I often tell people that each visit to Palestine and Israel leaves me more perplexed about the situation than I was before. Every new character I meet and narrative I hear obfuscates any misguided sense of clarity I foolishly thought I was developing. I return more perplexed by the contradictions – the incredible potential yet tragic circumstances of the land and its peoples.
In that respect, my recent visit was no different. I’m sad to say I returned just as downhearted about this human-made tragedy. However, this trip was a unique experience for me. I had never visited an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank before, let alone alongside eight British Jewish leaders, nearly all of whom I heard describe themselves as proud Zionists.
For us to then drive five minutes across the valley to a Palestinian Christian farm, Daoud Nassar’s Tent of Nations, illustrated starkly the parallel lives and fortunes of the West Bank’s inhabitants in a way I had only been able to read about previously. Hearing Daoud’s testimony of injustice was more powerful than any Western activist’s well-meaning protestations can be.
Both Daoud and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Efrat presented their claims to the land while speaking about their desire to live in peace. It seems, at least within a two-state solution, it will not be possible for both to have it all their own way.
Rabbi Riskin’s insistence that he would be willing to leave Efrat in the event of a peace agreement was met with derision and scepticism from our group. In actual fact, I was surprised at the strength of this scepticism among our Jewish contingent and this realisation became part of the most important lesson of the study tour.
The most instructive part of the trip for me wasn’t anything I heard from the many talking heads we were paraded before, but listening to the reflections and criticisms offered by Jewish members of our group.
Being a Christian who works closely with Palestinian communities, I rarely get to hear these insights and debates among British Jews. To have the opportunity to do so on this trip was an eye opening experience, and I am grateful to these Jewish leaders – now friends – for their honesty and integrity when sharing about what we’d seen and experienced together.
At home in the UK, on social media and in the press, we all feel the need to defend our causes come what may, in the face of perceived propaganda and delegitimisation. There is no space for publicly questioning the orthodoxy of whatever one’s own camp is supposed to stand for. So for me to hear a fellow participant describing how difficult they found it to reconcile what they’d witnessed because ‘it is not the Israel I know’, and see another probing an Israeli diplomat about their government’s settlement policy, was a deeply poignant experience. It was only possible because the Council of Christians and Jews had taken care to create an environment where we didn’t feel the need to revert to our simplistic defensive positions about the rights and wrongs of the occupation.
We were able to express our views freely without fearing condemnation and this created fertile ground for honest debate.
I had to think twice before accepting the invitation to join the tour. Visiting settlers and fraternising with Zionists is beyond the pale for many Palestinians and those advocating with them. But I saw an opportunity for bringing the narrative I see and hear daily to a different audience, and in return expose myself to narratives which I do not often encounter on a personal level. The make-up of the group and the people and places we visited did not allow for skirting around the issues or simply exchanging interfaith platitudes.
We were forced to respectfully confront the deeply divisive issue of Palestine and Israel. This is not done often and it is not often done well.
However, I return knowing I have not had to compromise the values and ideals I believe in. I am grateful for the new relationships I have with people whose jobs will often involve them working on the opposite side of an issue.
We will remain in our respective camps. We all want to see shalom in the land but disagree on how to achieve it. But in a poisonous political climate, this was progress.
• Stephen is the Palestine and Israel programme manager for Embrace the Middle East