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Palestinian American Quaker takes helm of American Friends Service Committee

Joyce Ajlouny, the new general secretary of the AFSC, plans to "scale up" the organization's human rights activities.

Joyce Ajlouny, the new general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee  (AFSC), sits in front of a quilt that depicts the AFSC symbol, a red and black star.
Joyce Ajlouny, the new general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), sits in front of a quilt that depicts the AFSC symbol, a red and black star.Read moreMichele Frentrop / For the Inquirer)

As the new general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, Joyce Ajlouny need only look at her own life — the fraught years spent as a Palestinian American Quaker in the cauldron of the West Bank — to embrace the group's century-old human-rights mission.

She was 2 when the town of Ramallah was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967. Since then, she has lived on and off in the occupied territory, attending American schools there and eventually becoming director at her alma mater, Ramallah Friends.  But she likened her existence on the West Bank to being in an "open prison," exposed to violence, harassment, and humiliation. A childhood girlfriend was shot. Her husband was detained in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers.

"I feel very fortunate to be here," said Ajlouny, 51, who took the helm of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quaker organization, based in Philadelphia, in September. "But there is a guilt factor that I left my people behind."

Empathy born of experience, said clerk of the AFSC board Philip Lord, should serve Ajlouny well in her new post at the Friends committee, which is celebrating its centennial this year. She is the 13th general secretary, and one of only a few with roots outside the United States.

"It's time for a leader like her," Lord said. "With the level of polarization and divisiveness in this country and the world, here is someone who comes from a Palestinian background and is able to engage in conversations with people who feel differently [about Palestinian issues], listen and find the common humanity."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has roiled the Quaker community — now with 400,000 members worldwide — since 1970. That year, the AFSC and a Canadian Quaker group coauthored a pamphlet, "Search for Peace in the Middle East," that "strongly supported Palestinian rights and was quite critical of Israel," said Quaker historian Thomas Hamm, a professor at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.

Locally and more recently, the issue boiled over at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood this year, when administrators canceled a speech by Sa'ed Atshan, an assistant professor at Swarthmore College and a Palestinian Quaker who, like Ajlouny, graduated from Ramallah Friends.

Ajlouny has felt the heat herself. While the Ramallah school's director, she created "Go Palestine," a summer camp that she says offers Palestinian youngsters around the world a chance to learn about their roots. In June, it was the subject of a critical article by the Jewish News Service, which distributes content from a right-wing Israeli publication owned by the American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The camp was accused of showing anti-Israel films and presenting lectures by militants, some with terrorist connections.

Denying the accusations, Ajlouny questioned what she described as the article's intent to impugn "the one school that teaches nonviolence, the one school that is purely Quaker, and the one that teaches The Diary of Anne Frank in its curriculum. They chose the wrong school. It's as simple as that."

At Ramallah Friends, passing along her Quaker values to Palestinian youth — peaceful paths to liberation through dialogue and reconciliation — was challenging, but the rewards great.

"I am unequivocally clear that violence is never the answer" to oppression, she said. But "it is most difficult to promote nonviolence among a population that is subjected to it. There is anger, and feelings of revenge and retaliation. … It's very difficult to manage these emotions, especially among the young."

The AFSC was founded in 1917 by a group of Quakers who developed alternative service opportunities for conscientious objectors during World War I. With 250 staffers in 15 countries, it works on international peace-building efforts, and issues such as immigration, housing, discrimination, and criminal justice reform.

Within Quakerism today, said Hamm, viewpoints and practices range from "the most dedicated tree-hugging-chain-yourself-to-the-nuclear-missile peace activist to the most Bible-thumping  fundamentalist who would admire Jerry Falwell and Donald Trump because he is antiabortion." Some conservatives have divorced themselves from the AFSC, saying it is more a leftist social-action group than a religious organization and citing, among other things, a "pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel" bent.

The AFSC "didn't represent us in any way," said Wayne Evans, former general superintendent for the eastern region of the Evangelical Friends Church, "so we don't know what they are doing."

The third of four children of a Palestinian homemaker and an American manager for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Ajlouny was born in East Jerusalem and raised in the Religious Society of Friends — the result of her Greek Orthodox grandmother's conversion to Quakerism. Ajlouny has dual citizenship, as do her three sons and husband, Ziad Khalaf, executive director of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, an educational and cultural nonprofit in Ramallah.

During what she describes as a middle-class childhood, she often visited her father's family in Michigan. Those trips were a respite from the perils of living in occupied territory. "When someone occupies you, it hits your core," she said. "You live under losing hope for a better life."

Ajlouny left Ramallah to earn a bachelor's degree in computer science at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., in 1987. She got her master's in organizational management and development from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Afterward, she returned to the West Bank to teach at Ramallah Friends. It was then, during the first Palestinan intifadah, that a 22-year-old Ajlouny told a reporter she was "ashamed" to be American — words she now says were "too harsh."

"I am proud of my Americanism," she said in a recent interview. "But I am very disappointed with American policies toward my people, and I don't think the American government is taking an evenhanded stand when it comes to oppression of a people who have been dispossessed of their homes and their country for so many years."

Ajlouny left to work in international development and relief projects for the United Nations and Oxfam Great Britain, a confederation of charitable groups fighting global poverty. Thirteen years ago, she went back to run Ramallah Friends.

"She is highly organized, creative, and entrepreneurial," and managed to grow the school's endowment and expand its special-needs programming while "working in a war zone," said Colin Saxton, general secretary of Friends United Meeting, an Indiana-based association of yearly meetings that owns and operates the 1,000-student school.

Ajlouny's views on Palestinian issues have sometimes prompted accusations that she is "outspoken," Saxton said, but she is "an advocate for the school and for Palestinians. She is passionate about it, and has done a great job of communicating a story that needs to be told."

At AFSC, she replaces Shan Cretin, who during seven years as general secretary oversaw a new strategic plan and expanded youth-leadership and antiviolence programs. Ajlouny says she wants to "scale up" the committee's grassroots human-rights activities at a time when bigotry, violence, and the promotion of intolerance have resurfaced in a "blatant way."

She points to AFSC efforts to use the courtroom to combat discrimination against Muslims, to train immigrants to know their legal rights, and to help schools in Miami craft policies that deter Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from entering buildings to detain students.

Ajlouny also hopes to bring educational programming on Israeli-Palestinian issues into Quaker schools, where many of the students are Jewish. That, she said, could prevent confrontations like the one at Friends' Central over Sa'ed Atshan, who teaches conflict resolution at Swarthmore. To Ajlouny, he is a sterling example of the values instilled at Ramallah Friends.

In February, administrators called off a lecture by Atshan after complaints from some school families that the Swarthmore educator was an anti-Israel activist. That action led to protests, a petition, and the firing of the two teachers who invited him to speak. School officials eventually extended another invitation to Atshan to talk about his "personal experiences and path to peace education," but he declined.

Ajlouny envisions discussions in the schools that will change people, not just policies.

"My interactions with Israelis have changed me, and my engagement with them has changed them," she said, "and that is where we start."