Quaker Universalist Voice

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“Palestine and Israel: A Decolonial Framework for Justice and Peace”

Tabitha Mustafa & Sandra Tamari in Friends Journal

The theme for the March 2018 Friends Journal is “Quakers in the Holy Land.” In describing Mike Merryman-Lotze’s “When Dialogue Stands in the Way of Peace,” Senior Editor Martin Kelley writes:

March 2018 Friends Journal cover When we strip myths away to look at the day-to-day realities of Israel and Palestine, we find two peoples in conflict over resources. Religions and ethnic identities divide them, and so does power…..

As Friends, our first instinct has been to think of conflicts as misunderstandings: if only everyone got to know each other better, love and cooperation would replace fear and confusion…. [Many] Palestinian activists charge that this process ignores power differentials and “normalizes” the status quo. (3)

Palestine and Israel: A Decolonial Framework for Justice and Peace,” by Tabitha Mustafa and Sandra Tamari, is a challenging articulation of this charge.

Read the entire article at
www.friendsjournal.org/palestine-israel-decolonial-quakers .

Settler colonialism, the Nakba, & Zionism

The key concept for Friends Mustafa and Tamari is a political reality known as settler colonialism: the replacement of indigenous populations with an outside settler society.

"Nakba woman & child" (1948) The authors argue that native history must be centered in working for justice for indigenous people. A “settler colonial lens puts the focus on the root cause of the injustice and, thus, the path to justice and peace among Palestinians and Israelis.” (13)

Historically, Quakers have tended to accept the conventional account of Palestine and Israel as being about “competing national narratives,” “cycles of violence,” and “two irreconcilable claims to the land.” Quakers’ approach to peace-building is usually “to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians as an avenue for reconciliation.” (14)

According to the authors, this familiar Quaker strategy ignores, or even denies, the historical realities of the land. Israel was founded by Zionist forces who took the land from the people already there, much as Europeans did in the Americas.

Grasping the full truth of Israel’s foundation requires examination of the Palestinian Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” The Nakba refers to the events of 1948 that led to the establishment of the state of Israel, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinians villages, and the ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Palestinians.1

Displacement of Palestinians by Israel continues today. The logic of Zionism, the ideology of Jewish nationalism that defines Israel, requires acquiring the maximum amount of land with a minimum number of Palestinians….

Taking into account the catastrophic results of the creation of Israel from Palestinians debunks the myths that surround use of terms like “Holy Land” and tropes like “two peoples for one land.” (14)

Solutions rooted in decolonization

Mustafa and Tamari write that the “competing national narratives” argument stands in the way of true decolonization of the Palestinians. It normalizes both Zionism’s rationalization of the Nakba and Israel’s continuing subjugation of a people exiled from their own lands.

Successful dialogue for reconciliation cannot occur if the real history of the indigenous people carries no weight. Instead, friends of Palestine and Israel must advocate for solutions that reject the “settler colonial framework” and the racist foundations of the present conflict.

The authors write:

While a decolonial solution does not necessitate the expulsion of the colonizers, it does require that settler mentalities be expelled. Jews living in the land must concede power and supremacy over Palestinians.

Maintaining Jewish supremacy in the interests of self-determination ensures continuing Palestinian oppression. What does Jewish self-determination mean on stolen land? What does self-determination for Palestinians mean when millions of Palestinians remain in exile to maintain a Jewish majority? (16)

Quakers’ role in colonialism

The most challenging aspect of this article asks us to look at how Quakers themselves have contributed to colonialism in Palestine. The authors point to two examples of valued peace and justice work which in their view, nonetheless, “contribute to the dehumanization of Palestinians by imposing outside norms on Palestinian society.” (15)

One of these examples is the American Friends Service Committee’s “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace Between Palestinians and Israelis,” the guiding document for AFSC’s peace work in the Middle East.2 It says, in part:

AFSC affirms the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live as sovereign peoples in their own homeland, a right that encompasses the possibility of choosing two separate states. We acknowledge that other options such as a bi-national state and confederation are being discussed.

The document supports the “one land and two peoples” framework and argues that “no one’s right to self-determination should be exercised at the expense of someone else’s.” For Mustafa and Tamari, this framework perpetuates colonialist tendencies and has the effect of making permanent Zionist land claims and Israeli subjugation of the Palestinians.

