a Quaker charity to be involved in the generous funding of an organisation which supports and legitimises some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Logic would seemingly dictate that the pacifist Quakers would be among the first to express horror at the indiscriminate murder of unarmed Iranian and Syrian civilians seeking political change by the armed forces of their own governments. It may also appear difficult to reconcile Quaker pacifism with the giving of repeated grants to an organisation such as Conflicts Forum which openly supports heavily armed terrorist groups which have murdered hundreds of unarmed civilians.
So how did these repeated grants make their way from the Rowntree Trust to a selection of organisations engaged in lending material or moral support to such obviously non-pacifist causes?
Whilst the inner workings of the grant-giving Trustees of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust remain an enigma, a clue may lie in the fact that one member of the five person (four of whom are also Trustees) “Peace Committee” which awarded the “special peace grant” to Conflicts Forum is a Quaker named Michael Eccles. Mr Eccles currently works at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham where he is a tutor, particularly of young adult Quakers, and is involved in the Quaker Peace and Social Witness programme. He also worked with an organisation called ‘Responding to Conflict’ as its Middle East programme coordinator. Prior to that, however, Eccles held a fairly senior role as regional coordinator at the charity ‘Islamic Relief Worldwide’ (IRW). In May 2006 his colleague and subordinate, the IRW representative in Gaza, Iyaz Ali of Shipley, near Bradford, was deported from Israel.
“Incriminating files were found on Ali’s computer, including documents that attested to the organization’s ties with illegal Hamas funds abroad (in the UK and in Saudi Arabia) and in Nablus. Also found were photographs of swastikas superimposed on IDF symbols, of senior Nazi German officials, of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as many photographs of Hamas military activities.”
“The IRW was established in 1984 in the British city of Birmingham. It has branches in Gaza and Ramallah. The IRW provides support and assistance to Hamas’s infrastructure. The IRW’s activities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip are carried out by social welfare organizations controlled and staffed by Hamas operatives. The intensive activities of these associations are designed to further Hamas’s ideology among the Palestinian population.”
IRW has been identified as a member of the ‘Union of Good’ – the Muslim Brotherhood’s umbrella organization involved in fundraising for Hamas and its terrorist activities which is headed by the notoriously homophobic and anti-Semitic cleric Yussuf Qaradawi and which was banned in Israel in 2002 and designated a terrorist organization by the USA in 2008. Some of the IRW’s British Trustees are known members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Strangely, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust appears to have seen fit to make a man who worked for such a controversial body for five years partly responsible for the allocation of large sums of money to so-called ‘peace’ organizations. Not so strange is the resulting fact that a supposedly pacifist Quaker charity then repeatedly allocates grants to an outfit such as Conflicts Forum which supports terrorist organizations and whitewashes repressive human rights-abusing regimes.
However, the Quakers’ selective pacifism and terrorist denial does not end with the granting of financial gifts. The Quaker Council for European Affairs, which sits in Brussels, produced a frankly stunning report in 2007 entitled “Effective Counter-Terrorism”. This report really does need to be read in full for the magnitude of its dangerous mix of naivety combined with unquestioned faux axioms to be appreciated.
One might assume that such a report would be compiled by some sort of expert in the field, seeing as it proffers recommendations to the EU on subjects such as intelligence and security. But no; it was in fact written by one of the QCEA’s program assistants (interns) and edited by the joint representative (co-director) of the organization, Liz Scurfield. Ms Scurfield is actually an expert in Chinese language by profession and the intern, Matthew Taylor, was barely a couple of years out of university when he penned this report. Nevertheless, apparently both consider themselves adequately informed and the opinions of lay persons of the Quaker faith across Europe ( with whom they consulted in the preparation of the report) sufficiently weighty to be able to produce a document issuing recommendations to the security services and the EU parliament.
This act of rather barefaced self-aggrandizement takes on even more worrying proportions when one takes into account that one of the activities of the QCEA is to lobby EU MEPs – something Ms Scurfield engages in herself – and that reports and papers emanating from the QCEA are instrumental in forming policy for Quaker groups throughout Europe. Liz Scurfield and her colleague Martina Weitch also attend events such as United Nations meetings in their capacity as QCEA representatives and issue briefings designed to influence EU decision-making on the subject of the Middle East.
The Executive Secretary of the Europe and Middle East section of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, which has its headquarters in Friends House on Euston Road in London, is one Marisa Johnson, who also acts as a member of the QCEA’s Policy Advisory Group on Israel and Palestine. Given the QCEA and general Quaker approach to terrorism as expressed in the 2007 report (according to which, in a nutshell, terrorists are merely misunderstood individuals driven by unappreciated and unrecognized fears) one can conclude that the repeated hosting of extremist groups with terrorist links at Friends House may in fact be less an unfortunate series of oversights and more an adherence to ethos. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that repeated attempts by concerned British citizens to protest the Quakers’ provision of premises for meetings of extremist radical groups hosting hate preachers have been met with obscurification and deaf ears.
Marisa Johnson was also one of the prominent promoters of the proposal regarding the Quaker adoption of boycott policy and saw fit to address her fellow British Quakers in a letter recommending the opinions on the subject of the QCEA (of which she is a member, as described above) and participants in the EAPPI programme, in which she has been involved herself. The QCEA discussion paper on the subject of BDS is yet another document produced by that organisation which requires reading in full in order to appreciate its egregious nature.
