Notes on my Quaker Connections in Palestine

© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

PHOTOS: September – January, 2005

(first written on November 13, 2004, revised March 1, 2010)

Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continually return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.

—Thomas Kelly

In a nutshell, fruits borne by my Quaker connections are myriad. Without those connections my current trip [2004-05] to Palestine and Israel would be an entirely different journey.

Al-Quds University in Abu Dis with the Separation Wall impeding access of many students

Feeling a call to be in Palestine and Israel for an extended period, primarily to observe, comprehend, photograph, and portray what I experience–some would call this: witness with a camera–I wrote letters to many organizations engaged in the struggle for justice and peace in the Holy Land. One of the most promising replies came from Birzeit University near Ramallah, which was willing to engage me in a project about the right to education.

Ramallah happens to be the most active site of Quakerism in Palestine. The city is traditionally Christian; Quakers have been in Ramallah since at least the late 1800s. Motivated by the missionizing instinct, they organized a meeting for worship while establishing a school for girls.

Arriving in Ramallah in mid September 2004 to begin my work thru Birzeit (I might have landed anywhere in Israel and Palestine, depending on which organization first accepted my offer), I visited one of the two Friends schools (archaically named “Girls” and “Boys” but in reality elementary and secondary, respectively). This first visit was to attend the meeting for worship on Sunday morning, since the meeting house is currently being renovated. Later that day I met the principal of the school, Diana Abdel Nour, who was in her office “catching up.” (I’d met her during the summer of 2004 at New England Yearly Meeting. The summer before at Yearly Meeting I also met the former directors of the Friends schools, Colin and Kathy South.) Diana invited me to visit the school the following Monday, coming in time for the chapel (which in reality is an assembly).

–Could I photograph?

–I don’t see why not.

Friends elementary school

Photographing I felt instantaneous resonance with the people and the place. Thus began my weekly visits to both schools and a growing series of photographs.

Connection number one with Friends in Palestine: Ramallah and Friends schools.

The Birzeit photo project ended prematurely, it did not work out. So I revived my efforts to volunteer my photography. Friends’ schools was on my list, not high, but present. I met the Friends schools’ head, Joyce Aljlouni, at a meeting for worship. Learning of my experience teaching photography, she asked me if I’d be willing to lead an afterschool program. Initially, because of prior commitments, I said no, then, as my plans changed, I agreed to offer limited photography teaching at the secondary school.

She informed me that my offer to photograph the school was not timely–just days before my offer Joyce learned that a German photographer associated with the Barenboim-Said music project at the school was going to be photographing. The photographer, Peter Dammann, and I now work around each other.

Jean Zaru in the Ramallah meeting house

With the Birzeit project ending and the apartment they provided no longer available, I was faced with the question of where to base myself and where to live. I wrote my cyber clearness-support committee (a twist on the Quaker tradition of clearness or support committee, but not in the actual presence of the members, by email instead). A friend many times to the region, the late Hilda Silverman, suggested I consult with Jean Zaru, clerk of the Ramallah Friends meeting. Jean is Palestinian, very wise, experienced in many forms of resistance to occupation, harbors a dramatic vision of using the soon-to-be-opened Friends meeting house as an international center for the nonviolent transformation of the Palestinian and Israeli society–and might be able to help guide me on my next steps. I’d met Jean at meetings for worship in Ramallah and also in Cambridge when she spoke at our meeting. I emailed her. She suggested asking at the school whether any of the teachers or parents might have a room or apartment to rent.

Joyce replied that the school has an apartment they’d be willing to rent me at a reduced rate, the rate possibly negotiable for services to the school.

Connection number two: Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of Ramallah Friends meeting.

Ramallah meeting house

I’d heard about the Ramallah meeting house, its deterioration, and one day, ambling around central Ramallah, after noticing on previous occasions a church-like structure–not quite a church, but a house of reverence perhaps–I learned this was the Friends meeting house. Later, Jean asked me to photograph its interior for the international committee which is supervising the renovation.

While searching for more organizations to photograph for, a Friend from South Africa, Jeremy Routledge, contacted me.

–Skip, I’m in Palestine, with the Ecumenical Accompaniers, let’s visit.