The second example is Ramallah Friends School, founded in 1889 as the Girls Training Home of Ramallah, a boarding school teaching Western and Quaker values. The school is valued for “producing Palestinian intellectual, social, and political leaders and for its rich tradition of antiestablishment politics against the Israeli occupation.”

However, its origins are similar to those of American and Canadian “Indian” boarding schools which replaced indigenous culture and language with those of European-Americans. The authors are also concerned that 106 of the 123 universities attended by graduates are Western universities.

A Truer Quaker position

Mustafa and Tamari celebrate Quakers’ long history of standing up for justice, speaking truth to power, and opposing the status quo. They conclude their article by “calling for a more prophetic, courageous, and unapologetic Quaker position on justice for Palestinians.”

A settler colonial lens gives us insight to see clearly the way forward.

This framing is vital for justice for Palestinians and Israelis, but it also is essential for coming to terms with this country’s settler colonial origins. It should inform how Quakers engage on issues of saving our environment, justice for indigenous peoples, and eliminating anti-Black racism.

Decolonization promises freedom for us all. (16)

Tabitha Mustafa serves as Program Associate for AFSC’s New Orleans office and is an organizer for Peace by Piece, supporting and mobilizing Black youth and young adults. She is also co-founder and core organizer of New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee .

Sandra Tamari is a Palestinian American Quaker living in St. Louis, Mo. She is the director of strategic partnerships for the Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian human rights organization.


Notes & Image Sources

Image: “Nakba woman & child,” by mr hanini [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

1 See the following from Al Jazeera:

2 Excerpts from the AFSCPrinciples for a Just and Lasting Peace Between Palestinians and Israelis” (PDF format).

Ultimately it will be up to both parties to determine national boundaries, but AFSC believes that discussion should be guided by international law and United Nations resolutions 242 and 338.

Since the issue here is of one land and two peoples, no one’s right to self-determination should be exercised at the expense of someone else’s and the human rights of minorities in Israel and any future Palestinian state must always be respected and protected.

Securing both peoples’ right to self determination necessarily means ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and must address, in a timely way, refugees’ right of return in a manner that results in a just and mutually agreed upon resolution of the refugee issue.

Any settlement of boundaries must be based upon respect for the rule of law and for the right of both peoples to determine their own future.

Both parties should be guided by an ethic of reciprocity: what holds true for one side in a conflict should hold true for the other as well. This ethic will help address the very real power imbalance that currently exists between Israelis and Palestinians, an imbalance that works against mutually acceptable and just agreements….

The road to peace needs to be carefully re-constructed and followed. Violence and the threat of violence often appear to be short-cuts to reaching the goal. However, as A.J. Muste observed, they are short cuts that become blind alleys. The surest road to peace is the path of empathy, where self interest can give way to shared interest, where separateness can give way to reconciliation, where domination can give way to justice. Helping to build that road and joining with Israelis and Palestinians who choose to walk it, are tasks to which AFSC continues to dedicate itself.


