Quakers Who Rescued Jews From The Nazis Are Now Banned From Israel


History has many ironies. One on display at the present time is Israel’s decision to ban the same American Quaker group which rescued Jews from Nazi Germany—and received a Nobel Peace Prize for doing so—from entering Israel. The reason: they are showing the same concern for oppressed Palestinians now as they did for oppressed Jews then.

In January, Israel announced that it was banning members of 20 organizations which support the movement of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) in peaceful protest against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This movement is similar to the nonviolent boycott against South Africa to protest apartheid or the Montgomery bus boycott. Israel’s list of those who are banned includes five American groups: Jewish Voice for Peace, American Friends Service Committee, American Muslims for Palestine, Code, Pink, National Students for Justice Palestine, and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. The ban is widely seen as Israel’s increasingly illiberal approach to free speech and dissent.

This ban is “of a piece” with what Israel has done before in response to BDS, said Tamara Cofman Witted, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. But that doesn’t mean it will be effective, she says. “In general, democratic states know well that you don’t remove ideas by just suppressing them. Do I think this ban on entry is going to have some concrete impact in suppressing the BDS movement? No, not at all.”

Consider the history of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quaker organization founded 101 years ago as an anti-war advocate. During World War ll, AFSC helped to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe and received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work. AFSC is honored in Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem with these words: Relief organization established in 1917 by the Quakers…as a forum for doing service to humanity in a moral fashion…

After the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, the AFSC opened a refugee division, which provided services for European refugees who immigrated to the U.S…. The Foreign Service section of the AFSC did even more than the Refugee division. Cooperating with Jewish relief agencies, in 1939 the organization sent a delegation to Germany to check on the situation of Jews and Christians and provide relief if necessary…Among other activities, they fed and saved children in France, assisted Jews who had reached Portugal and organized the activities of relief agencies in Spain.” In an article with the title “Israel Banned The Organization That Saved My Family,” Tzvia Falkenburg writes in Jewish Currents: Almost 80 years ago, members of one of those newly banned organizations saved a member of my family. In the late 1930s, my great-grandparents did what any parent would—-they tried to protect their children. My grandfather, a young man of military age, had little choice but to stay in Germany…His sister, not yet 10, could barely remember a time before Hitler. She had not been raised Jewish, so when she returned from school one day in 1938 to ask her mother, ‘What are Jews?’ she was surprised to learn that her grandfather was one—and, according to the Nazis, so was she. Her mother searched in desperation for any way to get her out of Germany.

“A connection with a British Quaker group gave my great-aunt the chance she needed; 9 years old and sworn to secrecy, she took a train alone to Hamburg, where another Quaker helped her board a cargo ship for London.”

Falkenburg says that, “I know I am lucky that my grandfather, my great-aunt and their parents survived the Holocaust…But my story is not unique—Quaker leaders and their Jewish counterparts were instrumental in organizing the Kinder-transport, which brought 10,000 German-Jewish children to safety in Britain in 1938 and 1939. For this work and more, British Quaker organizations and the AFSC won the Nobel Peace Prize together in 1947…I cannot accept that we, as an international Jewish community, should now turn our back on those allies and organizations, those moral leaders, who saved many of our lives and actively resisted the annihilation of our people not even a century ago.” Responding to Israel’s ban, the AFSC’s Mike Merryman -Lutz said that, “We will continue to stand up for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine regardless of the recent Israeli announcement…Our response to the Palestinian BDS call is in line with our similar support for divestment from apartheid South Africa and boycotts during the civil rights era.

“Our work is motivated by Quaker belief in the worth and dignity of all people, and it is that belief that has led us to support and join in nonviolent resistance to violence and oppression around the world, including the Palestinian BDS call, for a hundred years.” Discussing Israel’s ban of the AFSC, Philip Weiss provides this assessment in Mondoweiss: “This story feeds my spiritual understanding that Palestinians are being forced by Israel to recapitulate the history of the Jews. What we experienced in Europe, Palestinians must experience in Israel and Paledtine. This time around we play the guys with the jackboots! Of course, there is a big arc in that story; the group goes from being humiliated outsiders to people granted prestige by the world for their suffering. Palestinians are gaining prestige by the moment. AFSC is surely proud of being named.”

In another response to Israel’s ban, Medea Benjamin, a leader of Codepink, wrote in an article in the Guardian, “I am American, Jewish And Banned From Israel for My Activism.” She writes:

“I first went to Israel 50 year’s ago, right after the June 1967 war. I was 16 years old and spent the summer living on the kibbutz Ein Gedis…I loved the kibbutz, where I learned about farming, communal living and socialism…I also learned, however, about the contempt and racism many Jews exhibited toward Palestinians and other Arabs…I made friends with Arabs who taught me how the Jewish state had dispossessed Palestinians from their land during Israel’s establishment; created millions of refugees who were not allowed to return and denied basic rights to Palestinians who remained. Over the years, I have stood in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis trying to build a truly democratic nation.” The new ban, she noted, “…comes on the heels of arrests and prosecutions of nonviolent Palestinian activists who face long jail sentences.It is clear that Israel is increasing its repression of human rights activists and critics.” This tactic, however, will only continue to make a pariah of the Israeli government. As former South African government minister Ronnie Kadril said:

“Attempts by the former South African apartheid government to discredit and threaten the BDS movement failed and backfired, only intensifying international protest which assisted in bringing down that unjust regime. Apartheid Israel is following that path.” …In the face of Israel’s increasingly draconian attempts to suppress nonviolent activists at home and abroad, we will strengthen our principled work in support of freedom and justice for all people in Israel/Palestine.”

The irony of Israel banning the same Quaker group which rescued Jews from the Nazis, for expressing similar concern for Palestinians, who are being oppressed at the present time, is increasingly clear. Is Israel’s current government unable to recognize this fact? Fortunately, many Jewish voices are being heard which understand this reality. They recognize that just as Israel recognizes the “righteous among the nations” who saved Jews from the Holocaust, so the world, in the future, will recognize righteous Jews of conscience who speak in behalf of suffering Palestinians.

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Allan C. Brownfeld is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of ISSUES, The quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.