Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Let Us See What Love Can Do"

Early in 1948, just before the end of the British Mandate, Palestine was in turmoil. Jewish immigrants fleeing European persecution were pouring into the region, believing they were returning to a long-lost homeland, now devoid of civilization. Palestinian Muslims and Christians, forced out of their homes and villages, were fleeing into neighboring countries; others had taken up arms to defend their land and way of life. Palestinian Jews, who had lived in friendship with their Muslim neighbors for generations, were appalled at the idea that they must now take sides against them. The holy city of Jerusalem was on the verge of collapse, its water supply compromised, the threat of disease imminent.

Into this cauldron stepped three Quakers: Edgar Castle from Britain, James Vail, representing the American Friends Service Committee, and Kendall Kimberland, a Cairo-based Quaker with long experience in the Middle East. After prayerful consideration, they had decided to travel to the heart of the conflict to see what love could do.

AFSC recently has made public their archives from that tumultuous period: four cubic feet of notes, cables, letters, and reports that tell the story of the attempt of these three men to “discover what Friends might do in reconciliation work between Jews  and Arabs.” They were convinced that the political deadlock “would yield only to the reconciling force of reason founded in love.”

Over a period of two months, the small Quaker delegation met with high-level individuals from all sides in the conflict. They would explain, sometimes to sympathetic listeners, sometimes to hostile ones, that “the Quaker aim was always to seek peace and create brotherhood.” By appealing to the best in all three religious traditions they were able to make a surprising amount of headway: they offered emergency assistance “without discrimination except that of human need,” transmitted messages of compromise and reconciliation from one side to another, and established a basis for a truce in Jerusalem’s Old City that seemed amenable to all sides. “We had learned once again,” Castle wrote, "that barriers of suspicion will fall before confident acceptance of God's goodness in men."

But as they soon discovered, in such a volatile situation love was not enough. "I had not written three words of these notes, says Castle, "before the radio announced the news of Bernadotte's assassination, surely the consumation of evil." Count Folke Bernadotte was a Swedish diplomat who had arranged the release of 31,000 Jewish prisoners from German concentration camps in WW II, and was at the time serving as U.N. Security Council mediator for the Palestinian conflict. He was traveling in the region with a peace plan proposal but was assassinated by the Lehi, a Zionist group that opposed his plan.

Despite the failure of their attempt at a truce, the Quaker mission was not in vain. As a result of their two-month effort, AFSC was asked by the United Nations to set up humanitarian assistance for some of the 500,000 refugees "flying from another refugee people" -- the Palestinians who had been left homeless while joyful newcomers celebrated the birth of the State of Israel.

As Quakers continue the work begun by Castle, Vail, and Kimberland sixty-eight years later, we have learned that in dealing with powerful regimes, ever-more deadly weapons, and still-raw emotions, we need to do more than appeal to reason guided by love. Nonviolent pressure tactics, refined over the years in struggles for justice in South Africa, Latin America, India, and countless other places, have proved both ethical and effective.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is now leading the way. Yet the optimism and spiritual determination that guided the small AFSC delegation should never be discounted. What love can do is astounding when it informs the power of nonviolence.

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