We had met for the first time in 1990 when a small group of us from Friends meeting at Cambridge visited South Africa to learn about the situation and express solidarity with those in the struggle against apartheid. We met again in 1999 when I photographed for the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town that Jeremy directed at that time. And most recently we came together in Ramallah, he stayed overnight with me. He told me about the Ecumenical Accompaniers program, suggesting I might photograph for them.

One week later, I was at his team’s site in Sawahreh, a village east of Jerusalem. I photographed one of their projects observing checkpoints. Later, Jeremy invited me to join his team for a visit to another team in Bethlehem, a group of three clerics that Jeremy jokingly calls “The Three Wise Men.” With them we joined an Italian Catholic nun to pray the rosary at the new Separation Wall running thru the birth town of Jesus. I am now photographing their various other teams in Jayyous, Yanoun, Hebron, and Jerusalem.

Connection number three: Jeremy Routledge, South African Friend, and thru him the Ecumenical Accompaniers

Praying the rosary at the Separation Wall in Bethlehem

One of the Ecumenical Accompaniers teams is in Ramallah, residing at the Swift House, which is owned by the Friends School. I drop by occasionally for tea and to chat, also to photograph some of their activities, such as Emily Mnisi (also from South Africa) working in the Jalazoon refugee camp.

Emily Mnisi at Jalazoon refugee camp


Connection number four: the American Friends Service Committee in Gaza

On my first solo trip to Palestine/Israel in 2004 I heard about the AFSC working with youth in the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza? Really! I remembered that the AFSC served refugees in Gaza after the Nakba began, the Palestinian catastrophe, coincident and caused by the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. And I’d learned they’d left after one year when they realized they were not working in resettlement camps, that Israel intended to permanently displace the Palestinians. And now, roughly 60 years later, Quakers, in the form of the AFSC, are back. I contacted them, found a way into Gaza, the first in a continuing series of visits volunteering to teach photography and make photos for this organization and its fully indigenous staff.

And one final connection with Quakers.

In 2002 a Friend, Paul Hood, videotaped at the Friends schools, and later told me stories of his experience. When that project was beginning, I felt so jealous–that could be me, I thought, maybe making a slide show for the school. His experience enlightened and propelled me to initiate my own. And here I am–not only because of my multifarious Quaker connections in the Holy Land, but because of my Beloved Quaker Community back home–living for awhile at the Friends elementary school, very happy with the sounds of children, the early and late light that streams in my apartment, the connection I have with a long tradition of Friends’ activities in some of the most difficult places on earth. Not always are Friends so placed. Thru the bases of the Ramallah meeting for worship and my refuge in the Friends school, I hope to sustain and encourage that tradition.

We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

–Martin Luther King Jr.

Quaker connections links:

The Friends International Center in Ramallah (FICR)

Friends schools in Ramallah

Jean Zaru

“Crossing boundaries in Israel/Palestine: An interview with Jean Zaru” by Marianne Arbogast in The Witness

Ecumenical Accompaniers

Howard Zinn presente! May his life inspire us all: his writing about the uses and abuses of the Jewish Holocaust, “A larger consciousness,” ZNet Commentary, 10 October 1999

4 thoughts on “Notes on my Quaker Connections in Palestine

  1. Skip, These archival entries make me wonder if this is a leading for a proposal for a future FGC workshop — or even for this year’s FGC, via a Friday evening interest group. One could have as a theme: how may Friends approach the topic of Israel and Palestine: what in fact are Friends in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza undertaking to do in response to the expansionist policies of the government of Israel, to Israeli citizens’ fears of attack, and to Palestinians’ experience of life under Israeli military control and confinement within ever-dwindling segments of the West Bank (as Israel expands its Jewish-only enclaves and road networks). How do Ramallah Friends Meeting, International Center, and Friends School respond to these realities? What work does AFSC carry out within the blockaded Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem. How may US Friends act to assist Quakers in Israel and Palestine in working for a viable, lasting peace that relieves the burdens of fear and repression from both Israelis and Palestinians? What does FCNL ask of US Friends in speaking to our government to advance this cause? Should Friends consider economic actions to support the Palestinian economy and to avoid products from (or supportive of) Israeli enclaves within the West Bank ?


    1. anne,

      good thoughts. i might use them as the basis of an interest group at fgc gathering this summer, if i attend, or you might, if you attend. (at the moment i’m more drawn to the us social forum in late june 2010 in detroit.) or a new slide show. or a prelude to my photo presentations to quakers, or during the after show discussion. much to ponder in your letter. thanks.


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