So many bad ways to mark the Balfour Declaration – but here’s one good one

How to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration this November? You can be sure there’s going to be no end of bad ways.

Albert Hall

Hiring the Royal Albert Hall in London on 7 November with a 500 voice international Christian choir will definitely be up there with the most crassly inappropriate ways to remember Balfour.

Don’t expect to see a single Palestinian Christian in the building which alone should make you question this event’s integrity. However, I expect to see plenty of Jewish representatives there. They will be our Jewish communal leaders and probably the Israeli Ambassador to London. They seem to think that hanging out with Christian Zionists is good for the future of Jews and Judaism.  Perhaps one day they’ll get round to checking out the anti-Jewish theology at the heart of Christian Zionism before they accept another invitation to collude in our eschatological demise.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister will be coming to Britain to celebrate with the British Prime Minister. But if by then our PM turns out to be Jeremy Corbyn, this will probably require a rethink!

Members of the Royal Family will visit Israel for the first time in an official capacity. I hadn’t realised the Windsors were so lukewarm about Zionism.

And the British government has promised (at the time of writing) that it will commemorate the event “with pride”. After all, said the official response to an anti-Balfour petition, the Declaration was “the right and moral thing to do”.

So assuming a Conservative politician is still living at Number 10, don’t expect any acknowledgement of culpability or even regret to balance out all of that pride. Apparently, questions of responsibility for what Balfour led to are best left to the historians.

But whoever is running the British government by November, there’s little doubt that they’ll be plenty of Jewish led Balfour celebrations. And I expect them to be just as tactless, thoughtless and devoid of political or historical context as the Christian Zionist knees-up at the Albert Hall.

Synagogues will hold thanksgiving services and eminent Jewish figures will give speeches and lectures. I guarantee you these will be excruciating in their denial of what Balfour has meant to another people. A people made virtually invisible by the language of the Declaration which reduced the indigenous majority living in the Holy Land in 1917 as merely the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Still not history

The thing that the current British government fails to notice is that Balfour is not history. It’s not something long ago and only of academic interest. It’s  still current affairs. After a hundred years, the consequences of those 67 words of British imperial realpolitik are still playing themselves out everyday in Jerusalem, Gaza, Hebron, in fact everywhere west of the Jordan river.

I’m not for a moment forgetting the centuries of Jewish oppression in Europe nor the catastrophe of the Holocaust. But in celebrating Balfour, why must we be expected to ignore the fact that the price of creating a Jewish State turned out to be the on-going dispossession of the Palestinian people? A people equal in number to the Jewish people. With the benefit of 100 years’ of hindsight it’s not difficult to see how this was always going to be the case.

So how should Balfour be remembered? What’s an honest way to mark this centenary, one that carries with it not only a rounded understanding of history and politics but one that includes a degree of humility, penance and an outlook for peace that embraces justice and equality?

A small British Christian charity has found a way to achieve all of this.

Just Walk to Jerusalem

On Saturday 10 June the ‘Just Walk to Jerusalem’ set out from Southwark Cathedral in London.

It’s the start of a 2,000 mile journey by around 70 pilgrims walking in stages across Europe. It will take four months to complete and end in Jerusalem on 2 November, the day of the Balfour anniversary.

The Just Walk Is being organised by Amos Trust an organisation that puts a biblical inspired call for justice at the heart of its work. Amos is no stranger to the reality of the conflict. It has 30 years experience of working with Christian, Jewish and Muslim partners in Israel/Palestine and is bringing all of that experience to bear in creating this event.

As the Walk approaches Jerusalem the final team of pilgrims will be accompanied by partners of Amos Trust’s work to bring ‘hope to the forgotten’.

You can follow and share the progress of the ‘Just Walk to Jerusalem’ on social media using #ChangeTheRecord a reference to the endless injustice that Balfour set the tune for.

There was a celebratory send off for the first team of walkers, including Palestinian music, some very British humour, good food, great prayers and a few short speeches.

Here’s my send off speech which, as you’d expect, takes a dissident Jewish perspective on the whole thing.

‘Time to #ChangeTheRecord’: speech for the Just Walk launch

Thank you for coming to see our first group of walkers safely on their way.

And thank you for helping us to ‘change the record’ after a 100 years of injustice towards the Palestinian people.

Our call is clear and simple:

Equal rights for all who call the Holy Land home.

It’s astonishing how controversial that call is: “Equal rights for everyone in the Holy Land.”

‘#Changing the record’ is about making that idea sound normal, reasonable and good for everyone.

