One of the questions we as members of the BP are often asked is: ‘Why didn’t I know about this?’ Today, even those who have wrestled with the agonies of Palestine and Israel for years have surely deepened their knowledge, and perhaps been led to re-evaluate cherished opinions – at least, I hope so.
The main purpose of this event has been to try to strengthen the resolve of each of us to take this Project forward: to make a difference, to help others to understand the complexity of the tragedy which has befallen the people of the land which is holy to the three great world faiths.
If we did not know it already, it should now be crystal clear that the Balfour Declaration was born in controversy, it contains a contradiction, and its consequence has inevitably been conflict. Many will have been moved and disturbed – as I have been – by what we have heard and seen.
The Balfour Project is inspired by a longing for reconciliation. Members of the steering group have particular experience of reconciliation projects in Australia, Rwanda, Northern Ireland as well as Palestine/Israel. The Project has a deep concern for both communities there, and, let me add, has never in any way sought to be adversarial. It is a matter of real sadness that we have been unable to engage the cooperation, or even the interest, of prominent members of the Jewish community in this country: indeed, we have been accused in some quarters of anti-Semitism. (Incidentally, we have also been accused of bending too far in the opposite direction). In either case, this is distressing. The truth is, we are deeply conscious of the weight of history throughout the Middle East, particularly as it rests on our country, Britain. Nowhere is this more true than in Israel and Palestine. In our modest way, we want to make this known, and to make a difference.
In Northern Ireland, Australia, South Africa, people have come together in the cause of a just peace. As a South African commentator wrote:
‘Those who had always regarded each other as unspeakable eventually sat down to talk about the unthinkable.’
God knows, peace settlements in those places are far from complete, but they are beacons of hope in a very dangerous world.
One of the guiding lights of the Balfour Project has been the late John Austin Baker, formerly Bishop of Salisbury, and before that in Westminster. He wrote,
‘Politics and peace processes, even when conducted with integrity and the best of intentions, can take us so far and no further. True and lasting reconciliation depends on something more. It requires that we walk the costly road of sorrow and repentance.’
Repentance – or penitence – is a religious term, of course, but it has a very worldly application, because it takes seriously the connection between pardon and peace. Another writer whom we lost last year, Maya Angelou, was surely thinking in similar terms when she wrote:
‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’
That is what the Balfour Project is about in relation to Israel and Palestine. We in Britain have a particular responsibility to take this very seriously: to inform ourselves about the history, pre- and post-Balfour, however painful we discover that to be, in order to determine whether Britain really does have a role to play in creating a just peace in Palestine and Israel, for the benefit of all whose homes are there, and as a fresh beacon of hope for humanity. We believe that Britain could – and should – have such a role.
A Palestinian theologian reminds us that ‘the only way to peace is through the door of justice’. We believe that that justice must include all the peoples in the land in which the God of many names has chosen to be revealed.
We hope today has been a contribution towards understanding some of the complexities around the Balfour Declaration and its consequences, and perhaps an inspiration to people of all faiths and none, to join us in seeking to mark the forthcoming centenary of the Declaration in a way that is both constructive and helpful – to all parties.
Thank you for sharing today with us.