Interview: A long way to go
Justin Butcher, actor, writer and social activist, talks to Stephen Tomkins
In 2017, Justin Butcher walked to Jerusalem. Setting off from Trafalgar Square in London on 10 June, he arrived 20 weeks later on 2 November.
The walk was an act of solidarity with Palestinian people in response to three anniversaries that fell in 2017. It was the tenth year of the blockade of Gaza by Israel, the 50th of the occupation of Palestine, and the centenary of the Balfour declaration which declared British support for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine.
Mr Butcher’s walk was undertaken in collaboration with Amos Trust, a human rights charity which supports work in Palestine, South Africa, Nicaragua, Burundi, India and Tanzania. Reform spoke to Mr Butcher at the Amos Trust offices in London. The walk is described in his book, Walking to Jerusalem (Hodder and Stoughton, 2018) and in a stage play that debuts in June.
You’re the writer, actor and producer of one-man plays. Was walking to Jerusalem a kind of performance for you?
In a way. My vocation – or at least the place where I seem to keep ending up – is at the crossroads of the arts with faith and peace and justice, using my creativity to advocate for important stories of hope and struggle. Over the past ten to 15 years, I’ve involved myself more and more in the Palestinian struggle, and in the work of Amos Trust, as a playwright, actor, producer. Amos is a small charity which tries to distinguish itself through innovative forms of campaigning – stunts, films, football matches, a marathon. I’ve produced tours for Palestinian dancers in the UK, produced Bethlehem Unwrapped where we recreated the [West Bank] separation wall at St James Piccadilly for 2013, finding ways to tell the story of a forgotten people. So I conceived this idea of a walk to Jerusalem as the biggest, maddest idea I could think of.
You’ve also talked of it in terms of penance
I met the mother of my dear friend Ahmed Masoud when she miraculously managed to get to the UK to see her grandson for the first time. She was so ebullient, I said: ‘How do you cope with the level of anger you must feel for the Israelis for the loss of your home and everything they inflict on you, day to day?’ She grinned and said: ‘If you really want to know, the anger goes further back. To you. You British, and your Balfour declaration. That was the first betrayal.’
I asked Ahmed: ‘Do a lot of Palestinians still think about that?’ He said: ‘Every Palestinian!’ As a Brit, in Gaza, kids call down the street after you: ‘Balfour!’ I thought: This is big deal and the first response should be penance for what our government did.
You could also say we’re enacting the Palestinians’ right of return – a universal right for refugees upheld in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, yet never applied to Palestinians. It was a march of solidarity and hope. A huge, madcap, crazy endeavour; a lifechanging adventure. …
This is an extract from an article that was published in the April 2019 edition of Reform