A letter to Quakers: principled impartiality

Aletia Dundas, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Dear Friends,

I feel like I’m standing up in meeting with my heart racing and a heaviness that I can’t shake. Friends, over the past few months when the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has come up in conversation, I’ve found myself feeling at odds with other Quakers, and I’ve sat with the question of why this might be. It seems to me that the ongoing situation for Palestine is the one justice issue where we are not in unity. Some might interpret our peace testimony as leading us to remain neutral in conflicts and wars and our testimony to equality as seeing a conflict as having two equal sides. I don’t see it that way. I see this situation in the same way that I see many social justice struggles – there is long-lasting violence, oppression and injustice together with significant power imbalance, and then there are some incredibly courageous people desperately trying to speak truth to power.

I was in Palestine as an Ecumenical Accompanier in 2016, sent by the World Council of Churches as part of a decades long endeavour to respond to urgent pleas from the churches in Jerusalem for international support. The model used by the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) is called “accompaniment”, a theological framework for acting justly in the way of Christ, providing protective presence, monitoring violations of human rights, standing with local peace and human rights groups, using principled impartiality, supporting nonviolent efforts and then engaging in advocacy back home to encourage international action for change.

 The reason I participated in this initiative was because, as a Quaker, I believe we should not be passive in our pacifism. If we believe in peace, and we refuse to take up weapons, then we should be willing to stand up unarmed but well trained to support nonviolent resistance to oppression and an enduring solution to a protracted conflict.

I particularly appreciated the focus of EAPPI on principled impartiality. It was emphasised to us during training that this does not mean remaining neutral in the face of injustice, even though EAPPI doesn’t take sides as such. Instead, principled impartiality means being on the side of justice and human rights, standing alongside those who are poor, oppressed and marginalised. Often during my 3 months in the South Hebron Hills we stood alongside both Palestinians and Israelis who were working together non-violently to oppose the unjust military occupation. And indeed, those Israelis who risked their lives and showed up every Saturday without fail to offer solidarity for Palestinians won my deep admiration.

 So, Friends, every week there have been protests across Australia against the bombardment of Gaza, against what can only be called genocide. I know that Palestinian civilians are disproportionately represented in the unequal death toll, instructed to flee yet given no avenue to escape, denied basic humanitarian assistance including medicines, food, water, and watching their beloved educational and health institutions come crashing down around them. They are rapidly losing hope. And so, I am there at these protests, continuing my commitment to be on the side of justice and human rights, and to stand with those who are marginalised and oppressed. All my life I’ve been attending similar protests. When I was a child we were protesting nuclear weapons, then it was for justice and recognition for First Peoples in their struggle amidst the colonial and racist legacies of invasion 240 years ago. In the early 2000s we marched in huge numbers for an end to the invasion of Iraq. Several times Quakers joined the Mardi Gras, and more recently we advocated for marriage equality, again standing alongside those who have been marginalised and discriminated against here in Australia. In all these actions there has been a sense of comradery amongst those marching, there are creative and witty banners, and our common humanity is evident.

These weekly protests are exactly the same. I have heard the phrase “miracle of kindness” used to describe Palestinians. It is so apt. I remember visiting Palestinian homes recently destroyed by bulldozers in the West Bank in 2016, and being offered tea and a place to sit, despite the fact that my hosts had just lost their entire home. At the peaceful protests I attend at Hyde Park each Sunday there have been so many small acts of generosity, community and kindness: a Palestinian friend was seen smiling warmly as he drummed away as part of a marching band, banners cleverly and tragically pointed to the horror of a war that has taken the lives of thousands of children, and a Jewish contingent display watermelon signs and kippah in solidarity with their Palestinian fellow humans. 

(When Palestinians were denied the right to display their flag, they displayed images of watermelons instead, depicting the same colours as their flag in quiet and creative defiance.)

Quakers before our time have engaged in nonviolent direct action about a range of peace and justice issues, including against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, which the international community now recognises as so racist and wrong. I had the privilege of meeting and working alongside a Quaker woman in New York who was one of the original sit-inners of the civil rights movement in the USA. Quakers, being mostly white, supported this movement and were influential allies (social justice allies, not allied forces!) Quakers assisted Jewish refugees fleeing the holocaust, and indeed some of our members today are from that refugee cohort who were grateful for Quaker support when they feared for their lives. I know that at least one of these people displays the Palestinian flag in her home, and has been a valiant supporter of Palestinian justice for decades. Our history is not one of remaining neutral in the face of injustice, violence, oppression and power imbalance. Indeed, Desmond Tutu said “when we are neutral in situations of injustice, we have taken the side of the oppressor”. Is that how we want history to judge us in this situation?

I want to address claims that these protests are violent or are somehow inciting violence against Jewish people. I’ve never heard anyone at these protests say anything negative about Jewish people. In fact I have noticed and appreciated the Jewish people who regularly attend and speak at these protests to condemn the atrocities being committed by Israel against Palestinians and to say “not in our name”. Since returning to Australia in 2017 and becoming involved in advocacy about the occupation, I have made many Jewish friends. These are people who share a passion for justice, who condemn oppression, and who can be relied upon to show up time and time again in solidarity. 

And in my memories of conversations with Palestinians in the West Bank there is definitely frustration bubbling away at the ways that their rights are curtailed and the violence of Israeli settlers and soldiers, but never any wish to kill them. What was expressed repeatedly was a longing for a time when the three religions will live together in peace again in the Holy Land.

 I realise that some Quakers might have been influenced by deceptive narratives and formed the view that the war in Israel and Gaza is between two equal sides, both hurting, both partly in the wrong, and that therefore impartiality is about being neutral, or condemning the actions of both in equal measure. But the facts speak for themselves. As I write, the number of Palestinian casualties sits at 27,708 while the Israeli numbers are still 1,200. Just the other day the last university in Gaza was destroyed. And following unsubstantiated claims by Israel, several Governments have withdrawn funding to UNRWA, the key humanitarian institution supporting Palestinians. When one group of people so blatantly bears the brunt of the civilian casualties, when their children, young people and those my age know only the brutality of life under military occupation and as second-class citizens in their own land, how does being neutral sit with our practice of solidarity with nonviolent responses to oppression throughout history? Do we not see Palestinians as being of equal value and worth to us? How does remaining neutral take away the occasion of war? (Which I take to mean addressing the underlying causes of war and working towards a positive peace and a just peace). Would peace be long lasting and meaningful if not accompanied by justice?

 So, my request is for Friends to read these words with a spirit of openness. If you are not convinced by the stories I have shared of what I witnessed, I recommend reading the updates from UNOCHA, listening to UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese’s press club speech and accounts from ex-Israeli Defense Force soldiers about the atrocities they committed. Or consider reading about the situation from the perspective of Israeli human rights groups such as B’tselem and Women in Black who have been documenting and speaking out about the injustices of the occupation for decades. I ask that each of us then looks inward for what love calls us to do. Is it to remain neutral in the face of injustice? Or to speak truth to power?

 Aletia Dundas,
February 2024




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  1. Brenda Roy

    Thank you, Aletia.

  2. David Evans

    Thanks Aletia,

    A great contribution. What can one do when one does not know what to do? There is a Red Cross attitude of helping people in trouble whoever they are.
    In the face of tragedy there is waiting, grieving, keeping on if you can, followed by an end to the violence, and then, picking up the pieces and starting again.
    Starting again with love of your community accompanied by hope for peace. and faith that you can achieve.

    Let’s talk about what we can do.


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