Written by: Alan Schneider

Barbed wire. A stylized key. A dove. Not the images one would associate with the Young Men’s Christian Association/Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA/YWCA). But these are the descriptions that accompany a new campaign launched by YMCA/YWCA entitled “Free Palestine.”

For most people, YMCA/YWCA is one of the world’s largest non-profit benevolent organizations in the world, committed, since its founding in 1844, to providing opportunities “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” Although the mission of each YMCA/YWCA chapter varies according to local and current needs, all invariably focus on the improvement of the spiritual, mental, social, and physical condition of young men and women through various sports, educational, and vocational programs. A hallmark of YMCA/YWCA activities has been its non-partisanship, which has helped it to maintain a unique position of consensus around the world. Some YMCAs have adopted the definition of being “an association of all people united in a common effort to put Judeo-Christian principles into practice through programs that enrich the spirit, mind, and body.” The Judeo-Christian values of the YMCA/YMCA must be evident in everything the organization does.

As a result, many people who enjoy and support the services of the YMCA/YWCA would undoubtedly be surprised by the highly political Free Palestine campaign underway that adopts the Palestinian narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict and its symbols. The campaign is an indication of the radicalization of the Christian community in Jerusalem and the disputed territories, in favor of Palestinian demands for Israeli withdrawal and the Palestinian right of return, as well as simplistic distortions of the theological roots of the conflict.

The campaign brochure, replete with gross misrepresentations about the Israel-Arab and Israel-Palestinian conflict, carries the ‘Y.W.C.A. – YMCA” imprimatur on the cover. The text indicates that the campaign is led by the YWCA of Palestine and the East Jerusalem YMCA. Advertisements for the campaign are carried in Palestinian publications such as the February 2003 issue of the EU-funded This Week in Palestine.

The goals of the YMCA/YWCA Free Palestine campaign are to:

Bring about an end to the Israeli occupation – the prerequisite to a lasting peace in the area [including] … the total withdrawal of the Israeli presence from the areas occupied in 1967 [and] the establishment of an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The campaign logo, a key, “is an important symbol of their homeland and their right of return. The document states, “The message to be communicated through all documents and activities of Palestinian NGO’s and their international partners must be: End the Israeli Occupation.”

Presenting the “theological roots” of the campaign, the literature further states:

Following the cross of Jesus is to act in solidarity with the victims of the day, as Jesus was crucified with the people who were branded as ‘terrorists’ by the authorities of this time. The Palestinians are currently crucified, humiliated, and denied their human rights and dignity. The cross is the victory of the powerless. According to biblical faith, God is the protector and defender of the poor and dispossessed, and they are their heirs of the Kingdom.

The initiators write that they “expect that the dynamics of the campaign will stimulate other campaigns all over the world, nourish them with concrete and useful information, and share and capitalize on mutual experiences and expertise in the field of advocacy.” They suggest the following areas of activity: “Visits to Palestine;”’ “Local Delegations to Travel Abroad;" “Communications and Dissemination of Information;” and special projects, such as their current “Olive Tree Campaign” that aims to replant olive trees that have been uprooted by the IDF for security reasons.

Like other YMCA/YWCA facilities around the world, the main activities of the YWCA of Palestine, as noted on its web site includes innocuous cultural and social activities. However, in December 2000, a joint YMCA/YWCA “advocacy desk” was established “to advocate for peace with justice, tolerance, equality, and respect for the rights and dignity of human beings based on first-hand experiences and adequate information.” Position papers published by the desk on, among other things, US aid to Israel, settlements, and Palestinian refugees represent a study in one-sided Palestinian partisanship.

Although the timbre of the Free Palestine campaign is new, YMCA/YWCA support for the Palestinian cause is not. A major venue for partisan YMCA in support of Palestinian demands has been the World Alliance of YMCAs – established in 1855 and headquartered in Geneva – the coordinating body that brings together 122 National YMCA movements from all over the world. Numerous anti-Israel resolutions, replete with biased terminology like “Israeli Occupation Forces,” “Liberated Palestinian Territories” and “Palestine”, have been adopted at subsequent meetings of the Alliance’s “World Council” meetings.

