How Quakers turned spiteful

I have - or rather had - a soft spot for the Quakers. British Jews and British Quakers have had a common experience of life as second-class citizens of the state in which they live. The claim that the Quaker architect Joseph Avis declined (in 1699) to accept a fee for the construction of the synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Bevis Marks is almost certainly a bubbe meiseh. But Quakers certainly supported the right of Jews to resettle in England, and were sympathetic to the campaign for Jewish political liberties. More recently, we must acknowledge the part played by Quakers - such as Eleanor Rathbone - in Holocaust rescue efforts.

But we would do well not to mis-characterise Quaker empathy with Jewish suffering. Quakers have never had any special affection for Jews as Jews. In Quaker colonial Pennsylvania, Jews were deliberately excluded from public office.

Quaker support for the Cromwellian resettlement was contingent on the Jews agreeing to convert to Christianity. Eleanor Rathbone certainly wanted to alleviate suffering. But she was no philosemite.

I make these points as essential background to an understanding of the spiteful decision taken earlier this month by the supreme decision-making body of British Quakers - the Meeting for Suffering - to boycott goods emanating from Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria.

'Jewish Israeli peace groups' are highly praised

As a number of Quaker-watchers have pointed out to me, this resolution did not come out of the blue. It is the result of a long campaign by Quakers preoccupied with the alleviation of suffering but more or less indifferent (if not actually hostile) to the concept of Jewish self-determination.

In the 1930s, this preoccupation was focused on the Jews. In the late 1940s, it was refocused on the Arabs. In 1948, the Quakers did indeed send missions to both Israel and Gaza, but their ultimate aim was to repatriate Arab "refugees" and thus to undermine the establishment of a Jewish state.

To cut to the chase, they were simply not interested in Jewish national rights. Palestinian Quakers have tapped into this mindset and have, accordingly, agitated long and hard for a boycott. Their efforts have now borne fruit.

Two things struck me about the actual text of the resolution adopted by the Meeting for Suffering. The first was its patronising tone - affecting to understand Jewish suffering in Israel and wishing only to help alleviate this through non-violent means. The resolution waxed lyrical on the work of "Jewish Israeli Peace Groups" and the need to support their partisan efforts.

The second thing that struck me about the resolution was the sheer ignorance that underpinned its text.

Next week (on April 24-25 to be exact) we shall celebrate the anniversary of the momentous conference that took place in the Italian coastal resort of San Remo 91 years ago. It was at that meeting of the "Principal Allied Powers" (France, Japan, Italy, the USA and the UK) that the Jewish right of settlement in "Palestine" was publicly acknowledged. It was as a result of that meeting that this right was subsequently enshrined in international law -namely the Treaty of Sèvres (signed later that year) and the Palestine Mandate sanctioned by the League of Nations in 1922. The League's successor body, the UN, endorsed in its founding charter the rights conferred on the Jews at that San Remo conference.

Cynics to whom I recount these facts are wont to smile at me and say that all this may well be true but took place a long time ago. So what? The British claim to Gibraltar is founded on a treaty signed in the city of Utrecht in 1713. It is still valid in international law, as any Foreign Office mandarin will tell you.

The assumption underpinning the Quaker boycott is that Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria are "illegal under international law." Concerning Jewish settlements that pre-date Israel's re-establishment (such as those in east Jerusalem and Hebron) the boycott resolution is silent for the simple reason that these are facts that the Meeting for Suffering presumably found inconvenient and an obstacle to its political objectives, which are (I suggest) to demonise the Jewish state and to ethnically cleanse Jews from the West Bank and the Holy City.

I am sorry to put matters thus. But I can think of no other way of conveying the truth that underpins the decision taken by the Meeting for Suffering: that Jewish rights and Jewish suffering are - ultimately - of marginal importance to the world order as Quakers envisage it.

    Last updated: 11:51am, April 27 2011