To the Editor:
Rael Jean Isaac’s review of Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism by Guenter Lewy [Books in Review, September 1988] . . . contains several incorrect assertions regarding the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). As one who has worked with AFSC staff members over a number of years, I wish to correct these assertions.
Mrs. Isaac states that there has been “a total breakdown of pacifist principle” within the AFSC. In fact, however, the policy of the AFSC board of directors states: “The AFSC stands firm on its Quaker heritage in denying the legitimacy of violence however extreme the provocation. We have not and will not formulate a theory of ‘acceptable’ revolutionary violence.” This particular formulation was adopted in January 1981; it is consistent with longstanding policies of the AFSC. In my experience working with the AFSC, this policy is well understood and implemented by staff members.
Mrs. Isaac states that, according to the AFSC and other pacifist groups, “The more violent a group, the more just its cause must be—always provided, of course, that the cause is ‘progressive.’”On the contrary, the AFSC puts much effort into promoting groups attempting to operate peacefully in areas where violence is endemic. For example, the AFSC aided a civilian hospital in South Vietnam, spending nearly $2 million in eight years. A far smaller sum (15 percent of total wartime aid) was spent on medical aid to North Vietnam and the NLF. AFSC work in North Vietnam enabled many contacts between American POW’s and their families.
It is not the case that the AFSC “identifies with the PLO.” The AFSC does acknowledge this group as a major representative voice of Palestinians, without condoning its actions.
It is indeed the case that the AFSC maintains a Quaker tradition of pacifism broader than that of Guenter Lewy. Quakers define pacifism not simply as “refusal to kill,” but as “nonviolent opposition to injustice.” It is this principle that led Quakers to early opposition to slavery, including the establishment of the “underground railroad.” When the AFSC equates economic injustice with violent injustice, it would be illogical to conclude that the former justifies the latter. The correct conclusion, which Quakers well understand, is that economic injustice is to be opposed peacefully, just as violent injustice is to be opposed peacefully. . . .
Mrs. Isaac correctly notes that “the AFSC raises millions of dollars annually on the strength of its humanitarian image.” One reason for this success is the personal contact maintained by AFSC staff members, who make regular visits to Quaker meetings and to the homes of contributors. The AFSC also reports its own views through editorials in the Quaker Service Bulletin. In Peacework, the New England AFSC reports on the views of various groups unpopular in this country, so that alternative views may be heard and judged. Peacework carries a disclaimer that the views reported are not necessarily those of the AFSC.
The AFSC has always been acutely interested in responsible criticism of its work, from within the Quaker community and from outside. It is unfortunate that Mrs. Isaac and Guenter Lewy have chosen to frame their critique in a way that denies the considerable achievements of this organization.
Joan L. Slonczewski
Rael Jean Isaac writes:
Joan L. Slonczewski identifies “several incorrect assertions” in my review: she claims there has not been a breakdown of pacifist principle in the AFSC; it only promotes groups operating “peacefully” in violent areas; and it does not identify with the PLO.
The problem is not that the AFSC has abandoned pacifist principles; it continues to profess in its brochures and resolutions that “violence can never be right.” The problem is the chasm between the AFSC’s profession and its practice.
Far from promoting peaceful groups in violent areas, the AFSC has acted, as Guenter Lewy has painstakingly documented, as advocate and apologist for the world’s most brutal regimes, including Vietnam in the era of the boat people and Cambodia during the murderous frenzy of Pol Pot.
As for the AFSC’s labors on behalf of the PLO, these could be the subject of a volume in itself (and have been the subject of two essays in Midstream in November 1979 and a pamphlet, The Friendly Perversion, published by Americans for a Safe Israel). The AFSC’s Middle East program, with full-time staff in regional offices around the country, for the past fifteen years has sent speakers on Israel across the nation, coordinated pro-PLO conferences, distributed “peace packets” whose import was to condone PLO terrorism and declare that satisfaction of PLO demands was the only solution to the Middle East conflict, conducted training sessions on countering the Israel lobby with media and legislators. In Israel itself, the AFSC operated a Community Information and Legal Aid Center, ostensibly a social-service agency. Its former director, Jean de Muralt, told me in 1977 that 95 percent of the cases handled by the center were “political prisoners,” i.e., those arrested for PLO activity. De Muralt told me candidly: “We help the small fry. The big people have their own connections and don’t need our help.”
Behind the pacifist mask the AFSC is simply another radical left-wing organization. The journal Peacework, to which Miss Slonczewski refers, provides a good example of the AFSC’s modus operandi. Using the transparent device of the “disclaimer” (Peacework presents the views of “unpopular groups”), the AFSC publishes a typical pro-revolutionary newsletter.
The AFSC’s failure to practice the pacifism it preaches should be a matter of deep concern to the Quaker community. For non-pacifists, the primary significance of the AFSC’s moral collapse lies elsewhere. For many Americans the AFSC has seemed to offer a shining ideal, a vision of a just and humane society, the hope of a better way toward which non-pacifists too could strive. Rufus M. Jones, the renowned Quaker leader who was one of those who created the AFSC in 1917 and then served as its chairman, described its task as taking on “the burden of the world’s suffering in stricken areas around the globe.” In Jones’s words, “We have not only fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and built homes for the homeless, but we have shared in some degree in the lives of the sufferers, helped to create a new spirit within them, and we have at least endeavored to interpret and transmit a constructive way of life.”
The many Americans who believe the AFSC continues to work in the tradition of Rufus Jones are deceived and betrayed.