  • At the 11th World Council held during the first intifada, a resolution adopted ignored Palestinian terrorism visited upon Israelis and summary justice Palestinians meted out against those in the West Bank and Gaza identified as “collaborators” – describing them only as “young people [who] have come to the forefront of efforts for change.”

  • In 1989, as a follow-up to the resolution on Palestine, a meeting was convened in Cairo with members of a YMCA delegation that had visited the area. Among the 11 recommendations adopted was a call to the World Alliance to “inform the world YMCA of new ideas and projects to support the Palestinian community.”

  • The 12th World Council attested to the fact that the World Alliance has supported the Palestinians by “asking member movements to make representations to their governments on behalf of the Palestinian people.”

  • The 14th World Council meeting adopted a resolution stating: “The human suffering and injustice on the Palestinian people is not only a matter that can be addressed through financial support to social programmes in the area. It also includes a challenge to theological reflection, political and ideological analysis, advocacy and action for the protection of human rights.”

  • In May 2000, the World Alliance Executive Committee endorsed the NGO Statement on the Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees to their homes.

Distortions and falsehoods abound in reports and resolutions adopted following the outbreak of the current round of Palestinian violence in September 2000. For example, a report entitled “Responding to the second Intifada: Crisis in Palestine deepens” notes that a YMCA facility was hit by Israeli gunfire but never mentions that it came in response to incessant Palestinian fire against Israeli residential apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. The World Alliance wrote to YMCA national movements on October 13, 2000 condemning “the threat of Israeli intervention and interference” and calling on the YMCA “to show its solidarity with the Palestinian people” despite the fact that it was PA forces who instigated and initiated the violence. At its Executive Committee meeting in April 2001, the World Alliance established an International YMCA/YWCA observer “to investigate conditions in Palestinan and Israel and report back.” Of the 20 reports submitted until December 2001, none deal with the suffering inflicted by Palestinian terrorists on Israeli civilians. All the reports, with titles such as “Israeli government intensifies occupation, “The myth about legitimate ‘gentle torture’ in Israel,” “Conflict imposed traumas among children”, and “For security reasons,” deal only with Palestinian hardship and blame is assigned solely to Israel. Scant mention is made of Israeli casualties, no Israeli sources are quoted, and Palestinian terminology, such as “firing from the settlement of Gilo” – a southern suburb of Jerusalem – is utilized throughout.

Interestingly, none of the other “peacebuilding” issues listed on the World Alliance web site – conflict transformation, culture of peace, landmines, Columbia, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka – receive similar scrutiny.

Recognizing that the highly politicized and inaccurate positions of the World Alliance and the local YMCA/YWCA may jeopardize the organization’s ability to undertake its humanitarian assistance programs, the YMCA of the USA, YMCA Canada, and the Mexican Federation of YMCAs issued strongly worded protests prior to the World Council meeting in Mexico last July. The statements rightly insisted:

The YMCA is and must remain a thoroughly non-partisan servant of the common good. We support every effort to seek peace and respect between all peoples. As long time members of the World Alliance of YMCAs, we have been deeply troubled by recent statements of officials of that organization which contradict the historic neutrality and non-partisanship of the YMCA movement. We have strongly opposed and denied these statements and called on the World Alliance to commit itself in support of the fundamental fairness and equity of treatment which is required in or serve to all nations and peoples….The most important service of the YMCA depends on our organization marinating a staunchly non-partisan position in political and international conflicts, with an enduring commitment to peace and respect among all peoples. This is at the heart of our YMCA mission.

The US, Canada, and Mexican YMCAs accused the World Alliance of ignoring its own earlier commitment, in August 2001, that “all statements or resolutions regarding the Middle East would reflect the consensus of YMCA national movement, would do no harm to the standing or reputation of any national movement, would reflect balance and fairness and would be reviewed and approved by an international committee including representation from North America.” In response, the World Alliance chair agreed to post these statements on the parent’s web site.

However, 18 months have passed and the US, Canada, and Mexican Federation’s statements are nowhere to be found on the World Alliance’s site. And the politicization of the YMCA/YWCA’s good names continue.