I really enjoy Meeting for Sufferings, generally speaking. I make jokes about how long it is, and how tiring, and how there’s so much paperwork, but really I’m a sucker for a good big business meeting. Meeting for Sufferings is hardly the biggest business meeting in the land – Yearly Meeting trumps it easily, with perhaps ten times the number of Friends – and I wouldn’t pretend to know which is the best (perhaps there’s a tiny meeting in Somewhere-or-Other which holds the best business meetings? If you know, do tell me), but I like it.
Meeting for Sufferings, following some recent changes, now has around 100 people present at each meeting, and meets about six times a year. This is just small enough that earlier this year we were able, for the first time ever, to meet for a residential at Woodbrooke. The major advantages to this are that a) you get a whole weekend in which to socialise and get to know one another as well as to work, and b) you get to be at Woodbrooke. (I am personally biased to consider the latter wholly a good thing, for reasons which I might discuss when I reach W.) We actually spent much of that meeting on our internal matters, important but not the ones I most want to share.
Recently, the Meeting for Sufferings decision I have been asked about most is the boycott of goods from Israeli settlements. (You can read about that boycott in general here.) In April, we revisited that decision, having been asked to do so by several Area Meetings. It was a tough session – Meeting for Sufferings is usually intense, intellectually and emotionally, but this was much more so. We heard about the history of the situation – not, perhaps, in full, but those parts which seemed to be relevant. We heard the concerns of Friends, practical and political, and we heard about the many ways in which we have been in dialogue with the Jewish community over this. (Indeed, one of that places I went and found myself speaking about this was my local Quaker-Jewish dialogue group.)
Most of us arrive at the consideration of such an issue with some thoughts already in mind. In this case, some of us are thinking about our own attempts to carry out this boycott as suggested, and the difficulty of identifying settlement goods while still buying Israeli goods; others are thinking about what they have seen on visits to Israel/Palestine, others about the history of the Jewish people, others about the legal situation, others about the arguments in favour of boycotting all of Israel, others about the hurt caused by this boycott and the reasons for abandoning it, and so forth. We don’t come in to it neutral – how could you? And yet our aim is to set these personal things aside a little, bringing them in as appropriate, but trying to get a sense of the right way forward whether it is what we expected or not.
The right way forward is especially hard to find when it seems that none of the ways forward are really right. We want to maintain our friendships with people on both sides of the conflict. We aren’t really in agreement with the governments of either side, especially on the matter of armed conflict (Quakers disagree with almost every government ever about that, actually). We want to take a stance against what seems to us to be wrong, but also to speak in favour of what seems to us to be right. At the moment – as of our minute in April – Meeting for Sufferings feels that a boycott of Israeli settlements but not of Israel is the right way to hold that balance in public, however difficult it may be.
Reaching such decisions is hard. I can’t say that I enjoyed that session as such, but it felt right that we go through the process, seeing it as part of a continuing compromise. With that in mind, we will be considering the matter again in October; pray that God is with us then. In the meantime, you can read the April minute (scroll down to the fifth item, S/13/04/05) for yourself.