The Council of Christians and Jews is an avowedly a-political organisation so how was it to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – a hugely significant political moment in the history of Empire, Israel and the whole of the Middle East?
Fortunately, the Chair of the national organisation accepted our invitation to speak about “The Arab Citizens of Israel” on the very day of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, 2nd November 2017. Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko is relatively new to the post but she knows whereof she speaks. She lived in Israel for 23 years where she was a director of a social justice organisation in Jerusalem engaged in education and social change working with members of all faith communities. She continues to serve as trustee of the Abraham Fund initiatives, which promote the rights of Christian and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel.
By kind invitation of the Dean and Chapter, we were able to hold our meeting in the lovely mediaeval Prior’s Hall. The Dean welcomed the large audience including some of the Cathedral congregation straight from the All Souls service ; it was a privilege to have them with us.
Elizabeth described Arab equality in civic, social and religious rights and regretted that there was not yet complete economic parity, but that situation was steadily improving. Arabs account for 20 per cent of Israel’s population and serve in senior positions in every area of Israeli life, there are Arab judges, ministers and members of the Knesset and Arabs are well represented in every profession. Arab Israeli citizens were hugely important to her great hero, Yitzhak Rabin (z”l) who saw that they could form a bridge between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.
In response to a question concerning the ‘separation wall’, she acknowledged that in places it caused real difficulty and hardship for many Palestinians but experiencing hundreds of rocket attacks from Gaza made all citizens of Israel – Arab, Jewish and others – grateful for the protection it afforded.
As for the Balfour Declaration itself, this was an important step along the road for Jews whose daily liturgy for 2000 years has expressed the yearning of exiles to be able to return to their covenantal land.