For the children of Palestine the second Balfour century has already begun

Greetings from East Jerusalem in Israeli occupied Palestine.

Tomorrow (2 November) is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Around the world there is limited interest in this anniversary. Even in Israel it’s not much of a news story. Prime Minister Netanyahu can afford to be in London with Theresa May and Boris Johnson celebrating Balfour at a private dinner party.

But here in the Occupied Palestinian Territories it’s different. Here Balfour matters. It’s on the streets, it’s in the air. Here it’s understood that Balfour’s sixty-seven words of incompatible imperial pledges locked together the fate of two peoples, but with vastly differing outcomes for each. Balfour made a promise, that promise led to the creation of the State of Israel, and that State led to the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

What’s clear to see when you’re ‘on the ground’, is that Balfour isn’t history – it’s current affairs. It’s the checkpoints; it’s the Settlements expanding before your eyes; it’s the Israeli artist living on the Gaza border who says she wants peace but really wants only peace and quiet; it’s our Jerusalem Arab taxi driver, who explains why his Bethlehem born wife, a qualified engineer, can’t get work because she’s denied the same citizenship rights as her husband. This week, the consequences of Balfour remain present and un-corrected.

Thursday’s anniversary will come and go and nothing will have changed. On Friday we will begin the second hundred years of Balfour, not knowing when or how, or if, it will ever end. The children of Palestine will become adults and Balfour will still be here.

The Just Walk to Jerusalem

I’ve come to Israel/Palestine to join the final stages of Amos Trust’s ‘Just Walk to Jerusalem’ a 2,000 mile act of political and spiritual penance for the consequences of Balfour and an act of solidarity with those living those consequences today.

Nine walkers have completed the entire route starting out from London in June. The oldest is 67, the youngest is 18. They’ve crossed a continent to be here and have the blisters to prove it. For these final days, their numbers have been swelled by further Amos pilgrims, and the focus has shifted from covering ground to building and renewing relationships. We’re here to walk and to stand alongside our Christian, Jewish and Muslim partner organisations, we are listening to their stories and learning from their experiences.

Since Theresa May repeated her comments about “celebrating Balfour with pride” in the House of Commons last week, the local Palestinian and the regional Arab media have fallen in love the Amos ‘justice pilgrims’. Camera crews and reporters have been following their every step. It’s not difficult to explain why. For the Palestinians, the idea of a Balfour “celebration” is not only absurd, it’s a callous denial of their history and their daily lives.

We know we cannot turn back the clock to a time before Balfour. Whatever the second Balfour century looks like it will include Jews and Arabs living on the land. The question is: will they live as equals and in peace or will they live, as they do today, as oppressed and oppressor? The slogan for the Just Walk has been ‘Change the Record’; change the record of injustice, end the soundtrack to oppression. Our call is simple, but frustratingly it is also highly contentious: Equal rights for all who call the Holy Land home. Is that a dream? Naive? Impossible? Foolish? Or is it the only possible response to what we are seeing?

A different pilgrimage

While the Amos Trust Walkers have crossed ten countries on foot I’ve been travelling by train across England on a different kind of pilgrimage, attempting another kind of response for the second Balfour century.

Since November last year I’ve been speaking to groups about Jewish dissent on Zionism and in particular towards the Balfour Declaration in 1917. I’ve talked about the alternative Jewish thinking of a 100 years ago in the belief that it can point us in a new direction for today and tomorrow.

I’ve travelled to London, Bath, Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Cheltenham, Manchester, Harrogate, Solihull, Warwick, and Kettering. This is not my job, nobody pays me, I have no book to sell. The speaking invitations are unsolicited and largely result from people reading my blog posts over the last six years. Some groups are secular, some religious, some mixed. I’ve spoken to Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers, to Palestine Solidarity Campaign groups, Green Party members and socialists of every variety. I imagine there have been a few Conservative voters in the room too on occasion.

No invitation has come from a formal Jewish body of any description, which says much about the parameters of acceptable discussion on Israel in 2017. In fact, I have it on good authority that our Jewish leadership has been actively lobbying in private against me, accusing me of “hate speech” and advising that I should not be invited to speak. This makes me both laugh and cry. It also gives me hope. If the Jewish establishment thinks Robert Cohen is the problem, it has already lost the plot.

In all of my travels I’m yet to come across anyone remotely antisemitic (including me!). Instead, I meet caring, concerned, committed individuals, passionate about human rights, and delighted to discover that Jews may be monotheistic but they are far from monolithic when in comes to Israel. There is one key message I try to put across:

“The single most important challenge facing Jews and Judaism itself in the 21st century is our relationship with the Palestinian people. Every other concern pales into insignificance. And right now, and for some considerable time, we have been making a terrible hash of that relationship.”

Occasionally, Jews come to hear me. Since it was Jews I set out to write for six years ago I’m always grateful when they turn up. One told me how “Jewish” my talk was, by which she meant not only my content but my delivery and my humour. It was the best compliment I’ve had all year.

Where I have met young Jews, I’ve learnt that there is a strong desire for an honest, open conversation about Israel and the damage its actions are doing to the Jewish community in Britain. Just as is happening in the United States, a new generation has had enough of the denial, the spin and the indoctrination from their rabbis, teachers, youth movements and unelected community leaders.

My pilgrimage has taught me that by travelling and talking it may be possible to expand the Jewish narrative and allow back into the room alternative voices from the Jewish past and the Jewish present. Is that a dream? Naive? Impossible? Foolish? Or is it, like the ‘Just Walk to Jerusalem’, the only possible response?

The new Balfour Declaration

So tomorrow we end one century and begin the next.

In the morning the Amos Trust pilgrims will stand and walk alongside our friends and partners in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In Jerusalem we will pay a visit to the offices of the British Consulate-General and hand to the officials our new Balfour Declaration. It’s a re-working of the original sixty-seven words and is intended for Britain’s current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. I’ve been road-testing this ‘Boris Declaration’ during my talks across England. If Her Majesty’s Government find it impossible to apologise for the past, perhaps at least it can consider an alternative diplomacy for the future:

The ‘Boris Declaration’

“Her Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine/Israel of a safe and secure home for all who live there. The nations of the world should use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil, political and religious rights of Palestinians or Jews living in Palestine/Israel or any other country.”

Don’t we at least owe this new Balfour Declaration to the children of Palestine? Is that a dream? Naive? Impossible? Foolish? Or is it the only possible response?

Nothing tells me that the future looks better than the past. Nothing tells me that a second Balfour century will not end with more celebrations. When hope is so difficult to find there is only one thing left. We can choose where to walk and who to walk alongside. Each day of the Just Walk to Jerusalem has begun with Words of Hope which end with this thought:

Ambulando Solvitur – It will be solved by walking.

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