A priest, a rabbi, a minister and some NGO workers get on a plane. While the spirit of our group was often full of good humour, the recent Council of Christians and Jews delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Territories was anything but a joke.
Over three packed days our group encountered inspiring activists, officials who shared perspectives somewhat out-of-step with those activists, and the palpable fears of Israelis and Palestinians, accentuated on the first day by news of yet another stabbing just a short distance from our group at Damascus Gate.
The programme highlighted the many inspiring people and groups working on inter-communal relations within Israel proper and across the Green Line.
I was particularly impressed and moved by Ayman Odeh MK’s leadership on fostering positive political engagement and delivering tangible improvements for Palestinian citizens of Israel; Hana Bendcowsky, programme director for the Jerusalem Centre for Christian-Jewish relations, for her commitment to harnessing the best of religious teaching and community leadership; Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, who adopts spiritual counselling in conflict resolution and brings together Israelis living over the Green Line with their Palestinian neighbours; and the team at Shaare Tzedek for their resilience while treating terrorists alongside their victims and revolutionary approaches to paediatric medicine, serving mostly children from Charedi and Arab families.
We did not shy away from the harsh realities that demonstrate the chasm that exists between the supposed desire of the majorities in both societies for peace and the likelihood of any immediate or significant progress towards a settlement of this conflict.
There were disagreements in our group about the history, as well as the agency and responsibility of both Israelis and Palestinians, and especially their leaders, regarding the current intractable situation.
Nevertheless, as a proud Zionist Jew, hearing from Palestinians about their day-to-day struggles under military occupation, as well as some victims of the recent surge in Israeli ultra-nationalist violence (Price Tag), the most challenging part of my experience was balancing a need to express my love and defence of Israel and Zionism with an acknowledgment that Zionism is, at the very least, partly responsible for the current awful reality facing a whole people.
Another challenge was that despite good intentions, it often felt that many people – within the group and among those we met – were not speaking the same language, standing in the same place but clearly not on common ground.
One of my pet hate phrases, “co-religionists”, came up, indicating how “faith” doesn’t translate neatly when seeking to encompass the culture, peoplehood, civilisation, and, yes, religious belief and practice, that is Judaism and Jewish identify.
Much of Christian or the left’s engagement with Israel isn’t on the same page as many of us within the Jewish Zionist left, as there appears to be a lack of appreciation for the deep historical and communal ties that drive Zionism and our collective identity.
Similarly, too often, some within the Jewish or Zionist tent hear pro-Palestinian as synonymous with anti-Israel.
Our group included passionate activists committed to supporting the Palestinian people and their fight for statehood.
While I’m not blind to the fact that some of their fellow travellers are driven by hostility towards Israel (and in some fringe cases antipathy towards Jews), pro-Palestinian leaders on our delegation were motivated by the highest values of social justice and genuinely committed to appreciating Israeli and Jewish perspectives.
We were all eager to export calm engagement from UK inter-communal relations, rather than import hate into our communities in Britain.
Perhaps the most reassuring part of the experience came from our group interactions, where there was as much diversity of opinion and relationship within each culture’s representatives as there was across the whole group.
This highlighted that, despite the sloganeering narratives we hear from some, only by embracing complexity and context, and genuinely seeking to understand – not agree with – the variety of perspectives held by Israelis, Palestinians, and all connected to their plight, can we hope to move from discord towards dialogue, and hopefully edge closer towards peace.
• David has worked at UJIA, JHub and UJS on social action projects and training on Israel