Ramallah Centennial Sojourn Finds New Interest in Nonviolence
I took a break from my legislative work at FCNL earlier this month and traveled to Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank to celebrate another kind of Quaker work and witness. It was the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse, and Friends and others from Palestine and around the world gathered to celebrate all of the work connected with the Quaker presence in the area.
Friends from the U.S. first traveled to Ramallah in 1867 (sent off with a poem composed for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier, who had planned to go, also, but was too ill. He wrote, “Oh! blest to teach where Jesus taught, / And walk with Him Gennesaret’s strand! / But whereso’er His work is wrought, / Dear hearts, shall be your Holy Land.”).
A school for girls was the first fruit of Friends’ work in Ramallah (1869). A school for boys (1905) and the meetinghouse (1910) came later. The newest initiative is the Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR), which I helped establish five years ago with a three-fold mission, “to preserve a space for worship after the manner of Friends… to provide a safe and supportive environment in which residents of Ramallah can come together… and to be a vehicle through which Friends and other people of goodwill can connect with… those striving to build a future of peace and justice.”
The central event of the centennial was a meeting for worship on March 7, to which the public was invited. More than a hundred people attended, including local and international Friends, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, community leaders (including Ramallah’s woman mayor, the first in a Palestinian town), and internationals from the Ramallah-Jerusalem the area. Many spoke out of the silence about their gratitude for past Quaker work and witness. Many were moved by the example of John Woolman, whose visit to slave-owning Quakers in the 1750’s was reenacted by young Friends of Ramallah Meeting. Woolman’s refusal to eat food or sleep in a bed prepared by slaves spoke clearly to the condition of those living under occupation, many of whom, I noted on this visit, are turning increasingly to nonviolent resistance to change their situation.
A growing commitment to nonviolence, in fact, was the most notable thing that I observed on this visit. A young Palestinian activist who addressed visiting Friends reported a decision by ten Palestinian villages just days before to “make the decision for nonviolence” in their protests, often carried out together with Israeli peace activists, to challenge road closures, evictions, harassment, and lost access to fields and orchards. Old friends related to me a surprising regard for Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayaad, whom they say people are beginning to call the “Palestinian Gandhi” because of his explicit support for nonviolent protest.
I can’t say that anyone I spoke with thought that any amount of nonviolent protest or anything else was going to lead to an improvement in their situation anytime soon. A largely Palestinian and international audience listened with polite disbelief to my explanation in a talk at the Meetinghouse on how the instincts of the Obama administration, shifts in congressional attitudes, and a generational change in the U.S. Jewish community could lead to an equitable peace. (I was, however, at the disadvantage of speaking after Vice President Joe Biden was greeted with the announcement of 1,600 new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem but before it was evident that the Obama administration might push back in a significant way.)
I returned from the Ramallah centennial events with a feeling of great gratitude for Friends’ witness in the region over the years and for the way the Friends International Center in Ramallah is continuing and developing that witness. I returned thinking as well that just possibly this time around there are enough people in Palestine, Israel, and the U.S. who see the possibilities of the moment and the dangers of the future to make all the difference for peace.