We have some way to go on that.

For me, standing here is very special indeed.

This year I became the first Jew to be a Trustee on the Board of Amos Trust. An organisation that’s spent 30 years bringing Justice and Hope to the forgotten all over the world.

I’m glad to have found a spiritual home in an incredible organisation that draws its courage and inspiration from a Hebrew prophet.

3,000 years ago it was the prophet Amos who cut through all the hypocrisy and all the denial of his own community with a passionate, raging and poetic call for justice.

He recognised that the Jewish leadership of his day had got it wrong, they were leading their people down a moral cul de sac and were heading for disaster.

And he called them out on it.

His call was also clear and simple.

Justice and Righteousness.

Amos and his fellow Hebrew Prophets certainly have a lot to answer for.

They created a tradition. A tradition of principled counter-cultural, non-compliance. Radical dissent from oppressive power.

A tradition that I and a great many other Jews think of as our primary Jewish inheritance. The values that remains true when so much else has become corrupted.

All of you are here because you want to be part of a bold and creative response to some rather dismal anniversaries this year.

This year we’re marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and I’ve been speaking around the country about Jewish opposition to Balfour both in 1917 and today.

Jewish opposition to Balfour is not something you hear much about. It’s been largely airbrushed out of Jewish history.

I call the talk I’ve been giving: ‘The Wrong Kind of Jews’ which usually raises a few eyebrows of concern.

But don’t worry, there’s nothing antisemitic about what I have to say.

Here’s a very quick story to explain myself.

The man who would become the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, first met Arthur Balfour at a hotel in Manchester in 1907.

They spent about an hour together discussing Weizmann’s ideas and at the end of their meeting Balfour said:

“It’s strange Mr Weizmann. Most of the Jews I meet are not like you.”

To which, Weizmann replied: “Mr Balfour, you meet the wrong kind of Jews.”

So there were the ‘Wrong Kind of Jews’ then, and 100 years after Balfour, and 50 years after the start of the Occupation, there is good reason to be the ‘Wrong Kind of Jew’ today.

It’s not widely understood, but there are many Jews in Britain deeply troubled by the actions of the state of Israel.

There are many Jews in Britain who see 50 years of Occupation of the West Bank as morally indefensible. Truly, a disaster.

There are many Jews who see the siege of Gaza and the wars against its people as crimes.

There are many Jews who believe Jerusalem must be a shared city.

There are plenty of Jews, like me, who don’t wish to build their Jewish identity around Zionism.

We aren’t the majority.

We are often dismissed, and sometimes ridiculed and vilified by our own community…especially its leadership.

Sometimes it feels like we are the last remnant of that prophetic tradition of Amos.

This week Jewish Voice for Peace in America shared a prophesy written by Jewish Israelis just months after the Occupation began in 1967 and published as an ad in a national Israeli paper.

Part of their ad said this:

“Our right to defend ourselves… does not grant us the right to oppress others. Conquest brings in its wake foreign rule. Foreign rule brings in its wake resistance. Resistance brings in its wake oppression.”

That was the authentic voice of Amos echoing down three millennia.

Jews may be monotheistic in our theology but we are certainly not monolithic in our political outlook. Certainly not when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian people.

Let me make special mention of a group here today – they’ve even brought their own banner.

Free Speech on Israel, is a Jewish led initiative working hard to create space for an open and honest discussion about Israel that has no time for antisemitism or racism of any kind.

Free Speech on Israel is punching above its weight and making common cause with others, including Christians and Muslims, who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Thank you for being here.

I’d also like to pass on greetings, support and solidarity from Jews for Justice for Palestinians, an organisation that for many years has provided a vital alternative UK Jewish perspective on Israel. I know they too have members here today.

Together with you, we awkward, rebellious, dissident ‘Wrong Kind of Jews’ want to stand with the prophet Amos in that incredible river of justice than runs through all of human history.

Like you, we are wading into that stream of righteousness.

Before I finish let me tell you about one of my great heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose family were murdered in the Holocaust. Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma for Black Civil Rights in the mid 1960s.

At the end, feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, he said it felt as if his legs had been praying.

I think that’s how it’s going to be for our Amos pilgrims to Jerusalem too as they call for equal rights for all.

So we wish you strong feet, strong legs and muscles full of prayer.

Have a great afternoon celebrating the richness and vibrancy of Palestinian culture, laughing in the face of adversity, and listening to some great music.

Together, we’re changing the record!

Thank you.

 

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