Putting politics before pacifism
by Michael Rubin and Suzanne Gershowitz
May 9, 2006
Abington Friends School in Jenkintown has a no-nonsense dress code: To conform to Quaker philosophy, students may not wear T-shirts that promote violence. In practice, though, not all violence is unacceptable. Teachers ignore T-shirts honoring Ché Guevara, the violent Latin American revolutionary, but sometimes discipline students who wear shirts with Israeli army symbols.
Together, we spent 25 years in Quaker schools. We were taught from an early age to look for spiritual guidance within ourselves and accept that God existed in everyone. We learned to better the world through peaceful means and the value of diversity, not only in ethnicity and religion, but also in thought. Teachers argued the merits of pacifism, yet, in the late 1980s, Abington Friends hosted speakers defending the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions.
Abington Friends is not alone. While Quakers embrace nonviolence, increasingly their institutions confuse pacifism with leftism.
Take the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): Founded in 1917, the group tries to uphold the teachings of George Fox, one of Quakerism's founders, who urged his followers almost 350 years ago, to "live all in the peaceable life, doing good to all men, and seeking the good and welfare of all men."
Initially the AFSC held true to such principles. During World War II, the group helped refugees and provided medical care and, in 1947, won the Nobel Peace Prize. But with the Vietnam War, the AFSC sought not only to alleviate suffering but also, in the words of Henry Bowden, a professor of religion at Rutgers University, "to find politics in it."
Politicization trumped pacifism. During the 1970s, the AFSC defended Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, even as word emerged that the group had killed one million citizens. In his Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism, Guenter Lewy described how John McAuliff, head of the AFSC's Indo-China division, called reports of massacres a U.S. attempt to discredit "the example of an alternative model of development." During the 1980s, as civil wars erupted across Latin America, the AFSC supported the groups that opposed U.S. policy, and ignored groups allied to Washington. The Sandinistas were honorable; the contras not. That the Sandinistas were as violent as the contras did not trouble the AFSC.
AFSC hypocrisy has been as evident in Iraq. Prior to the 2003 war, it amplified Saddam Hussein's rhetoric arguing, for example, that U.S.-supported sanctions killed 500,000 children. While they attributed such numbers to UNICEF, they did not mention that the Iraqi government coauthored the report and supplied the figures. Not surprisingly, after Saddam's fall, this claim proved false - though nearly that number ended up in mass graves, victims of Saddam's helicopters and poison gas.
As Barham Salih, then a leading Iraqi Kurdish opponent of Saddam and current Iraqi minister of planning, told a January 2003 meeting of the Socialist International in Rome, "To those who say 'No War,' I say, of course, 'Yes,' but we can only have 'No War' if there is 'No Dictatorship' and 'No Genocide.' "
It is a lesson the AFSC has yet to learn. Until the crisis in Darfur, the group remained largely silent on Sudan, where more than two million perished after that country's government imposed Islamic law on the Christian and animist south. Even as genocide continues, the AFSC prefers to protest Israel's separation fence, which has, nonviolently, saved lives rather than taken them.
It is with regard to Israel and the Palestinians that the AFSC hemorrhages credibility. When the AFSC published its "principles for a just and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis," it did not once mention the eradication of terrorism. If the AFSC still valued Quaker principles, no political cause would legitimate violence.
Such inconsistencies are the rule rather than the exception. While the AFSC urges Congress to stop allocating money to Iraq, it has called for the continuation of assistance to the Hamas-led government in the West Bank and Gaza, even as that group's charter calls for the murder of Jews.
Peace is a noble goal, too important to be compromised by politics. If the AFSC is going to adhere to Quaker values, no cause should legitimate violence. There should be no exceptions for liberation movements or insurgents. Conflating pacifism with leftism cheapens the Quaker legacy. So long as war and terrorism continue, that is a luxury we can ill-afford.
Michael Rubin, a graduate of Abington Friends, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Suzanne Gershowitz, a graduate of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Related Topics: Michael Rubin | Suzanne Gershowitz
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