Based on information from a plethora of dubious and partisan sources such as OPGAI, Sabeel, Kairos, ‘Stop the Wall’, Miftah, EAPPI, and UN OCHA, it quotes Norman Finkelstein as an authority and cites PACBI, Code Pink, the Global BDS Movement and the Coalition of Women for Peace as web resources.
The entire report is replete with historical inaccuracies such as the failure to mention Arab rejection of the UN Partition Plan or the ‘three NOs’ of Khartoum and recommends sanctions against the Government of Israel whilst repeatedly excusing or whitewashing the actions of Hamas. Significantly, the word ‘terror’ is not mentioned at all in connection with Hamas. Neither does it seriously tackle the subject of the thousands of rockets fired at Israeli civilians or the violence perpetrated by the IHH aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and the end of the Hamas-Israel ceasefire in 2008 prior to Operation Cast Lead gets a make-over based on lies and omissions.
Not only is this document a blatant and deliberate hatchet job against Israel rather than a ‘discussion paper’ (a term which surely implies some sort of attempt at balance and objectivity), but its repeated denial of Hamas terrorism against Israeli citizens raises the unpleasant possibility that at least among the leading activists within the Quaker church, the adherence to pacifism may be highly selective and based on political rather than spiritual or ethical principles. A repeated theme in Quaker writings on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the obligation of Christians, including Quakers, to help the poor and the oppressed. However, their sympathy for the poor also appears to be subject to political constraints (the residents of Sderot, for example, being among Israel’s lower economic strata) and oppression of Israelis by years of terror attacks, mortars and missiles with the resulting physical and mental disabilities does not appear to enter the Quaker radar.
If one is to ask why that should be the case, one must necessarily factor into the picture the influence of two particular women from the Ramallah branch of the Society of Friends. As the QCEA discussion paper states, its Council, together with Liz Scurfield and Martina Weitch, made a visit to the region in 2009 which formed the basis for their subsequent policy decisions. That visit came about mainly due to a presentation made to the FWCC EMES in 2007 by the programme co-ordinator of the Friends International Centre in Ramallah, Kathy Bergen. In addition, the clerk of the Ramallah Friends, Jean Zaru, frequently hosts Quakers and visitors of other denominations in Ramallah and both she and Bergen are very active on the lecture circuit in Europe and the US.
Both Kathy Bergen (a Canadian citizen) and Jean Zaru were instrumental in the founding of Sabeel with Bergen having organised the first ‘Palestinian Liberation Theology’ conference and later having become involved with Friends of Sabeel North America. She is also a founding member of the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation –one of the bodies mentioned in the QCEA discussion paper. Prior to relocating to the Middle East, Bergen worked in Geneva as Director of the International Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ICCP).
Zaru is Sabeel’s co-vice President and sits on its executive committee, which also includes a member of PACBI and a member of Al Haq. She is in addition a member of the International Quaker Working Party and formerly of the World Council of Churches. Both Zaru and Bergen were members of the Quaker Middle East Working Party (which managed to produce this warped epistle at the height of the second Intifada in 2002), along with Helena Cobban of Human Rights Watch and a man named Tony Bing – a retired professor from a Quaker college in the US who is also involved with the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, leads tours to the Middle East and was in fact in the region just a few months ago. One of the advertised attractions on the “Gaining Perspective in the Holy Land” tour he organised was a visit to Yasser Arafat’s tomb: a seemingly strange point of pilgrimage for Quaker pacifists touting ‘non-violence’.
The picture which emerges of The Religious Society of Friends is one with familiar shades of the current climate in many European and North American churches in which groups of politically motivated activists have been able to dominate the discussion and dictate the agenda of the majority. But the fact is that both Friends House in Ramallah and Sabeel in Jerusalem have become veritable points of pilgrimage for Christians of varying denominations as well as Quakers. Upon return to their own countries and churches, those political pilgrims then faithfully parrot the information fed to them there by career activists such as Kathy Bergen and Jean Zaru, apparently believing that it also has some kind of theological dimension. In turn, activists such as Bergen, Zaru and Naim Ateek are heavily supported financially by church members in the rest of the world.
The Religious Society of Friends has so far avoided addressing the subject of this echo chamber in which, rather than seeking out truth (which is, after all, what they claim to be ‘friends’ of) and a balanced view of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the symbiotic relationship between Palestinian Christian groups and foreign churches (embellished by connections to politically radical NGOs) has resulted in only reinforcing existing myths.
It is those myths which enable Quakers to host extremist groups on their own premises, lend their support to a boycott movement dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state and view terrorism through the filter of rose-coloured spectacles. It is the reinforcing of existing myths which has turned them and some other churches into Israel obsessives; a fact which not only prevents them from having honest discussions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also apparently renders them dumb and blind on subjects such as the killing of civilians by the Syrian regime in recent months.
As long as that echo chamber exists, the Quakers are likely to continue to avoid taking a long hard look at their pacifist-aggressive tendency which allows them on the one hand to promote an agenda aimed in part at hampering Israel’s capacity for self-defence, whilst on the other providing material and moral empowerment for terrorist regimes and dictatorships.