A few months ago I was invited to speak at a conference organised by an ecumenical planning group, to be hosted by Lichfield Cathedral on 7-9 October. The title of the conference was interesting: "Holding Palestine in the light: the context of the conflict". My talk was titled, "Can a just peace be reached in the Holy Land? Reflections of a diaspora Palestinian".
In the intervening weeks, I had contact about the administrative practicalities and then the programme appeared on the Cathedral's website. I thought it looked impressive as it brought together Israelis, Palestinians, a former British Diplomat, Jews, Christians and Muslims, ecumenical accompaniers, a representative of Christian Aid and someone from the Council of Christians and Jews. All this would take place in the amazing setting of Lichfield Cathedral, which I had visited on a previous occasion and which offered a wonderful environment for contemplation, reflection and thought for those involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict thousands of miles away. I knew that I would not agree with everything being said, but would present my view as a Palestinian and not representing any particular organisation or political entity.
Just a day before the event, I received an email from a member of the planning group explaining that the organisers, the Cathedral and the Council for Christians and Jews (CCJ), had come under a great deal of pressure from Jewish groups. The Dean of Lichfield, Adrian Dorber, confirmed that "there has been much vocal protesting from Jewish groups about the alleged one-sided and biased nature of the Conference. CCJ has been under a great deal of pressure and they have done their very best to mediate." The Dean agreed to two measures in order for the conference to proceed without disruption. First, Dr Irene Lancaster would join the closing panel and would speak from a pro-Israel perspective. Second, that an observer from the UK Zionist Federation would attend on Sunday and display a poster which sets out its position regarding Israel and the role it has played in the peace process.
I was not surprised that pro-Israel groups had intervened and bullied in this way, as they have a long track record of such intimidation. However, I was saddened that a group of independent people of faith who had decided to embark on this event because they care about Palestinians and Israelis who are suffering as a result of the conflict were on the receiving end of this bullying. Nevertheless, the changes agreed to by the Dean did not change my view about participating in the conference.
I arrived on Saturday 8 October excited and really looking forward to a positive weekend. I attended all the sessions on that day, except one by an ecumenical accompanier which ran in parallel with my own slot. It is not possible to provide a review of all the speeches here. However, I provide a summary of each to provide context.
The Dean opened with a reflection that a number of those involved in the conference "had been to the land of the holy one. Have seen suffering on all sides. We have seen the insecurity of the Israeli state and the defensives and the fear that seems to be becoming part of the Israeli national identity. We have also seen the suffering of the displaced Palestinian people and the way in which many of the Palestinians now seem to live." He then welcomed the attendees in a spirit of prayer, hospitality and mutual discovery. "For 1,300 years this place has been a centre of sanctuary and holiness where we can listen and search for truth. We offer this conference in that spirit of prayer and hospitality and hope. And whatever our faith tradition we come here today to learn, to question and to be inspired."
The first speaker was an Israeli citizen, the Very Reverend Hosam Naoum, Dean of Jerusalem. He was in conversation with Dr Jane Clements. He articulated the situation for Christians in the Holy Land and was clear that the he did not lay the blame for the dwindling numbers of Christians on either Palestinian Muslim or Jewish Israeli persecution. He said that people should ask the Christian Palestinians themselves and suggested it was because "in the place where we belong we don't find a happy home any more." He emphasised that "most Christians would love to see both nations living side by side."
Up next was Israeli academic Professor Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House, who described the past 23 years of the (failed) peace process. The most important thing, he said, is to present "what can be done and what should be done to bring peace." He warned that "the current situation is not sustainable." I am afraid that what he presented was a continuation of a peace process that has failed.
I tried to present a view from a Palestinian. I reminded the audience that as a people we did not invite the occupation and that if our dispossession and ongoing occupation had happened to another people, they too would surely have objected and resisted in a similar manner. An acknowledgement and an apology from Israel for our Nakba (Catastrophe) was the first important step towards real peace. The question and answer session included an incident when a member of the audience was not called to ask a question. She objected but then asked me a question, which I answered.
Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappé reminded the audience of the asymmetry of the situation and of the origins of the conflict. The final speaker was Sir Vincent Fean, the former British Consul General in Jerusalem. He is a well-known proponent of the two-state solution and he set out his reasons for this.
I left the conference feeling positive about its first day and my conversations with delegates reinforced my feelings about it. The following morning I returned to participate in the closing panel, which was chaired by the Dean and included Rabbi David Goldberg and Dr Jane Clements. The Dean closed the conference to a loud round of applause and appreciation by those who had given up the weekend to engage with the conflict.
A couple of days later, I was shocked to discover that the Lichfield Cathedral Facebook page had been filled with outrageous and nasty comments, including many from people who were not even at the event. A blog by a well-known pro-Israel activist, David Collier described a conference that I did not recognise at all; it was certainly not the one that I attended. He claimed that it was an "[anti-]Jewish hate fest" and that almost everyone involved was anti-Semitic. There were particularly nasty and threatening posts from a well-known anti-Palestinian Zionist called Jonathan Hoffman. The Dean posted a statement in which he said, "There were some passionate exchanges and contributions from the floor representing very diverse views. It takes courage to make peace and the first step is to listen. That is a proper requirement for everyone who is concerned with the long term future and flourishing of all the Israeli and Palestinian people."
I was truly shocked to see the local paper in Lichfield publish a one-sided account quoting mostly from Collier's outrageous blog. It made no attempt to contact any of the speakers. I am confident than none of us would have participated in a conference that demonstrated any sign of racism.
The intimidation and bullying that Lichfield Cathedral faced follows a similar attack on Hinde Street Methodist Church in Marylebone, which recently ran a "You cannot pass today" exhibition which was part of World Week for Peace. Under intimidation from the pro-Israel Lobby and criticism from former Archbishop George Carey the church agreed to "display Israel's justification for security checks in the West Bank alongside its replica checkpoint, after criticism from the former Archbishop of Canterbury."
It is outrageous that well-meaning people, especially people of faith, can be intimidated in this way by pro-Israel groups who enjoy the ability to act with apparently complete impunity, as does the state they support, which continues to breach international law and conventions. The British government does not help with its biased policies towards Israel. When called upon to do so it duly supports Israel where it matters in the UN Security Council and in the EU. This is also exemplified by its efforts to ban local councils and pension fund managers from implementing their own policies on ethical procurement.
Additionally, if the implication is that anyone thinking of holding an event related to Palestine and Israel needs to pass it by the pro-Israel Lobby for approval first then our democratic rights are under threat. As a Palestinian, I ask supporters of justice to stand up to the pro-Israel bullies; already, I am pleased to note that they are. The more that the Lobby engages in bullying, the stronger the resilience of supporters of justice will be and the greater will be the support for our cause.
Thank you Lichfield Cathedral for standing strong against the bullies. Both Israelis and Palestinians need your support and understanding.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.