Comment on T. Mustafa and S. Tamari, “Palestine and Israel: A Decolonial Framework for Justice and Peace,” Friends Journal (March 2018) p. 13ff. All humans are part of “settler colonial societies,” including Palestinians, Israelis, and indigenous peoples, just with different timeframes. The authors are unclear about the practical meaning of “self-determination, and sovereignty,” and the metaphor of a “necessary lens” does not point to practical advocacy guides or policy. The authors are correct that complexity is not an excuse for unfocused understanding and inaction. The authors are unfair to AFSC by being vague in criticizing AFSC’s perpetuation of “colonialist tendencies.” The authors’ criticism of AFSC for failure to put Palestinians in leadership positions with the Israel-Palestine Coordinating Committee is misplaced and unjustified, and it fails as evidence of AFSC colonialist practices. The criticism of the AFSC’s “colonialist practices by excluding Palestinians from leadership” implies a narrow and unwarranted view of leadership. The focus for leaders should be on effectiveness in advocating for peace and justice. The authors’ criticism of the AFSC’s outdated “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace Between Palestinians and Israelis” is valid. Much has been learned about the conflict since 1999, and the document is due for reconsideration and republication as a guide for Quaker advocacy. The authors are unclear and coy in failing to identify the specifics of a sound solution beyond avoiding permanent subjugation and the non-expulsion of Israelis. With their experience and expertise, the authors should be willing to offer a set of clear procedures and a list of elements of a solution to help advocates for justice and peace.
Friend Larry, Thanks for sharing your concerns. I too questioned the seemingly narrow, over-simplistic critiques of the AFSC and Ramallah Friends School, yet I think I managed to listen past my skepticism to grasp the authors’ core message. Mike Merryman-Lotze’s companion piece, “When Dialogue Stands in the Way of Peace” (March 2018 Friends Journal, 18-21, 40) was particularly helpful in this regard. Merryman-Lotze is AFSC’s Middle East Program director and coordinates its Israel-Palestine advocacy and policy work. His involvement in the region began in 1996 with the Earlham College Great Lakes Jerusalem Program, and he writes, The focus of the Earlham program on building understanding across borders and between communities is consistent with the approach taken by Quakers to peacebuilding in Palestine and Israel over the decades. Quaker involvement with Palestinians and Israelis has always been grounded in a commitment to remaining connected to both peoples and to listening to all concerns. (18) However, Merryman-Lotze says it is crucial for Quakers to understand the post-Oslo history of the “dialogue-only” initiatives by Palestinians. This passage encapsules that story: After the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of settlements moved forward at an accelerated pace. Shortly after my first trip to Israel and Palestine in 1996, Israel broke ground on the Har Homa Settlement. That settlement, built on land owned by communities in the Bethlehem district, is now home to over 25,000 settlers and effectively cuts off Jerusalem from the south of the West Bank. As a result of the Oslo process, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were also divided into cantons separated from each other by Israeli-controlled territory. More than 100 checkpoints and roadblocks were set up throughout the West Bank and Gaza, limiting and controlling the movement of Palestinians. When I was conducting my interviews for UNRWA in 2000, I was living in the village of Birzeit north of Ramallah. Israeli checkpoints were regularly set up between Ramallah and Birzeit, and traveling between the two towns, I often saw Palestinians detained, harassed, and abused. Jerusalem also remained isolated from other areas of the occupied Palestinian territory. Home demolitions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other grave human rights abuses all continued despite political agreements. For Palestinians, the Oslo Peace Process never brought significant positive change. The entrenchment of the occupation during this period undermined the logic of people-to-people and dialogue programs that focused on building interpersonal understanding but that purposefully didn’t address political issues. Rather than building understanding that is needed to accompany positive political changes, these initiatives more often promoted normal relations in a context of deepening inequality and occupation. They created an illusion of normalcy in relationship between occupied people and their occupiers in a situation where Palestinians’ rights continued to be systematically denied. (20) I recommend that Friends read both articles…in fact, the whole March 2018 issue. Blessings, Mike
If the Merryman-Lotze point is that any negotiations among the parties are fruitless or harmful, the conclusion is misguided. Rather than condemn all negotiations based on the Oslo experience, it would be better to learn from the Oslo experience. There is a Merryman-Lotze reference to avoidance of the difficult political issues. This is a useful learning for next time. A comparable issue was the implementation enforcement guarantees from outside parties. Dialogue does not stand in the way of peace. Well-structured dialogue is essential to peace and justice. There is no peace or justice without dialogue. Larry
Friend Larry, You write: If the Merryman-Lotze point is that any negotiations among the parties are fruitless or harmful, the conclusion is misguided. Merryman-Lotze is not writing about negotiations. He is writing about projects by Quaker and other NGOs that focus on “ people-to-people and dialogue programs that focused on building interpersonal understanding but that purposefully didn’t address political issues." As he writes later in his article: But in noting the problems inherent in many of these initiatives, it is also important to understand that the push against normalization has never been a push against all initiatives that bring together Palestinians and Israelis. Those working within an anti-normalization framework are clear that efforts to counter normalization are aimed at resisting oppression and are not aimed at severing all contact between people. Working relationships and coördination across borders is welcomed so long as there is a shared understanding of basic human rights principles and a shared commitment to resisting the ongoing occupation and inequality. This means [for example] that it is not considered normalization when efforts/groups like the Sumud Freedom Camp, Ta’ayush, Yesh Din, the Bilin and Nabi Saleh Protest Movements, and Ibala purposefully bring together Palestinians and Israelis as part of an effort to challenge and change the status quo in Israel and Palestine. Blessings, Mike
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