On Saturday, for a third year since our return from our Sabbatical in Israel and Palestine at the end of 2013, we were at the annual Conference in Oxford of the Friends of Sabeel UK, following through our interest in the Palestinian Liberation Theology centre which begun in work at the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem when it was clear that Palestinian Christians needed to articulate what it felt like to be Christians under an occupation which many read as being God’s purpose.
Once again we heard an impressive Palestinian advocate of non-violence; this time it was Sami Awad, who we had wanted to hear again ever since we came across his profound reflection on the Beatitudes. It was, of course, a significant week in which to hear such a person; the Mayor of Tel Aviv had responded to Palestinian deadly shootings there by saying, without condoning or justifying violence in any way, that the occupation must be a factor.
At the end of the day, a questioner asked him what single thing we could do – a Friends organisation is always caught between the dangers of doing too little or even nothing and doing what might be the wrong thing or even something for the sake of it. His answer came at the question slant: ‘we are sorrowful at the silence of the church’. In the small bubbles in which I live, the word is always about the danger and even perceived bias of going on about all this too much – but I have touched before on the way that the need to oppose genuine anti-Semitism can have the side effect of keeping the church hierarchy quiet and Palestinian Christians feeling abandoned.
Actually the most striking recent comments have had a British governmental origin and these shed a light on some of the thinking behind things like the restrictions on local government rights to engage in any boycott movement in their procurement or investment policies. Michael Gove gave a speech in March in which he said
...worse than libelling the state of Israel, the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] campaign, by calling for the deliberate boycott of goods manufactured by Jewish people, by calling for the shunning of the Jewish state, and the rejection of Jewish commerce and Jewish thought, actually commits a crime worse than apartheid – it reintroduces into our world and into our society a prejudice against Jews collectively that should have vanished from the earth generations ago...
It is important to note that this isn’t the leader of an extreme settler group speaking but the British Justice Minister. Most of those who advocate or oppose boycotts as a non-violent option could join together in recognising that many of the goods involved are manufactured by Palestinians in the West Bank, some of those advocating the boycott are Jewish themselves, and almost all in their domestic life would not think to enquire whether other goods they purchase were associated with manufacturers who happen to be Jewish (anymore than whether they happen to be Arab, black, Christian, disabled, European, foreign or gay, to name just the historic prejudices at the beginning of the alphabet). That the British Justice Minister so strongly elides in his own mind boycotting the occupation with anti-Jewish agitation and prejudice may be really very significant.
And it will therefore be interesting to learn what tone his Government proposes for the announced British celebrations of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – the 1917 policy statement that
His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
David Cameron’s address to the Knesset may have spoken out against the promoters of boycotts and of UN resolutions, but it did also support both a halt to settlement activity and the creation of a Palestinian state.
Is there a “dual narrative” which can exhibit awareness at the same time of ‘the moment when the State of Israel went from a dream to a plan - Britain has played a proud and vital role in helping to secure Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people’ (David Cameron’s characterisation of the Balfour Declaration in his Knesset speech) and ‘perhaps the only country in the world holding another nation under occupation without civil rights’ (the Mayor of Tel Aviv’s characterisation of the situation in the West Bank, for which 2017 will also be the fiftieth anniversary)?
If not, we are lost. Sami Awad’s line has always been ‘Please don’t just pick a side but join the peace-loving people on both sides and help us make peace’ - any boycotts should be boycotts of the support of occupation allied with proactive investment.
Meanwhile, I took the picture the previous day as a continued part of our fascination with the tiny fossils which can be seen in ordinary ironstone walls.