Israel, the Palestinians and a Christian/Jewish Study Tour

In 1989, Dr Norman Lamm, who was Dean of Yeshiva University, wrote one of many pieces on what he named ‘moderationism’. His model of moderationism was based on Maimonides theory of the ‘middle way’ and Lamm’s significant insight into this theory was what he termed ‘dynamic moderation’. In Lamm’s words the ‘mean necessitates the consideration of all available options, including both extremes, thus making sure that no relevant view is ignored…’. Rather than moderation being a cold, calculated and passionless decision to be absolutely in the middle, it involved the weighing up of multiple positions in order to come to a position that on average may be identical or at least close to the middle position.

This approach of Dr Lamm was helpful for me on a trip I undertook recently to Israel and to towns under the Palestinian Authority. The trip was a study tour organised by the UK Council of Christians and Jews, who brought out to Israel a group of Jewish and Christian leaders from the UK. While in Israel we met spokespeople for the IDF and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We travelled to Efrat to meet the Mayor there, and were taken around Shaarei Tzedek Medical Centre. We travelled to Bethlehem and Jericho where we met Saeb Erekat, Head of the Palestinian Authority Department of Negotiations as well as leaders of the Fatah Youth Council. Received narratives of those who came on the trip were challenged. Many of the Jewish representatives, of which I was one, came with a generally positive approach to Israel’s existence and to Zionist history. This group may have had some feelings of criticism for certain Israeli policies but were forgiving and sensed that often anti Zionist bias can mask anti Semitic sentiment. But they were confronted with an opposite narrative which laid blame for the conflict at the feet of ‘the Occupation’. The Christian group came with a narrative that perceived Israel as a more colonial force and felt solidarity with the understood oppression that the ‘occupation’ resulted in for the Palestinian population. They could see the effects of Palestinian violence on Israeli life and political decision making.

I also came out on the Study Tour having recently finished an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College, so I was fascinated to be exposed to multiple narratives and consider how they would or would not fit in to a possible mode of resolving the conflict. And differing narratives would be reflected through language as well as through maps. As a Jew, and a Zionist, I would talk of the Jewish areas of east Jerusalem as Jewish neighbourhoods. For the Palestinian communities, they are settlements. For myself, a neighbourhood such as Gilo is part of municipal Jerusalem which is part of sovereign Israel. For most Palestinians, it is a settlement built on the wrong side of the 1967 cease fire lines, or what we call the ‘green line’. Whereas I would understand the ‘separation barrier’ as a security necessity in the light of the trauma of the second Intifada; Palestinian voices would talk about the ‘occupation wall’ that was built to oppress the wider Palestinian population.

I should admit to having been nervous taking part in this trip. I was always conscious of the possibility of being touched or affected by violence. But I did not see a single weapon as things turned out. I did not feel solidarity with all that I heard from the Palestinian voices to whom we listened. But what I did gain from deeply was the sense of humanising the Palestinian voice. The Intifada had greatly emphasised the voice within Israeli society to ‘separate’ from the Palestinian people. So, it became forbidden for Israelis to visit areas under Palestinian Authority control and therefore means today that Israeli Jews have no way to be able to meet and hear Palestinians. These meetings would be critical not necessarily to bring Israeli Jews to agree with the Palestinian narrative or vice versa; but rather to allow both peoples to hear the narrative of the other and therefore begin to humanise the other. It is this humanising that is critical to moving towards a more conflict free environment. There are multiple Palestinian voices, a significant number of which are indeed expressed through violence or the support of violence. But there are many also who can put over their narrative in a cogent manner and can channel their anger against Israel through nonviolent means. What became equally evident, as I had understood already, is that as much as there is a Palestinian/Israeli axis of conflict, there is also a Fatah/Hamas axis which is at least as violent.

One of the great benefits therefore for me, and one that was intended by those who so efficiently organised the trip, was that I would see the conflict in some way through the eyes of the other side. So, to illustrate this, I could reflect on a trip we made to Bet Jala, where our guide for Bethlehem and Jericho lived. Bet Jala is a small town adjoining Bethlehem, and was the location of nightly shooting during the second Intifada across a valley south east of Jerusalem towards where a Jewish neighbourhood called Gilo is located. I would traverse the road between Gilo and Bet Jala often, driving to my home in Gush Etzion, and now I was travelling to Bet Jala. I took photos that were a mirror image to the view I used to have looking up at Bet Jala from the ‘tunnel road’ linking Jerusalem to the Etzion Block. It reminded me of the painting by Peter Blinz that Ilan Ramon had taken to space on that tragic flight in 2003. It was a painting made by Blinz in Teresienstat viewing the earth from the moon. That was how I felt in Bet Jala and Bethlehem. In fact, that was an overriding feeling of being on this trip. It was an experience that did not remove my anchorage within a Jewish, Zionist and Israeli identity. But maybe conflict resolution requires seeing narratives, however transiently, through different eyes.

About the Author
Rabbi David Mason is rabbi to an Orthodox community in Muswell Hill, north London, of over 1000 people. He has a MSc in Econometrics and an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies and undertakes a great deal of civic and inter faith work. He is Chair of the Haringey Multi Faith Network and is involved in high level dialogue projects with UK Church groups. Rabbi David is passionate about social justice, and climate issues and is one of the leading Rabbis of the EcoSynagogue project. He also has two years training in family therapy.
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